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College Basketball Preview: Kentucky vs. South Carolina

Kentucky Wildcats at South Carolina Gamecocks
Colonial Life Arena – Columbia, SC
Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011
Time: 6:00 pm EST
Radio: Blue Blue Sports Network – Tom Leach (play-by-play) and Mike Pratt (analyst)

Expected South Carolina Starting Five
F – 44 Sam Muldrow (SR, 6-9, 229)
F – 30 Lakeem Jackson (SO, 6-5, 230)
F – 24 Demontre Harris (FR, 6-9, 214)
G – 2 Brian Richardson (FR, 6-4, 164)
G – 23 Bruce Ellington (FR, 5-9, 197)

Besides the victory at the KFC Yum! Center, the 2010-11 version of the Kentucky Wildcats have yet to prove that they have the moxy to win games on the road. Now they go into Columbia, South Carolina, a place where they suffered their first defeat a year ago.

After being completely out-physicalled by Georgia and Alabama at their places, will these young Wildcats finally prove that they have what it takes to go on the road and man up? We’ll see.

The Gamecocks enter Saturday’s game with a 12-5 record and they sit in a tie for first place with Florida in the SEC East with a 3-1 conference mark. Their lone loss in the SEC came to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, 57-47.

In just their second game of the season they surprised some people by sticking with Michigan State, even though they eventually fell, 82-73. A month later they suffered their second defeat of the season to another Big Ten school, this time to Ohio State and they were dismantled, 79-57. In their next contest they absolutely crapped the bed and fell at Furman, 91-75.

Physicality has been the Wildcats main issue in both of their road SEC losses. Needless to say, this is not a very physical South Carolina team. Sure, they feature one of the best shot blockers in the SEC in Sam Muldrow, but physical play is not one of their strengths. This is something that should prove advantageous for the ‘Cats.

Their most pressing issue entering the season was replacing the services of star senior guard, Devin Downey. Enter freshman Bruce Ellington.

At 5′ 9″, Ellington is a power packed guard who is not afraid of contact underneath. His lack of fear would make him some kind of weapon if he ever decided to lace it up for Steve Spurrier and the Gamecock football team. While he is just a freshman, he is extremely poised . Rarely will you see him rush things while running the show.

He is a big shot maker and an extremely effective distributor of the basketball as he leads the ‘Cocks in both scoring and assists with 14.9 and 3.6, effectively. While he is handling the ball around the perimeter, look for head coach Darrin Horn to send bigs towards the ball to set screens. Defenders are ill-advised to fight under the screens because he will knock down the perimeter jumper. He leads the teams with 39 made threes and is shooting 40-percent from deep on the year. But, if you go over the top you allow him the opportunity to blow by you on the bounce. Also, look for the bigs to roll off of the screens where he is extremely effective at finding them for an easy two.

I mentioned earlier that Sam Muldrow is the second leading blocker in the SEC as he is averaging 3.5 per game. He gets a lot of his blocks from flashing from the weak side and he also has the ability to body up underneath. But, the Gamecocks need him to do more than block shots if they want to win games.

In fact, throughout the season it has been quite evident that the ‘Cocks go as Muldrow goes. He is averaging 10.1 points-per-game, which ranks third on the team, but he has seven games this year where he has failed to reach double-figures. South Carolina is 3-4 in those games. They need him to score. They need him to be as active on offense and on the glass as he is on the defensive side. Besides their loss to Alabama, in South Carolina’s last five games, Muldrow appears to be doing just that, averaging 13.0 points and 9.4 rebounds.

He also has the ability to step out and shoot the three, as he has knocked down 13 threes on the year.

The only other scorer they have that is averaging double figures is Ramon Galloway (SO, 6-2, 176), who is putting up 10.3 per game. Galloway is a freak athlete and the second best shooter on the team. He comes off the bench for Horn, but when he enters the game, which is usually fairly quick, he automatically brings a source of energy. I say he is a freak athlete because he could quite possibly be the second best dunker in the league, behind Georgia’s Travis Leslie. The kid can cram. He can also shoot it. On the year he has connected on 27 longs balls and is shooting 39-percent from distance.

This is not a very deep South Carolina team. In fact, in their last game, an 81-74 overtime win over Arkansas, four players saw over 35 minutes of action. One of those players that didn’t see 35 minutes was Ellington, who played only 30 minutes because he was forced to sit through a lot of the first half while in foul trouble.

Besides Ellington, Muldrow and Galloway, you will see a lot of Lakeem Jackson and Malik Cooke. Brian Richardson, who starts for the ‘Cocks, may also see extended minutes and he is another shooting threat for South Carolina, knocking down 27 threes while shooting 34-percent.

In their half court offensive sets, look for them to create space for players to get to the rim. The players most likelly to take advantage of this space and take their defender off the dribble are Galloway and Jackson. Late in the clock you will see them send a big to the key to set a screen for Ellington, who will either pull up or get into the lane to score or create.

Remember, in their last contest the Wildcats were absolutely obliterated by Alabama from distance and we’re talking about a Crimson Tide team that has only one legitimate shooter and is probably the worst three-point shooting team in the conference. This South Carolina team can shoot it. They have connected on 131 threes on the year and are shooting 36-percent as a team.

So, the Wildcats cannot collapse on penetrators and leave wide open shooters. If they do, the Gamecocks have the ability to kill them.

In contrast to their profound shooting from beyond the arc, this is a terrible free throw shooting team. On the season they are shooting just 63-percent, which ranks last in the SEC. Ellington also struggles from the line, as he is currently hitting just 64-percent from the stripe. If the game is close down the stretch, this is something that could definitely play in the Wildcats favor.

On the defensive side, this is a South Carolina team that will throw a lot of traps at opponents, whether it be in the full court or the half court. They will run at you and they will chase you in an attempt to create mistakes, which in turn leads to quick scores off of turnovers. While this type of defensive strategy does often create turnovers, it also allows the opportunity for easy buckets and more importantly increases the tempo of the game.

I like Kentucky’s chances against anyone in the country if the game is played at an up-tempo pace. A lot of their struggles this season have come against teams that have slowed the game down, mixed up defenses and banged underneath. In an open court game, it is tough to for opponents to do all three of these things successfully.

When opponents do settle into a halfcourt set, the Gamecocks primarily will play man-to-man, but I look for them to mix it up a little more on Saturday, especially after watching tape of the Alabama game. They have also shown that they are very hesitant to double on the low block and I have to believe that this will continue because Horn has to like the chances of Muldrow guarding Terrence Jones one-on-one underneath.

I really don’t know what to think here, because I don’t know what UK team is going to show up. If it’s the UK team that played together and blew LSU out of the water, then I say they win this handily. If it’s the scared of contact, do-it-all-yourself squad that lost in Athens and Tuscaloosa, they could easily walk out of Columbia with their third SEC road loss and their second strait loss in Columbia.

Style-wise, I think this is a South Carolina team that is a pretty good match-up for Kentucky. They aren’t deep. They aren’t physical. And they like to run.

So, hesitantly I’m taking Kentucky to win this, but it’s tough because I really don’t know what team is going to show. Oh, and if UK gets out to a lead at anytime, they need to beware. This is a South Carolina team that is prone to coming back. They trailed late in their last win versus Arkansas and earlier in the year they were down 14 with seven minutes to go and came back to beat Vanderbilt.

Kentucky 81, South Carolina 75


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