The first thing to note about Saturday evening's game between the Vols and Gamecocks is the scheduling disparity: South Carolina hasn't played since last Saturday, while the Vols played a 9:00 PM EST game in Baton Rouge on Thursday night. It was the first thing Bruce Pearl mentioned in his comments about Carolina in the LSU postgame, saying that it was the most unfair scheduling quirk he'd seen in his coaching career. Teams play two games in three days in tournament play, but there's neither travel nor class between games. And if the Vols are tired, flat, or both...South Carolina has the ultimate weapon to take advantage.
I really hope the Gamecocks find a way to get in the NCAA Tournament (though obviously not via wins over Tennessee), because Devan Downey deserves a chance to shine on a national stage. He was always a game-changer, averaging 18.4 and 19.8 points per game in the last two seasons. But this year, South Carolina and Tennessee understand each other well, as both have faced adversity through the loss of key players. First Dominique Archie went down with a knee injury in the fifth game of the season. And then Mike Holmes would play his final game five days later, before being dismissed from the team. Archie and Holmes were averaging a combined 23.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
As a result, Carolina lost five games against a tough non-conference schedule. Downey was forced to step up his play even more, and he's averaging 22.9 points per game this year. But it's what he's done in SEC play that's been truly amazing.
Devan Downey vs. SEC:
|at AUB||11||23||4||9||7||10||33||W 80-71|
|vs LSU||10||22||6||12||3||6||29||W 67-58|
|vs Vandy||12||21||3||6||8||9||35||L 89-79|
|at Miss||7||20||2||5||9||10||25||L 66-57|
|at Fla||12||25||4||11||8||9||36||L 58-56|
|vs UK||9||29||2||5||10||11||30||W 68-62|
|vs UGA||12||20||4||7||5||5||33||W 78-77|
That's an average of 31.6 points per game in SEC play. And on some nights, Downey is truly all the Gamecocks have - ultimately Chandler Parsons broke Carolina hearts in the game against Florida, but if the Gamecocks had gotten more than 20 points from the rest of their roster, perhaps that game isn't in doubt at the end. Downey leads the conference in scoring by five points per game over Tasmin Mitchell, but Carolina is only 7th in scoring in the SEC at 74.7 points per game.
Downey is the closest thing to Chris Lofton I've seen on another team. Not because they're exactly the same player - Lofton is a better outside shooter, Downey is better off the bounce - but because they both are capable of single-handedly beating any team on any night. Ask Kentucky.
However, Downey has never beaten Tennessee. Last season, Downey scored 19 but shot 1 of 6 from 3 in an 82-79 UT win in Knoxville. And with the SEC East on the line in Columbia, the Vols ran away from Carolina in one of their most impressive wins of the season, and Downey shot 6 of 15 and finished with only 16 points.
Two years ago, the Vols got the full spectrum from Downey. He scored 24 in a blowout loss in Columbia, and then scored a career low 2 points (1 of 9) in a 33 point loss in Knoxville. But five days later, he almost led Carolina to an upset in the second round of the SEC Tournament, as the Vols needed a last second three from Lofton to put the Gamecocks and Downey's 26 points to bed.
There are countless examples of opposing guards having huge games against Tennessee in the last two years, from Jodie Meeks breaking Kentucky's all-time scoring mark with 54 in Knoxville, to USC's Mike Gerrity playing his first game of the year and torching the Vol defense. Tennessee just gave up 25 points to LSU's Bo Spencer, and to say Downey will be a step up is a bit of an understatement.
Both of these teams tend to play close games. Carolina needs to put up a huge number of wins in the SEC to balance out their five non-conference losses, and now coming to the halfway point they're running out of chances at 4-3. And with Tennessee looking at road trips to Nashville and Lexington next week, the Vols really need to get this win to help weather the storm of what could be a very difficult week.
Beating South Carolina means not only containing Downey, but not allowing anyone else on the team to beat you. Containing Downey is a relative term - right now, I'd settle for anything under 30. But the Vols can't let Brandis Raley-Ross hurt them either - Carolina beat Kentucky not just because of Downey's 30, but because Raley-Ross scored 17, 7 points above his season average. Much like what we just saw in Baton Rouge, this is a game Wayne Chism should dominate on the block, and not allow Sam Muldrow to hurt the Vols on the post.
The Vols must be smart on offense, and not force a bunch of bad shots. Tennessee should be able to get to the rim and have success with Chism (and hopefully Kenny Hall) on the block. Downey is going to get his...can the Vols play smart, keep him from beating them single-handedly, lock down on the rest of the Gamecocks, and pick up a much-needed victory in Knoxville?
6:00 PM EST Saturday, ESPN.