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Tennessee at South Carolina Preview

How many games could you win with this lineup:

They're the SEC's No-Help Team, and they're another reason why the league is out of balance and struggling to get teams in the NCAA Tournament:  many of the SEC's most talented players are by themselves on teams that can't compliment them at all.

Who are the three leading scorers in the SEC?  Downey, Thompkins, and Mitchell.  Torrance trails only John Wall at the top of the assist leaderboard.  And he and Green are the only players averaing double figures for a 4-7 Alabama team that's fighting for its NIT life.  Does a bubble team like Florida have any one player that's as good as any of these five?  Great players with no help are on teams at the bottom, and decent teams with no great players are fighting for their tournament lives.   

Trey Thompkins has had a field day against Tennessee (don't think Vanderbilt isn't already thinking about these guys as their opponent on Friday in the SEC Tournament), but on Wednesday he wasn't enough by himself:  Thompkins was 9 of 15 with 25 points, but the rest of the Dawgs went 13 of 36, and no one scored in double figures.  Tennessee weathered the storm with Thompkins, and pulled away in the end.

The Vols allowed Tasmin Mitchell his 13 points and 17 rebounds, but Mitchell shot just 4 of 12.  The problem in that game was allowing someone else to hurt you:  Bo Spencer had 25 points, and as a result the Tigers almost pulled off an upset.  When Travis Leslie complimented Thompkins in Athens, the Dawgs cruised.

Which brings us back around to the greatest one man show in college basketball this year:  Devan Downey.

Downey will be Downey, but don't let anyone else hurt you

Downey has become Allen Iverson, or Kobe Bryant without good teammates:  he just shoots all the time.  Would it have been this way if Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes were still on the team?  Probably not as much.  But now, Downey puts up 18.9 shots (plus 6 free throws) per game.  His three point percentage is way down since the first game in Knoxville, as he's just 7 of his last 26.  Getting tired?  Too much pressure?  Either way, he's now just a 34.6% shooter from beyond the arc, and just a 40.8% shooter overall, down from each of his past two seasons.

Of course, Downey is still capable of going off, and the home crowd will be there to help him along.  In Knoxville, Downey scored 26 points but only shot 5 of 20...and the Vols won by 26.  Even if he'd shot much better, it wouldn't have made much difference, because the Vols didn't allow anyone else to hurt them, and held Carolina to just 27.6% from the floor as a team.

The way South Carolina gets past Tennessee on Saturday isn't with more from Downey, it's with anyone else on the team stepping up, on both ends of the floor.  Since the Georgia loss and the LSU scare, the Vols have done a great job against teams with only one weapon, not by shutting that weapon down, but by taking away any help it might receive.  The Vols must continue to play good defense on the supporting cast, and continue to take advantage of mismatches on the other end of the floor:

Atttack the Post

Last time, Wayne Chism had a career high with 30 points, and only 2 of his 11 made shots in that game were three pointers.  And Kenny Hall was good too, with 7 points and 11 rebounds.  Carolina may not play behind Chism so much this time, but they will still be overmatched on the inside against the Vols.

How does Brian Williams play into this matchup?  The bigger question going forward is will Pearl put Williams and Chism on the floor at the same time?  Both play the five position, and my assumption was that Williams would simply back Chism up, while Kenny Hall and Steven Pearl handled minutes at the four.  But Pearl started them together out of halftime against Georgia, and it worked well.  Tennessee attacked the paint against Georgia right away in the second half, and took the lead in a matter of minutes.  How much of that had to do with Chism and BWill playing inside together, the perimeter players being more assertive in driving to the hole, or both...I'm not sure, but I bet we see it again tomorrow.  The Vols need to figure out who is going to give them their best chance to win in March, and not still be looking for that answer the week of the tournament.  Is Brian Williams a better option than Kenny Hall?  Stay tuned.

Don't Assume

The Vols beat Carolina by 26 in Knoxville.  The Gamecocks flushed away any bubble hopes they had with losses at Georgia and a beatdown at Arkansas in their last two.  With trips to Lexington and Nashville still on the schedule, at 14-11 and 5-6, Carolina's only path to March is the SEC Tournament.

Last year in a de facto SEC East Championship Game in Columbia, the Vols stunned Carolina and played their best game of the year, flipping the switch to its on and fully upright position in an 86-70 win.  Tennessee ended their two game losing streak by beating Georgia Wednesday night.  All signs suggest victory on Saturday.

But keep in mind, Vanderbilt is the only SEC team to beat the Gamecocks at home this year.  They beat Kentucky in Columbia, and got Florida too.  My thought is that the crowd won't be as up now that they're really out of the tournament conversation, but I'd also imagine that playing Tennessee is a big deal (...I think we're all still getting used to that idea).  What the Vols have done well against Carolina in the past is take them out of the game early - don't let them entertain victory, don't give the crowd a reason, and make sure they know who the better team is right away.  Down the stretch, I want no part of a home crowd and a home whistle with Devan Downey involved.  Carolina should be vulnerable, and the Vols need to show up and be good enough to take advantage.

Tennessee is probably two wins away from locking up an NCAA Tournament bid, and the sooner we get there the better.  If we trip on Saturday, you're going to hear "they've lost three of their last four" from the talking heads, and we'll be in Gainesville and at home against Kentucky trying to prevent four of five or five of six.  They're all important at this stage of the game, and while each of the five remaining regular season games will present a unique challenge, this is absolutely one Tennessee should win.  Show up in Columbia ready to play, lock down everyone besides Downey, and attack the paint...and we'll get win number 20.