Two weeks ago on our initial SEC Power Poll ballot for league play, I had South Carolina as the second best team in this league. It's been an intriguing question all year - who's the second best team in the SEC? - and the Gamecocks seemed to me, after all the non-conference dust had settled, the best answer. It couldn't be Florida by default, not with six losses. Arkansas was flashier but old road demons were just one loss away. And there were plenty of other candidates.
But South Carolina was riding a seven game win streak, punctuated with a neutral site win over #9 Iowa State. Frank Martin had his own guys in his third year, the Gamecocks were playing incredible defense, and just seemed like the most reliable option after the Wildcats.
Then Carolina lost the opener at home to Florida by four, giving up 41 in the second half. Then they were buried at Ole Miss 65-49. They held serve at home against Alabama, almost blowing a 13 point lead but winning 68-66. But then they lost at Auburn, dropping to 1-3 in league play. Garnet and Black Attack points out Carolina's remaining schedule, which includes four games against Arkansas and Kentucky, making it suddenly very difficult to imagine South Carolina breaking through after 11 years to make the NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, there's Tennessee. Tennessee's two previous road wins perhaps came against the two worst teams in the SEC, but combined with the home win over Arkansas and strong close to the non-conference the Vols have now won nine of their last eleven. They're still holding back at 86th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, 11th in the SEC. But they're finding their way up the ladder in the national conversation.
Jerry Palm started the Vol bracket madness last week, and today he's the best example of how arbitrary it all is right now. Beat Arkansas, the Vols are a nine seed. Beat Missouri on the road, the Vols are out of the field.
This continues to be the time to focus on the journey and not the destination, which is very much yet to be determined. Tonight is a big opportunity for both the Vols to continue momentum and the Gamecocks to regain it, the winner getting another important win and a step closer to where they ultimately want to go.
Despite the 1-3 start, South Carolina is still second in the SEC in a number of major defensive categories: field goal percentage allowed (35.6%), three point percentage allowed (29.6%), effective field goal percentage and points per possession allowed. In the three SEC losses no team has shot better than 42.9% against them. So why are they still struggling?
For one, the opposition has been lighting it up from the free throw line. Florida was 25 of 30, Ole Miss 18 of 22, and Auburn 26 of 33. The Ole Miss blowout was bolstered by the Rebels shooting 50% from the three point line. Crazy stat alert: only Ole Miss and UNC-Asheville (51.7%) have shot better than 35.3% from the arc against South Carolina this year.
Tennessee is shooting 34.4% from the arc, but Donnie Tyndall has emphasized getting to the basket more as the season has gone on: the Vols averaged 16.3 threes per game in the non-conference, and it's slowed a tick to 15.7 in SEC play. Tennessee is currently on pace to take the fewest threes per game since the 2003-04 season.
The good news has been even when they don't fall, as was the case at Missouri (3 of 13), this team is finding ways to win. They're also finding ways even when Josh Richardson doesn't dominate; the Vol senior continues to lead the team with 15.9 points per game, but was just 2 of 9 for 8 points at Missouri and the Vols still won. Richardson, Kevin Punter (10.2 ppg), and SEC Player of the Week Armani Moore (9.6) continue to do their thing, but the other five guys in the rotation all average between 4.0 and 5.6 points per game. Sometimes they all contribute in little ways, sometimes one or two of them step up and separate. But what we've seen is all can be capable of being that guy who helps push the Vols over on any given night.
Points will be harder to come by in Columbia, as will rebounds. Carolina sends Sindarius Thornwell and the Lithuanian connection of Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas to the glass, all getting more than five rebounds per game. Tennessee has one guy doing that, and Armani Moore is 6'5". With Carolina you also have to watch for Duane Notice, their leading scorer at 12.4 points per game.
Donnie Tyndall has stressed the need to get two point shots off the bounce, especially in this game against an aggressive half-court defense. Tennessee will continue to try to force turnovers and score on the other end, but I'd expect a very deliberate pace from both teams tonight. The Vols can clearly win ugly, but they're up against a much stiffer defensive test this time around.
I thought coming into this portion of the schedule the Vols needed at least a split against Alabama and Arkansas in Knoxville, and at least a split at Missouri and South Carolina. Having already accomplished that, tonight feels like more of an opportunity. And if Tennessee takes advantage again, with everyone else other than Kentucky and Florida having already lost twice in this young SEC season? You can start making arguments for the Big Orange in some of those top-tier SEC conversations the Gamecocks were in just two weeks ago.
We've got the late tip tonight, 9:00 PM ET on ESPNU.