Mother Nature has not been Tennessee's friend the last two years. Our date with arch-rival Kentucky was played before a smaller crowd due to snow and ice last season, and tomorrow appears to be the second big game this week when winter weather will take away the Vols' home court advantage.
Vanderbilt was big because of the in-state rivalry, but South Carolina wasn't one any of us had circled on our calendars coming into the year. The Gamecocks got off to a nice start in the non-conference, but few really bought in because their schedule wasn't really strong up front. But somewhere between their win at Clemson on December 18 and a 10 point victory over Memphis on January 2, you had to start taking South Carolina very seriously. In SEC play they won at Auburn by 12, beat Vanderbilt by four and Missouri by nine, and just won in Oxford in overtime. It all adds up to a 17-1 (4-1) start and an appearance in the AP poll at #24.
Let's talk about the one. Alabama blew the Gamecocks out 73-50 in Tuscaloosa behind 13 of 28 from the three point line. South Carolina shot just 35.8% and turned it over 18 times in that game. In part because of that performance, KenPom is not a believer: the Gamecocks are just the fifth best team in the league in his ratings. If South Carolina moves up one spot between now and noon on Saturday, they'll be the sixth Top 40 team the Vols have played in the first 19 games of the year, but still trailing Texas A&M (#7), Vanderbilt (#26), Florida (#28), Butler (#34), and Gonzaga (#38) among opponents.
So South Carolina is undeniably good, but they won't necessarily be the best team Tennessee has played. They are a veteran bunch, with juniors and seniors dominating the stat sheet. The good news is, unlike Wednesday night, only one of them is a large post presence. Lithuanian sensation Laimonas Chatkevicius averages 10.8 points per game at 6'11". He's part of an incredibly balanced attack with Sindarius Thornwell, Michael Carrera, fellow Lithuanian Mindaugas Kacinas, and Duane Notice all scoring between 11.4-12.1 points per game.
Carolina has been doing it with defense, which no doubt pleases Frank Martin. Opposing teams shoot 38.6% from the floor, 18th best in the nation. They have also been exceptional at getting to the stripe, attempting the fourth most free throws in the country. And they crash the glass, 26th in offensive rebounds. Expect pace and points: the Gamecocks are playing the 56th fastest brand of basketball in the nation, the Vols 43rd.
In SEC play the Vols have also been pretty good on the offensive glass, second in the league. And here's a sentence I'm not sure I've ever written: the Vols are the best free throw shooting team in the league, 78.7% in conference games. That can certainly come in handy in the close games Tennessee is going to need to win, but they'll need to be closer than they were against Vanderbilt this week. The hope here remains that Vanderbilt was just a sensationally bad match-up for Tennessee; right now I'd take the body of work over the last thing we saw and expect the Vols to compete with Carolina the same way they have with the other non-Vanderbilt good teams on their schedule.
There are certainly larger issues with Tennessee like lack of post production that just may not go away this season. But staying competitive against the best teams on the schedule will continue to require more than just Kevin Punter. He's averaging 22.6 points per game and shooting 38.5% from the three point line. But in conference play production has dipped behind him. Armani Moore averaged 15 points per game in the non-conference but is getting just 4.5 points per game in conference play, perhaps still recovering from tweaking his knee against Georgia. Robert Hubbs has been going to the basket more this year, but hasn't knocked down a three since Gonzaga. The Vols have gotten more in spurts from Admiral Schofield and Detrick Mostella, but must find more cohesive production.
Best way to get over a bad loss is to go win the next game. Yet another big opportunity stands in front of the Vols Saturday at noon on the SEC Network.