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Tennessee vs South Carolina Preview

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The Vols will try to figure out a tough South Carolina defense without their second-leading scorer.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We start with this:

Mostella was solidifying his role as the number two scorer, even off the bench, after putting in 15.1 points per game in his last six. His dismissal after not living up to the program’s standards according to Barnes leaves Tennessee without perhaps the player most likely to go off for 20+. His absence also leaves the Vols with two seniors in Robert Hubbs and Lew Evans and then only freshmen and sophomores.

The good news: the 8-7 (1-2) Vols remain above last year’s pace and well above preseason expectations. Tennessee is still the seventh-best team in the SEC by KenPom, currently 63rd. The bad news: our run of playing one of the six teams ahead of us continues tonight.

After winning at Texas A&M (now just one above us at #62) and losing competitive games with Arkansas (#43) and Florida (#14), Tennessee welcomes South Carolina (#33) to Knoxville. The Vols and Gamecocks are annual rivals in the SEC’s current scheduling format, so this is the first of two.

South Carolina’s 8-0 start has been roughed up a little by a 4-3 run since then, including a neutral site loss to Seton Hall and a home loss to Clemson by a combined five points. Then Tubby Smith’s Memphis team roughed them up 70-54 at FedEx on December 30. But they won at Georgia 67-61 then held serve against A&M 79-68 to open conference play.

The key factor: eleventh-year senior Sindarius Thornwell, who missed six games via suspension by Frank Martin but returned at the start of SEC play, meaning the Gamecocks are 9-0 when he’s on the floor. Thornwell is a production machine, getting 18.4 points and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 42.1% from the arc. Tennessee has to do a better job handling him than they did Florida’s guards.

Returning guards PJ Dozier and Duane Notice are the team’s second-and-third-leading scorers, but they’ll also put 6’9” Chris Silva and 6’10” freshman Maik Kotsar on the floor. And as you’d expect from a Frank Martin team, they will straight up get after it defensively: fifth nationally in field goal percentage allowed at 37.1%, including allowing just 41.4% from twos (ninth nationally) and 28.6% from three (seventh nationally). They lead the nation in fewest assists allowed. For Tennessee’s young back-court, this game could be trouble.

Watch Tennessee’s rotation as it continues to unfold with Barnes and all these young pieces, especially without Mostella. Shembari Phillips played less than a minute at Florida. Kwe Parker, who had averaged 14.4 minutes in the five previous games, played three in Gainesville.

Last year Tennessee beat a 17-1 South Carolina team in Knoxville because Kevin Punter scored 36 points while Sindarius Thornwell went 1-of-8 with five turnovers. I don’t know that anyone is going for 30+ on this Tennessee team, but they’ll need another great effort from their guards on both ends of the floor to beat the Gamecocks again.

6:30 PM, SEC Network.