Kentucky-South Carolina Preview
(AP) – South Carolina is looking to channel its success against No. 1 Kentucky, which knows too well the dangers of entering Colonial Life Arena with a perfect record.
Those 2009-10 Wildcats featured NBA standouts John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and seemed certain to obliterate the Gamecocks. Instead, South Carolina ended Kentucky’s 19-0 start with a 68-62 victory.
The Wildcats learned their lesson. Two years later, as the country’s No. 1 team and led by Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones, they ran past the Gamecocks 86-52.
While the cast of players is different, the situation is similar Saturday, with No. 1 Kentucky (18-0, 5-0 SEC) heading to South Carolina (10-7, 1-4).
Kentucky coach John Calipari brings another deep and talented team into a venue where it has lost three of the past five times. The most recent came last year, when the Wildcats were beaten 72-67.
”The thing that they’ve benefited most of is that you don’t have to play well because we have enough guys,” Calipari said. ”Now you can just worry about really playing hard and doing your best. There’s no, like, `If I don’t play well we’re going to lose this game.”’
Kentucky was ranked 17th a year ago. Still, it was a team expected to easily put away Frank Martin’s Gamecocks.
South Carolina, though, took a double-digit lead and held on despite the Wildcats’ late rally for one of the biggest victories in Martin’s three seasons.
Calipari was ejected in that game, a moment that sparked his team’s comeback to get within a point before losing.
”We didn’t bow our necks until I got tossed, and then we bowed our necks and played. But they’re going to be physical,” he said of South Carolina. ”They come right at you.”
After a two-game stretch in which it outscored Missouri and Vanderbilt by 71 points, Kentucky looked fairly lackluster again Tuesday in a 65-57 home win over Vanderbilt. Aaron Harrison, who shot 33.9 percent during a rocky five-game span since Christmas, had nine points down the stretch to help the Wildcats hang on.
”He’s as good as any player in the country the way he played in the second half,” Calipari said of his sophomore guard.
Kentucky has made a habit of getting to the line lately and making sure to keep its opponents off the stripe. The Wildcats have taken 80 free throws over the past three games – hitting 61 – while the competition is just 13 of 27.
The Gamecocks had hoped to be challenging for the top of the SEC at this point – they entered league play off a victory over then-No. 9 Iowa State – but have lost four of five in conference action.
Guard Sindarius Thornwell, part of last year’s win, said his team can feel good about what happened in 2014, but can’t rely on that to defeat Kentucky this time.
”It’s a new year, we’re a new team and they’re a new team,” Thornwell said. ”So we’re just coming out, trying to create good vibes and come in and do the right thing.”
These are the top two SEC teams in rebounding differential, but while Kentucky’s plus-9.4 overall edge hasn’t dipped much in conference play, South Carolina has dropped from plus-6.4 to minus-0.2.
The Gamecocks grabbed 17 offensive boards Tuesday against Tennessee, but those weren’t enough to make up for a vast shooting disparity. The Volunteers shot 57.5 percent – the highest for a South Carolina opponent this season – while the Gamecocks shot a season-low 34.4 percent in a 66-62 loss.
A big edge on the boards made no difference in the Wildcats’ loss in Columbia last season. Kentucky outrebounded South Carolina 46-28 and got to the line 42 times, but shot 26.9 percent from the field.
"If we go down there and play like we did last year we’ll lose again," guard Andrew Harrison said.