Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- There are just four games left in the SEC’s regular season schedule, but four teams are still within a game of the East Division lead, including the two teams that will meet Wednesday night, #38 Kentucky (19-8, 8-4) and #45 South Carolina (19-6, 8-4).
South Carolina’s at-large profile will depend on its conference record; its non-conference schedule was quite weak. The Gamecocks have been solid in the SEC, splitting a series with Florida, and winning at Kentucky, but haven’t shown much form on the road, including losing at Mississippi St. last week. Kentucky has had an up-and-down season, beating West Virginia and Kansas St. to win the Las Vegas Invitational and starting SEC play 5-0, but also losing at Rupp Arena to VMI and suffering a slump in league play that saw it lose three in a row. The Wildcats are coming in on a high note, having handily beaten Tennessee on the weekend.
The Gamecocks have an average SEC offense, but their fast pace of play means they lead the SEC in points per game. South Carolina does a good job of hanging on to the ball at their high speed, but doesn’t shoot a great percentage from two-point range, where most of its shots come from. It does have the ability to hit the outside shot, and is good on the offensive glass, which balances its struggles inside. The Gamecocks are terrible free throw shooters, 63% on the season. They’ll have a tough time against the SEC’s best defense: Kentucky are as good at defending the paint as any team in the country, allowing opponents under 40% from two-point range and blocking 17% of opponent attempts. The Wildcats are only average in the other facets of defense, but their interior domination is more than enough in many games. In the first meeting between the two, South Carolina made a killing on the glass and held on to the ball well enough to get the victory.
Much like the defense, Kentucky’s offense is all about its play on the inside. The Wildcats make 55% of their attempts from two, and get to the free throw line quite often. When they do get to the line, Kentucky are excellent, making 78% of their foul shots, the best of any power conference team. It shoots the three decently, but has a lot of problems with turnovers, coughing the ball up nearly one out of every four possessions. Turnovers will be a big problem in this game, as South Carolina’s defense (second in the SEC behind Kentucky) is among the national elite in forcing them. The Gamecocks defend the perimeter well, allowing just 31% of three-point attempts, but aren’t as strong inside. Kentucky was very successful inside against the Gamecocks in the team’s previous meeting, but committed 21 turnovers, a pattern that I’d expect to repeat.
A pair of undersized guards are key to South Carolina’s fortunes, 5-9 junior Devan Downey and 6-0 senior Zam Fredrick. Downey takes a quarter of South Carolina’s shots, and is fairly efficient with them. He’s also an excellent distributor of the ball, and is fifth in the nation in steals. Frederick isn’t quite as efficient, mostly because he can’t score from inside as well as Downey. He’s a passable three-point shooter, though. The South Carolina frontcourt is led by junior Dominique Archie, a good rebounder and defender who also has a nice scoring touch. Mike Holmes leads the team in rebounding, but is a 46% free throw shooter. Sophomore Sam Muldrow can be an effective inside scorer, but doesn’t play a significant role in the offense. Lithuanian Evaldas Bainulis is a 6-7 threat from long-distance off the bench, while junior guard Brandis Raley Ross has really struggled with his shot.
Kentucky is about as close to a two-man team as you can find in major conference basketball, as junior Jodie Meeks and sophomore Patrick Patterson are clearly the driving forces behind the team’s success. Meeks has exploded this season, showing the ability to score inside and outside, and getting to the line often, which combine to make him the nation’s third-leading scorer. He takes a lot of shots, but that’s not a bad thing when you’ve been as good as he has. Patterson missed a couple of games mid-month, but returned against Tennessee with a bang, getting a game-high 19 points. Patterson shoots nearly 65% from the field, and is a major force on the glass, averaging nearly 9 rebounds a game. Michael Porter starts in the backcourt alongside Meeks, but doesn’t do much offensively, an average shooter at best. The Wildcats boast a number of useful inside players besides Patterson, led by junior forward Perry Stevenson, a good scorer and rebounder who leads the team in shot-blocking. Ramon Harris has seen his minutes fluctuate wildly over the season, he’s decent when he does shoot, but takes very few attempts. Freshmen Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins are decent rebounders who need to work on their shots; Liggens is a good ball distributor who leads the team in assists..
The numbers make this one look like a pretty even contest, and I don’t see a lot in the matchups that favors either side. Still, with the Gamecocks having beaten Kentucky once before, and being on their home floor, they should claim a narrow victory. The key to the game will be how the Wildcats resist South Carolina’s pressure; if they struggle again with turnovers they’ll probably end up with a similar result.
Winner: South Carolina Margin: 2-6
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.
Editor's Early Preview
*Made on 02/06. Full preview by the GameNight staff coming soon!
South Carolina is an overlooked team featuring one of the country's most underrated players: Devan Downey. UK doesn't have top talent at the point guard position, which plays right into SC's hands.
Early Prediction: So Carolina
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