January 20, 2012
Anyone who saw the schedule knew it would be tough.
Few knew how historically tough it would be.
As the Gamecocks return to SEC play against Auburn (11-7, 1-3 SEC), they do so with an unforgiving gauntlet behind them. South Carolina opened conference play by facing three teams ranked in the Associated Press' preseason Top 10 poll (#3 Kentucky, #7 Vanderbilt, #8 Florida). The Gamecocks battled hardily, but dropped all three, the latest a 79-65 setback to Florida.
After some research, I discovered an astonishing stat. In the last 15 years of the AP poll, only two other schools have opened their conference schedule by facing three straight preseason Top 10-ranked opponents.
· In 2008-09, Georgetown - itself a preseason top-25 team - faced Connecticut (AP preseason #2), Pittsburgh (#5), and Notre Dame (#9) in succession. The Hoyas beat the Huskies, but lost the next two.
· In 2002-2003, Iowa State hosted Kansas (AP preseason #2), played at Texas (#4), and then hosted Oklahoma (#3). True to their nickname, the Cyclones must have felt sucked in by an uncontrollable centrifugal force; ISU lost all three.
South Carolina's SEC schedule has been literally once-every-five-years arduous. That said, the Gamecocks offer no excuses for their 0-3 start. Winning is the expectation, without exception. The Gamecocks can't let their opening schedule, however brutal, affect their resolve. Pre-tip reads before the Gamecocks and Tigers lock claws and paws on the Plains:
(By the way, Auburn did not begin the season ranked in the Top 10.)
You Don't Know The Half of It: If a team struggles with shooting, coaches have shooting drills. If a team falters on the boards, coaches have rebounding drills. So how does a coach practice more consistent efforts from one half to the next? Untimely, up-and-down halves have submarined the Gamecocks in their three SEC games (they currently have a 25.7 point differential between halves).
I asked Darrin Horn on how he addressed those swings. While it's important to understand why the drop-offs occur, he says it's more important to maintain the right mentality.
"We've seen this from the last two teams that we've played. You learn to come out and just keep grinding and keep chipping away and keep doing the things you need to do with experience. Sometimes when it doesn't go well, we let it get to us," Horn told me on "Carolina Calls."
How The Other Half Lives: Despite matching its win total from last season, Auburn has had its own problems with dry spells. In a 65-58 overtime loss to LSU, the Tigers managed one field goal in overtime. They mustered just one field goal in a nine-minute span against Kentucky. Indeed, Horn may have a kindred spirit in Auburn head coach Tony Barbee, who said this week: "We're still looking for that catalyst. One or two guys that can step up and make plays when the game matters."
Carolina and Auburn are separated by a mere .001% in field goal percentage (Auburn .427, South Carolina .426). Kentucky, Florida, and Vandy rank 1-2-3 in the SEC in FG%; Auburn sits in 8th. Both teams also use a 2-3 zone as the centerpiece of their defensive efforts. If a drought occurs, which team can weather it better? Who can knock down a tough shot, or bust a zone with a three-pointer, to snap their team out of an offensive funk? Look for that subplot Saturday.
Man to Stop: Auburn guard Kenny Gabriel. The 6'8," 209-pound senior leads the Tigers with 8.1 rebounds per game, and grabbed a career-high 13 against the Gamecocks in 2011. Perhaps he owes his rebounding prowess to his head coach at United Faith Christian Academy in Charlotte, N.C.: former Gamecock forward Tony Kitchings.
Gabriel drew headlines when he recorded the first triple-double in Auburn history, a 24-point, 13-rebound, 10-block performance against Bethune-Cookman January 2. He's a rangy, athletic power forward who can back his opponent in the post, but also step out and shoot the three (he went 0-8 3pt. vs. LSU). His inside-out game presents a tricky matchup for Carolina.
And Another Thing: Today marks the 11-year anniversary that Kitchings set the South Carolina school record for rebounds in an SEC game. Kitchings corralled 18 rebounds against - you guessed it - Auburn.
I Feel You, Bruce: When Bruce Ellington returned from football, he admitted his basketball "feel" would take the longest to regain. In fewer reps, Ellington's "feel" feels stronger than ever.
"He's not trying to do too much, and we're not asking him to do too much. When he didn't play well down the streth last year, that was probably more my fault, because we were asking him to do too much," Darrin Horn said on "Carolina Calls."
Ellington's improved feel may be best reflected in his Assist/Turnover Ratio. Like any scoring point guard, Ellington must be wary of forcing action that could result in turnovers. Instead, Bruce has enjoyed his best nights protecting the ball against the top teams in the SEC.
Opponent A/TO Ratio
UK, Florida, Vanderbilt (9 games) 30A, 10 TO 3.0
Rest of SEC (11 games): 22A, 33 TO 0.6
Playing Possessed: For a John Calipari protege, the apple falls far from the tree. Backed by a 2-3 zone, Auburn's Tony Barbee plays a methodical, slowdown style (10th SEC possessions per game), with the intent to "grind down" opponents. The slower tempo shouldn't bother Carolina, which itself favors a low-possession game (12th SEC possessions per game). Could the ability to score easy baskets in transition - Carolina poured in 12 fast-break points against Florida, compared to 2 in its first two SEC games - become an X factor?
Survivor, of course, is most famous for - you guessed it - "Eye of the Tiger."
Auburn frontman(?) Frankie Sullivan.
And Finally... 6'10" junior Rob Chubb (10.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) has developed into a serviceable big man for Tony Barbee. Chubb uses his body well, and has good vision for a post player (he has as many assists as blocked shots this season). Barbee says his team struggles to "manufacture points" when Chubb gets into foul trouble. Can an aggressive attitude and swarm-to-the-boards style make Chubb a spectator?
Oddly, Chubb almost played spectator last year in Columbia: he forgot to pack his game shoes for the trip. The Gamecocks graciously loaned him an extra pair, sparing the Tigers from scrambling to a sporting goods store Saturday morning in search of size-17 sneakers.
How did Chubb return the favor? He scored a career-high 18 points.
Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our coverage starts at 1:00 p.m. EST Saturday on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you then.