South Carolina enters the "Blue Mist" trying to shake a fog of its own.
As they enter the halfway mark of SEC play, a pair of losses has dropped the Gamecocks to 12-8, 2-6 SEC. In both games last week, Carolina allowed better than 50% shooting from the field.
That put head coach Frank Martin in a reflective mood when he visited the media Monday.
"We had been playing so good that I got wrapped up with the other team more than my own team," he said. "I'm asking our guys to fight every single day for the culture we're trying to build. Well, they've never done that, and for me to expect them to do it on their own right now is not fair to them."
That "culture" building continues Tuesday at one of college hoops' holiest cultural temples. Pre-tip reads before South Carolina and Kentucky meet at famed Rupp Arena (9:00 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network):
On Kentucky: The talent is undeniable. So is the inconsistency. With 10 games left in the regular season, Kentucky head coach John Calipari says the Wildcats are still looking for "the best version of ourselves." The SEC's preseason favorites, Kentucky (15-6 , 6-2 SEC) hasn't routed teams with the effortless ease of last year's national championship team. While never one for encomiums, Calipari has talked often about prodding the Wildcats to play with more intensity. As recently as last week, he told the media "we just don't have a swagger about us."
The most telltale sign of Kentucky's inconsistency? Blown leads, which is why Carolina can't get despondent over an early deficit. The Wildcats coughed up a 13-point first-half lead at Texas A&M before beating the Aggies in overtime. Ole Miss cut a 17-point second-half deficit to one; LSU, a 15-point hole. In their game in Tuscaloosa, Alabama hunkered into a zone - something the Gamecocks have done well lately - and turned a 9-point halftime deficit into a win.
The same blueprint which almost led to an upset of #22 Missouri could work again for the Gamecocks.
Blown leads or not, make no mistake: the Wildcats are talented. Leading scorer Archie Goodwin (14.8 ppg) is a slashing specialist who can finish through contact. When he's locked in, forward Alex Poythress (12.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg) is capable of highwire acts of athleticism. Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, the lone returning player from last year's rotation, is a 6'10" pick-and-popper who ranks third in the SEC in three-point percentage (40.9%). And then there's Calipari's shot-blocker-in-residence, freshman Nerlens Noel (more on him later).
The Gamecocks may need to follow the blueprint which brought them success against then-#22 Missouri. Cut hard (Kentucky has never ranked highly in Steal%, an indicator that they don't gamble aggressively for turnovers). Attack the boards. Swing the ball with purpose, and knock down open shots. Above all, force Kentucky to match their intensity early.
Block Rocker: Last year it was "The Brow." This year, it's the "Flat Top."
With the departure of eventual #1 NBA Draft pick Anthony Davis, Calipari has filled his shot-blocking void with 6'10," 228-pound freshman Nerlens Noel. The sinewy, skyscraping Noel broke a Kentucky record with 12 blocks against Ole Miss, and averages 7.0 blocks in SEC play.
Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel (right) ranks 2nd in the nation in blocks per game (4.6).
Noel's help-side instincts are superb, and he angles his body well to avoid fouls (only 3.3 Fouls Committed/40 Minutes). His restraint in not biting for pump fakes has also improved. And Noel doesn't chase blocks recklessly - he also ranks in the top 20 nationally in steals per game (2.3) The Everett, Mass., native also excels in "kept-ball blocks" - swatting shots that are saved inbounds by Kentucky.
"If you hesitate on your move, you better pass that ball. Blocked shots are turnovers," Martin said of his players when operating around Noel.
The Gamecocks, though, have had experience facing menacing "rim protectors." Carolina has opposed two players this season with a higher block percentage (Block%) than Noel.
Block % (% of a team's FGA that a player blocks) % vs. USC
1. Chris Obekpa (St.J) 17.0% 3.1%
7. Rhamel Brown (Manhattan) 13.95% 10.3%
12. Nerlens Noel (UK) 12.86% ???
*-Block%: % of a team's 2pt.FGA that are blocked
Welcome Home: Tuesday's game is a long-overdue homecoming for assistant coach Matt Figger. "Coach Fig" grew up in Jenkins, Ky., a two-hour drive from Lexington, and will coach for the first time in the Commonwealth's cathedral to college basketball.
Create or Facilitate? Tall guards have typically bothered Bruce Ellington. That's understandable - the 5'8" junior often needs an extra half-step to release his shot over players 8" to 13" taller than him.
In four games against Kentucky, the Wildcats' parade of tall, athletic guards have usually left Ellington with a string of scattered shots. Even if his shots haven't dropped, Ellington has proven himself effective as a facilitator:
Creator vs. Facilitator? - Bruce Ellington Career vs. Kentucky
Shooting 8-44 FG (18.2%), 4-29 3pt. FG (13.8%)
Passing 15A, 4 TO (3.75A/TO ratio)
Between 6'2" point guard Ryan Harrow, 6'2" Julius Mays, and 6'4" Archie Goodwin, Kentucky boasts the smallest backcourt in the three years Ellington has faced them. Calipari has lamented his team's lack of a defensive stopper on the perimeter, although Mays helped contain A&M guard Elston Turner in their last meeting. If Ellington has trouble squeezing off his shot, can he make an impact by setting up others?
Tale of the Tape: Who has served as the Gamecocks' biggest barometer between wins and losses? Junior Brian Richardson.
Brian Richardson FG%
Wins: 51.2% FG
Losses: 29.6% FG
Richardson bucked that trend against Georgia, scoring 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting. If his footwork is good, Richardson's shots often are, too.
And Finally... Noel also leads Kentucky with 9.5 rebounds per game. That's fitting, considering he has a brother named, yes, Rodman. His two older brothers both play football in the ACC - Rod is a linebacker at N.C. State, Jim is a defensive back at Boston College.
Our pre-game coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you in Lexington. -AD--