Not even rival student sections can resist the charms of Michael Carrera.
In the second half of the Gamecocks' 77-55 loss to Kentucky, Carrera toed the free throw line, looking to complete a three-point play. As he drummed out some rhythm dribbles, the UK student section, which occupied the far baseline, began serenading him with the now-familiar "Who wears short shorts?" chant.
(If you haven't been paying attention, Carrera self-tailors his shorts to an early-90's length. He says his Dad wore them that way, and he has always followed suit.)
Michael Carrera scored 18 points against Kentucky, the most by a freshman against the Wildcats this year.
The freshman from Anzoategui, Venezuela, has had more reasons to smile than friendly tete-a-tetes with opposing student sections. After his 18-point, 6-rebound performance against the Wildcats, Carrera now leads the Gamecocks in scoring (10.6 ppg) and rebounding (6.9 rpg). He could become the first freshman ever to lead the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding, and the first underclassman since Jimmy Foster did it as a sophomore in 1981-82.
Now comes a new trick: posting those numbers in a win. The Gamecocks will look to snap an 11-game losing streak to the Tennessee Volunteers (11-10, 3-6 SEC) Sunday when they meet at Colonial Life Arena. Pre-tip reads before the Gamecocks and Volunteers play their first Sunday spectacular since 2008 (1:00 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network):
Midrange Mike? Carrera also showed off a growing perimeter game against the Wildcats, knocking down nearly as many three-pointers (2) as he had all season (3). He gave a glimpse of the mismatches it could create on the play that led to his free-throw trip. After catching on the left wing, Carrera pump-faked a three, which drew Kentucky's 6'10" shot blocker Nerlens Noel in the air. He drove by Noel with ease, and double-clutched a layup through contact.
"We put Mike in some action - actually a couple of flare screens - to get him wide open on the perimeter. He knocked them down," associate head coach Brad Underwood said in our post-game radio interview. "We had the big guy [Noel] rotating at him, and Mike's able to put the ball on the floor and get by him."
Don't be surprised to see Carrera step out more often.
Very Offensive: Tennessee was the toast of the SEC last year, defying expectations to almost reach the NCAA Tournament. This year, injuries and a low-voltage offense have dimmed the Vols' chances. A 68-62 home loss to Georgia Wednesday dropped Tennessee to 11-10, 3-6 SEC. The Volunteers head to Columbia winless in true road games this year (0-6).
Like the Gamecocks, the Volunteers' struggles are easy to spot: they have a hard time scoring. Tennessee has only surpassed 60 points once in the last 5 games. Their 28.9% shooting from three-point range ranks 318th in the country. On top of that, they've been playing without starting point guard Trae Golden, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. Jordan McRae, the Vols' rangy leading scorer (14.0 ppg) has logged more time at the point, though it's not a natural fit. Freshman Armani Moore got the start against Georgia.
As a result, the Volunteers have struggled to find good "flow" on offense. That may be music to the ears of the Gamecocks, who've allowed far too much string music - 57.1% opponents' field-goal shooting, to be exact --- during their losing streak. Key for Sunday: don't let the Vols off the hook.
The Gamecocks have allowed 57.1% FG shooting during their three-game losing streak.
"One thing we're working on is not letting teams score off our mistakes. Make them score off their execution," Underwood told us Wednesday.
No Trespassing: The Volunteers have counterbalanced their plodding offense with a prickly defense. Tennessee doesn't try extend the floor or turn teams over. They prefer to deny and force tough catches, making halfcourt possessions feel like battles of attrition.
Tennessee's "stay at home" philosophy is best reflected in a few numbers:
· The Vols' 5.9% Steal Percentage (% of possessions that result in a steal) is 4th-worst in the country.
· Only 27.4% of opponents' field goal attempts are three-pointers, the second-lowest percentage in the league behind Kentucky.
· Tennessee's guards have blocked more shots (41) than its forwards (36).
The Gamecocks had some of their best ball rotation of the season during their first-half comeback against Kentucky. "I think there were possessions where we got the ball to the third, fourth, maybe even to the fifth side. When you share the ball and don't let it stick, and make the defense move, you also put into the equation that they may make a mistake," Underwood said.
Can the Gamecocks do that more consistently against the Vols? Can Carolina's guards get more dribble penetration, something Tennessee has struggled to cut off lately? Georgia's repeated breakdowns led to 11-of-20 three-point shooting, most of them coming off kickouts.
Man To Stop: Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes. The Vols were dealt a blow in October when Preseason All-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon was forced to redshirt because of a hurting knee. That put an even greater burden on Stokes, his frontcourt mate.
At 6'8," 270 pounds, Stokes' shoulders were more than equipped to handle it.
Tennessee's bull-in-a-china-shop sophomore has polished off four straight double-doubles, the latest a 16-point, 11-rebound effort against Georgia. Stokes has quick, soft hands, and uses his size to sledgehammer away on post-ups. He also has a quick drop-step move, and nimble feet for someone his size. His strength has allowed him to rank 2nd in the SEC in offensive rebounds (3.3/game).
Jarnell Stokes (12.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg) (Photo courtesy: Times Free-Press)
Georgia limited his touches by sending two or three players near him, and inviting Tennessee to shoot from outside. Can players like Lakeem Jackson play solid defense without racking up fouls? The Gamecocks may also want to abide a longstanding philosophy of Frank Martin: The key to good post defense is good perimeter defense. If Bruce Ellington and Eric Smith -whom Martin calls a "bulldog" on defense - can pester the Vols' lead guards, they'll make it tougher to feed Stokes.
Crash The Party: As Lakeem Jackson goes (to the glass), so go the Gamecocks. The senior from Charlotte, N.C., has been held without an offensive rebound in three of Carolina's last four games. Prior to that, he hadn't been shut out in a game all season.
Lakeem Jackson - 0 offensive rebounds
First 18 Games 0
Last 4 Games 3
In a game ticketed for a grind-fest, Jackson will need to bring his hard hat, and chisel out extra possessions for the Gamecocks.
And Finally... One last note on Carrera. In addition to his scoring and rebounding totals, he has drawn a charge in eight straight games.
Our pre-game coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. See you Sunday. -AD--