Vanderbilt Commodores (13-3, 2-0) at South Carolina Gamecocks (11-2, 2-0)
When: Saturday, 5 p.m. Central
Where: Colonial Life Center, Columbia, S.C. (18,000)
TV: CSS, ESPN Full Court
Radio: Nashville: 104.5 FM
Rankings: Neither team is ranked
RPI: Vanderbilt is 24th, South Carolina is 67th
The line: Vanderbilt by 2
Sagarin prediction: Vanderbilt by 1
Pomeroy prediction: Vanderbilt 77, South Carolina 75 (VU has a 59 percent chance of winning)
RealTimeRPI.Com prediction: South Carolina 75, Vanderbilt 74
Series record: Each team has won 22 games, and the teams split last year, with Carolina winning 86-76 in Columbia.
About the Gamecocks
Darrin Horn took Columbia by storm in his debut year in Columbia. South Carolina unexpectedly went 21-10 overall and 10-6 in the league and surprised the college basketball world by tying for first in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title after finishing fifth and sixth the previous two seasons.
A late collapse coupled with an uncharacteristically-weak league prevented Carolina from making the NCAA Tournament last season. But with four returning starters, including a first-team All-SEC player in Devan Downey, the Gamecocks appeared to have a good chance to make the NCAA Tournament as the season began.
Expectations probably need to be re-adjusted at this point; Carolina lost two of its best three players before conference play started. Forward Dominique Archie b-who nearly went to the NBA after last season-suffered a season-ending knee injury in game five.
Fellow front-court mate Mike Holmes suffered a broken bone in his face on Nov. 27, after which point he didn't play again before being kicked off the team for repeated violations of team rules.
Still, Horn's team has started well by winning its first two league games, albeit against perhaps the worst two teams in the league in Auburn (which came on the road) and LSU.
The main reason for the two wins has been Downey. Carolina's diminutive point guard is just 74 points shy of the 2,000 point club after averaging 31 points in those games while hitting a total of 10 3-pointers.
Downey is an all-around nightmare for opponents. Despite his 5-foot-9 height, he scores a good number of points in the paint due to blazing quickness, but can also hit from outside (33.3 percent from 3) or if he's fouled (77.1 percent from the line).
On the other end of the floor, Downey's quick hands have caused a league-leading 3.1 steals per game, which ranks second in America.
Downey's not been the only Gamecock connecting from the outside, as Carolina is scoring 44.9 percent of its points on the 3-pointer. Brandis Raley-Ross (42.5 percent) and Evaldas Baniulis (32.1 percent) are responsible for most of the damage.
Both players have been streaky shooters for their career. Baniulis, who comes off the bench hit 48 percent of his long-distance shots last season, and Raley-Ross hit 51.4 of his attempts two seasons ago.
The third member of the Carolina backcourt is freshman Ramon Galloway, a newcomer to the starting lineup after the departures of Holmes and Archie forced Horn to go smaller. Galloway is a great athlete with explosive leaping ability, though his overall offensive game (just five total points on nine shots from the field in two SEC games) still seems to be a work in progress.
Fellow freshman Lakeem Jackson, one of the more highly-touted Carolina recruits in recent years, joins Galloway as a starter. Jackson is a physical player who can finish around the rim, but like Galloway, is less of a finished product at this point (10 points in two league games and a 31.6 percent mark from the foul line).
Carolina's anchor in the frontcourt is Sam Muldrow, a good defender who can block shots (3.4 per game) and can't be pushed around inside. Muldrow showed flashes of the same last year, but was hampered with an elbow injury for much of the time.
JUCO transfer Johndre Jefferson (3.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in just 13.8 minutes a game) is sort of a leaner version of Muldrow. Jefferson is another great athlete who runs the floor well; he tallied 9.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.5 blocks at Northwest Florida State college last season.
Horn will play nine players, the last two being guard Stephen Spinella and forward Austin Steed. Steed (6-foot-8, 235 pounds) is Carolina's most physically-imposing player and brings a blue-collar work ethic.
Spinella, a freshman, is a bigger wing who has a reputation as a shooter after scoring 23 per game at Colts Neck (N.J.) High. It hasn't translated, as he's shot just 28 percent from the field and averages 1.7 points per game.
Horn's team is good defensively, and likes to press and run as much as it can. They force a lot of turnovers (9.4 steals and 18.8 turnovers per game) and averages 10.8 fast break points a game.
However, the Gamecocks' mysterious difficulty to shoot in the first half, plus the loss of their best percentage shooters in Holmes and Archie, has hurt greatly on offense. Carolina hits 43.9 percent from the field and 63.4 percent from the line.
Breaking down the matchup
After what was nearly a decade-long domination by Carolina in the series between these teams, Vanderbilt has turned the tables by taking six of the last seven games, and seven of the last nine. Whether they can continue that run depends mostly on four things:
1. Stopping Downey;
2. Keeping another Gamecock like Raley-Ross or Baniulis from getting hot, and;
3. Handling Carolina's press, and;
4. Establishing A.J. Ogilvy underneath.
The first is easier said than done, and you can probably go ahead and concede a 20-point night from Downey. As has been the case all-too-often with quick point guards, Vandy's guards simply can't seem to stop them from getting in the lane and scoring.
With Downey, that can be excused; he does it to virtually everyone, and could well be playing in the NBA this time next year. It would not be a surprise VU coach Kevin Stallings to either start Jeff Taylor and his 10-inch height advantage against Downey defensively, or slide him over on Downey as Stallings normally does when nobody on his team can stop a hot-shooting guard.
Stopping another scorer may be more important than slowing Downey, since he'll likely get his points anyway. Baniulis and Raley-Ross are both capable of shooting opponents out of the gym, which might rule out the zone that Stallings' club has played so effectively at times.
Handling the press may not quite be so problematic. Vandy just faced a pair of teams in Florida and Alabama that pressed them most of the game, and Vandy responded by committing just 15 turnovers combined in those wins.
Still, nobody on either team can pick your pocket like Downey can, which makes it imperative that Jermaine Beal has a good game. It also makes forward Andre Walker, who is averaging 35 minutes, five assists and 0.5 turnovers in conference play, all-the-more valuable to VU.
Walker has done a terrific job in helping Beal get the ball up the floor, and will be counted on for the same on Saturday.
Ogilvy's presence in the paint is the biggest thing VU has going offensively right now. Ogilvy has been drawing fouls on opponents like crazy (22 trips to the line in two games), and with Carolina's height topping out at one 6-foot-8 guy and a pair of 6-foot-9 guys, look for VU to exploit a height advantage inside and try to draw fouls on a team that's short on depth. Of course, that's easier said than done with Muldrow roaming the paint.
Other things that could factor in: Vandy's ability to shoot foul shots (they hit just 54 percent against Alabama) and the success of Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins from outside. Both have shown flashes of success with that in conference play, but Carolina defends well behind the arc (33.5 percent).
Chris Lee: So far, I'm 1-for-2, calling correctly that VU would win on the road but being mildly surprised by a home win vs. Florida that I thought might be a bad matchup for VU. For the second-straight time on the road, I'm feeling good about VU's chances.
Simply put, I think Vandy is a bad match-up for Carolina. Beal and Walker have been almost flawless against the press, and forcing turnovers is probably Carolina's best chance of winning as it just doesn't have a ton of firepower offensively on most days.
Second, Ogilvy is just too much for most players to handle. While Muldrow is capable and Jefferson looks to be a shot-blocking extraordinaire in his limited playing time, Ogilvy has proven capable of getting nearly anyone in foul trouble-and Jefferson picks up a foul about every eight minutes.
A win is rarely going to come easily on the road against Horn's team. But, I think Vandy is more versatile in both style and sources of scoring, has an advantage in depth, and doesn't have a glaring weakness in the areas that Carolina would like to exploit.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 75, South Carolina 68
Mike: It's not often that one SEC hoops team has such a dramatic inside advantage as Vandy does over South Carolina. With the loss of both Archie and Holmes, Ogilvy, Ezeli and Tchiengang should be overwhelming in the paint.
Unfortunately, it's Carolina's guards that have been dominating against Vandy in the past few years. SC has three guys who can fill it up from all over the court.
Fortunately, though, that has not been enough to win many games versus Vandy. And with the steady emergence of Jenkins and Goulbourne, today's contest should be no different.
I wouldn't be surprised if Vandy goes to a lot of zone defense today, to ensure they can stop Downey from driving down the middle and creating easy baskets for himself and his teammates. Then again, I wouldn't mind seeing Taylor play man D on him, and let the inside players dominate the boards.
No doubt Coach Horn knows he can't stop VU's front line if it gets the ball on the blocks. That will probably mean double teams for Ogilvy, and wide open 3s for Jenkins, Beal and Tinsley. It may also mean that foul shooting for VU will be key, and so we'll probably see a lot more of Ogilvy and a lot less of Ezeli.
Downey is a fun player to watch, even when he's making Vandy look silly. But Downey could get 30 and still be the underdog.
Vanderbilt: 80, South Carolina 70