Gamecocks visit for SEC home opener

The Crimson Tide basketball team returns to action tonight in the SEC home opener against the South Carolina Gamecocks. Tip-off is set for 8:00 CT, with the game being televised regionally by CSS and streamed nationally by ESPN3.

Both teams are 1-0 in league play after picking up confidence-boosting wins in their conference openers this past Saturday. Bama dominated SEC West rival Mississippi State on the road while the 'Cocks pulled off an upset of top-25 Vanderbilt at home in overtime. South Carolina's non-conference resume is only slightly better than Bama's, as they posted an 8-4 record, going 1-3 against major conference teams and 7-1 against non-majors.

The two teams share a lot of similarities. Both are led by highly-regarded up-and-coming coaches (Darrin Horn is in his third season at South Carolina) who field tough disciplined defenses but lack elite offensive talent. With lackluster non-conference resumes and said lack of offensive firepower, neither team is likely to be playing for an NCAA tournament berth this spring. However, both teams are well-coached and have enough talent on hand to at least finish in the middle of the SEC pack and possibly compile winning conference records, so this should be a pretty good matchup of young teams.

Bama holds an edge in defensive efficiency (9th in the nation vs. 51st), while South Carolina holds a slight edge in offensive efficiency (125th in the nation vs. 137th). The biggest feature of the Gamecock defense is their shot-blocking. They rank 10th in the nation in shot-blocking efficiency, so their capability in that area will be a big concern for the Tide.

Full South Carolina roster breakdown and game analysis below the jump...

For the second year in a row, the Gamecocks are led by a dynamic guard of small stature. Last year's leading scorer in the SEC, Devan Downey, has moved on from his role as South Carolina point guard. In his place has emerged freshman sensation Bruce Ellington, a 5'9" in-state product Horn signed as the backbone of his 2010 recruiting class and the foundation on which he hopes to build future Gamecock squads. Few teams in the SEC rely more on the point guard than do the 'Cocks. Not only does he run the offense and control the tempo (not unlike Bama's own freshman point guard Trevor Releford), but he also keys the Gamecock scoring attack. Despite his youth and lack of height, Ellington leads the team in scoring (14.8/game) and assists (3.9/game). Although his numbers aren't yet as gaudy as Downey's from a year ago, he plays an equally important role for this year's South Carolina team, and so focusing on stopping him will be key for the vaunted Bama defense.

Two other young guards split time alongside Ellington in the backcourt. Fellow true freshman Brian Richardson has started every game this season at the off-guard spot and is averaging 8.1 points per outing. Sophomore guard Ramon Galloway plays the sixth man role, and is tied for second on the team with 10.0 points per game. The three primary guards for South Carolina are all dangerous 3-point threats: Ellington averages hitting 2.4 treys each game, Richardson averages hitting 1.8, and Galloway averages hitting 1.6. Reserve guard Stephen Spinella is also a dangerous shooter coming off the bench. As a team the Gamecocks hit 7.9 treys each game, near the top of the SEC.

South Carolina frequently uses a smaller lineup featuring two wing players. Sophomore small forward Lakeem Jackson has started every game and is second on the team in minutes behind only Ellington. He is tied for second on the team in scoring (10.0/game), is second in assists (2.9/game), and is third in rebounding (6.1/game). He rarely shoots outside but he affects the game in a lot of different ways, not unlike Bama's Tony Mitchell. Another wing player, Malik Cooke, a transfer from Nevada, usually starts as well and leads the team in rebounding with 7.0 boards per game while scoring at a rate of 8.6 points per game.

The lone starter in the post is athletic 6'9" senior Sam Muldrow, who leads the SEC in blocked shots at 3.1 per game. He also averages 9.9 points and 6.9 rebounds and can stretch defenders out of the post with his shooting range that extends all the way out to the arc. 6'9" freshman Damontre Harris is his primary backup and has started a few games himself. 6'9" senior Johndre Jefferson provides depth.

These two teams are pretty comparable on paper when looking at results and statistics. Carolina's guards will test Bama's perimeter defense with their shooting and Muldrow will be a tough defensive matchup for JaMychal Green when Bama has the ball. The game could easily go either way depending on which team executes better and which team has the better shooting night.

Precisely because this game is something of a toss-up on paper is why it is so important for Bama to find a way to win this one. How we fare in these "toss-up games" will determine where we finish in the SEC pecking order. The biggest factor in Bama's favor is that this game will be played in Tuscaloosa, and if Bama is to compete for the top spot or two in the SEC West this season, we must hold serve at home. We've played really well at home this year against weak non-conference opposition, but defending our home court against SEC foes begins tonight.

Hope for the best.

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