The Crimson Tide basketball team will hit the road yet again tonight in an effort to halt a three-game losing skid in SEC play. The Tide will travel to Columbia, South Carolina to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks. Tip off is set for 7:00 pm CST with the game set to be televised regionally on the SEC Network and streamed outside the region on ESPN3.
Alabama hasn't needed a win all season as badly as it needs this one. After losing to arguably the SEC's three top teams in consecutive games, the Tide now needs to reverse the halt and also take care of business against one of the SEC's weaker teams. As we explained earlier this week, Alabama remains in decent shape for a postseason bid to March Madness, but that position relies heavily on avoiding "bad losses", and losing to a sub-150 South Carolina team that is winless in league play would unfortunately qualify as such. Obviously, the game being on the road makes it far from a sure thing, but it's nevertheless one that Bama desperately needs for the reasons mentioned.
South Carolina began the year in a rough way, dropping two of their first three games to weak Elon and Tennessee State teams. They also went on to drop games to major-conference foes North Carolina, USC, Providence, and Ohio State, although they did get a road win over rival Clemson to go along a handful of wins over mid-major foes to finish 8-6 in non-conference play. Things haven't gone well in SEC play, as the 'Cocks are still winless after four games. Their first three, however, came against Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Florida, three teams projected as top-5 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. They lost their most recent game on the road at Auburn.
The statistical leader of the Gamecocks has been 6'6" senior wing player Malik Cooke, who leads the team with 12.2 points/game. He is also the team's 2nd-leading assist man with 1.9/game and the team's 2nd-leading rebounder with 4.9/game. To boot, he is near the top of the SEC in steals with an average of 1.9/game. Cooke is an all-around very good college wing player who can shoot, score, rebound, and make plays offensively and defensively. That said, he's likely not an All-SEC-type player, and the fact that he leads the team statistically speaks to the lack of star-power on this Gamecock squad.
The one potential star that is on the team is 5'9" sophomore point guard Bruce Ellington, one of the most explosive athletes in college basketball. Ellington missed the first six games of the season (including Carolina's two ugly early losses) and even since returning his numbers are down from his freshman season last year, when he garnered All-SEC Freshman Team honors. Ellington may be starting to warm up, though, as he dropped 20 on Vanderbilt and 17 on Florida before only scoring 9 at Auburn. Even with the late start to the season, Ellington is second on the team with 10.0 points/game and leads the team with 2.0 assists/game. He is South Carolina's most dangerous player, and is a dynamite athlete who can give Bama problems on both ends.
A quartet of other guards work into the rotation on the perimeter with Ellington and Cooke. 6'5" freshman Damien Leonard has been the leading scorer of the bunch, averaging 6.6 points/game. 5'11" sophomore Eric Smith has filled the role of backup point guard, averaging 5.4 points/game and 1.6 assists/game. Brian Richardson, a 6'4" sophomore, also sees solid action, mostly as a shooter. Both Richardson and Leonard attempt 3's at a very high rate given their minutes on the floor. 6'5" junior wing player Lakeem Jackson is the most experienced player, though his numbers have dipped from the 7.5 points/game he averaged his first two years on the team. 5'9" freshman Brenton Williams also sees minutes on occasion.
The Gamecocks have a deep rotation in the interior. The scoring leader has been 6'8" freshman forward Anthony Gill, who averages 8.5 points/game. The future looks bright for Gill, who has shown flashes of impressive shooting and passing skills for his size. Even now he's the biggest offensive threat in the post. 6'9" sophomore Damontre Harris is one of the best defensive players in the league. Outside of Mississippi State's Arnett Moultrie and Kentucky's Anthony Davis, Harris is one of the SEC's top shot-blockers, averaging 2.2/game to go along with his 6.4 points/game and team-best 5.3 rebounds/game. 6'8" sophomore forward R.J. Slawson sees plenty of minutes in the post as well, with 6'10" freshman Carlton Geathers rounding out the rotation.
Curiously enough, South Carolina has one of the highest offensive rebounding rates in the SEC, but one of the very lowest defensive rebounding rates. Rebounding, then will be a key on both ends. For a team that has struggled like South Carolina, Bama can't give up easy 2nd-chance points by allowing offensive rebounds. On the other end, the Tide can take advantage of 2nd-chance points themselves to help spur the offense in the likely event of a cold shooting night. South Carolina has also done a very good job generating blocks and steals on defense, though their overall defensive efficiency is not all that great. Bama needs to protect the ball and not shy away from attacking their defense, even if it results in a few blocked shots.
4th-year coach Darrin Horn is no doubt on the hot seat as the season wears on, and he'll probably be coaching for his job down the stretch. South Carolina doesn't have an impressive resume, but they are no slouches, and they have very good athletes who have the ability to make plays and give Bama a tough time. While they don't have any big wins, they have played some of the nation's top teams, like Ohio State, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Florida to fairly close games. They won't be a team that will just roll over, especially at home, so the Tide needs to bring intensity and focus to this one to get the season back on track and avoid an ugly loss on the resume. Hope for the best.