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Alabama v. South Carolina: Game Preview

The Crimson Tide basketball team will open up play in the 2010 SEC Tournament in Nashville against the South Carolina Gamecocks. It will be the two teams' second meeting in eight days after the Tide picked up a surprise 79-70 road win in Columbia last Wednesday without the services of top player JaMychal Green. Both teams are fighting for the chance to not only advance to the second round and face #2 Kentucky, but also for a chance to earn a late NIT invite to extend their seasons.

This will be the opening game of the tournament, so tip-off is set for noon local time. The game, like all of the tournament games on Thursday, will be televised throughout the Southeast on the SEC Network. Those outside the region can watch this and all other SEC Tournament action on ESPN360.

Bama, the 4th seed from the SEC West, is coming off two straight wins last week after a dismal stretch in which the team went 1-7, a stretch that ruined all hopes of an NCAA bid and will make things difficult for the Tide to even get an NIT bid. Sill, the team seems to have found a spark in the last week following a team meeting that seems to have restored a bit of confidence. Coach Grant has also stated that JaMychal Green will be fully reinstated to the lineup after playing only 14 minutes combined in the two games last week. The Tide obviously wants to go on a run and win the SEC Tournament to earn the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, but beating a solid South Carolina team in the opening round would at least put Bama on the NIT bubble should they advance no further than that. The Tide is 16-14 overall this season, guaranteed of a winning record, but likely needing at least one more win against a top-100 team like South Carolina to have a chance for an NIT invite.

The Gamecocks will bring a 15-15 overall record into the game after finishing 5th in the SEC East. The Cocks are coming off their second-biggest win of the season after they got an upset win at #13 Vanderbilt on Saturday. Before that, though, they dropped six games in a row that took them from projected NCAA tournament team to barely clinging to the NIT bubble. Like Alabama, they need to win this game not just to advance in the SEC Tournament in hopes of earning an automatic bid, but also to give themselves a chance at an NIT invite.

Read below the jump for more analysis...

Since we've already seen South Carolina this season and I've already previewed their team, I will paste below in italics my original game preview, while adding new comments below each paragraph specific to Thursday's game in Nashville.

South Carolina is led by senior point guard Devan Downey, who is the most prolific scorer in recent SEC history. His average of 26.4 points per game leads the SEC this season by a wide margin, and that's taking into account his recent (relative) poor performances the past few weeks. At the midway point of the SEC season, he was averaging over 30 per game. Most impressive of all perhaps is the fact that Downey has done all of this as one of the smallest players in the league at a listed 5'9". So how does he do it? Not only is he a deadly 3-point shooter, with nearly three made 3's per game while shooting over 35% from beyond the arc, but he can also penetrate at will and score with his trademark tear-drop floater in the lane. He is able to get his looks from deep because defenders have to respect his driving ability and he is a threat to pull up from way beyond the arc and hit. He also needs very little space to get shots off with his quick release and high-aching shot, and he is adept at fadeaways. Finally, he draws fouls more frequently than anyone in the league and scores nearly 7 points per game from free throws alone. In addition to his scoring prowess, he leads the team in assists with 3.2 per game in conference play and will soon be the school's all-time leader in steals, averaging 2.6 per game in league play this season.

Downey was pretty much on his average in every category against us. Luckily he missed some crucial shots in the final two or three minutes that could have brought them back into the game. He hit those shots against Kentucky when South Carolina upset them earlier in the year but he was unable to do so against us last week. He's going to get his, so to speak, so the real key is to make him work for it throughout the game so he doesn't have any magic left to win the game by himself in those last few minutes.

Downey is joined in the backcourt by fellow senior guard Brandis Raley-Ross, who is second on the team in scoring with 11.6 points per game in SEC play. Raley-Ross is another dangerous 3-point threat, averaging over two makes per game in league play while hitting 34% from the arc. He scores the majority of his points in that way. The top reserve in the backcourt is freshman guard Ramon Galloway, who occasionally starts when Horn elects to go with a smaller lineup. Additional backcourt depth is provided by freshman guard Stephen Spinella.

Raley-Ross didn't have a good shooting night against us, but Galloway came off the bench to make up for it. Galloway went off for a career-high 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Spinella played but failed to score. All three of these guards can shoot, so we need to bring the same intense perimeter defense we saw against Auburn on Saturday to make sure their guards not named Downey don't hurt us from outside.

The Gamecocks have struggled to find a replacement for senior swing man Dominique Archie, who was lost for the season early on and was expected to be their second-leading scorer. Freshman swing man Lakeem Jackson has started every SEC game in that spot, averaging 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds in league play while turning in nearly two assists per outing, second on the team. He'll play a lot of minutes and will probably be a solid player for them in the years ahead. Senior forward Evaldus Baniulis also sees time as a small forward and occasionally starts. He used to play a big role under former coach Dave Odom but only averages 1.2 points and 1.7 rebounds per game in conference play this year.

Jackson had 6 points and 7 rebounds last Wednesday while Baniulis got a courtesy start on senior night and did little else. Jackson did play 33 minutes though, so we'll surely be seeing plenty of him in Nashville.

The only full-time starter in the post is junior forward Sam Muldrow. He has quietly put up some solid numbers this season, averaging 10.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in league play, but he also plays about 33 minutes per game, significantly more than most post players. Luckily for us, the Gamecocks don't have tremendous depth in their frontcourt. Junior forward Austin Steed and JuCo transfer Johndre Jefferson each see time down low and occasionally start, but neither plays more than 14 minutes per game. In fact, South Carolina post players play a combined 57 minutes per game, meaning that for more than half of each game, they play with only one true post player.

We limited Muldrow to 7 points and 4 rebounds last week without Green in the lineup for us. Both Hines and Knox did a great job on him defensively, so we may see them matched up on him some more. Steed and Jefferson combined for a mere 17 minutes of action against us while Muldrow played nearly the entire game. This is one team where we actually look to have the advantage in frontcourt depth, so hopefully we can take advantage of that again.

The biggest key to our win in Columbia last week was rebounding. Despite having far too many turnovers and playing on the road without our most talented player, we were able to come from behind and win thanks to a massive 49-26 edge on the glass. We limited the Gamecocks to 17.5% on the offensive glass (7 offensive rebounds on 40 misses) while we were able to get tons of second chances by going 46% on our offensive glass (16 offensive rebounds on 35 misses). That's nine extra possessions we earned throughout the game. If we rebound anything like that again, I like our chances.

We need to make Downey work for everything he gets during the game, limit easy looks from the other players on South Carolina's roster, and earn a rebounding edge again. Offensively, we know by now what we need to do. Shooting is always key, so its encouraging that both Hillman and Davis have been shooting well lately. If Torrance and Brock can also hit a few that should give us enough weapons from deep to keep them honest. If Knox can have a huge game against South Carolina (career-high 17 points last Wednesday), there's no reason that Green can't have one too. Hopefully we'll continue to see some big minutes from Mitchell as well and he will continue to produce while he's out there.

Finally, this could very well be our last game of the season. If we lose it almost certainly will be. Whatever happens, just remember that this year was about laying a foundation and regardless of what happens we will finish with a winning record and will be in a better place than where have been any of the last four years. Roll Tide!