The Crimson Tide will look to extend their longest road winning streak in two seasons Tuesday night, as they head to Columbia to take on a desperate South Carolina (9-5, 0-2 SEC) team. The Gamecocks ended the non-conference portion of their schedule on fire, winning seven in a row, which included lopsided home wins over Clemson and Oklahoma State and a huge road win at #9 Iowa State. However, since SEC play started up, the Gamecocks have found themselves in a bit of trouble. A close home loss to Florida was followed on Saturday by a blowout loss on the road at the hands of the Ole Miss Rebels. This is a very promising team though, and the early hole could make them a really dangerous opponent for Alabama come Tuesday night, especially in Columbia. With Kentucky, Florida, and Arkansas looming, Alabama could really use another solid road victory. It won't be easy, as Frank Martin finally seems to be crafting his roster into what he likes his basketball team to look like, and the Gamecocks will be hungry for a win in conference play.
The Starting Five
- PG Ty Johnson (10.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.4 SPG)
- SG Duane Notice (12.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.2 SPG)
- 3G Sindarius Thornwell (10.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.7 SPG)
- PF Demetrius Henry (7.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.1 BPG)
- C Laimonas Chatkevicius (9.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.6 BPG)
South Carolina's improved play this season has been catalyzed by their guards' fantastic play and their front court finally giving them solid production. Johnson, who missed most of last season with an injury, has been a great leader for the Gamecocks. He's a decent shooter (43.8% FG%, 28.1% 3P%), but he is very good from the line (82.6% FT%). With 1.8 TOPG, he has an assist-to-turnover ratio greater than 2, and his ability to steal the ball makes it tough on opposing players. Notice had a bit of a disappointing freshman campaign last season, as he was called upon to step up in the unexpected absence of Johnson and former South Carolina PG and WR Bruce Ellington, who skipped his final basketball season to head off to the NFL. This year he has started to come into his own, however. He has been a reliable scorer from all around the court (44.2% FG%, 36.8% 3P%, 81.3% FT%), and his athleticism makes him a very tough defender, as he usually takes on the opponent's best offensive guard.
Thornwell has been a bit of a disappointment for South Carolina this year, but he has the tools and the talent to put it together and give Alabama a tough time, as he did last year when these two teams met. His offensive performance has frustrated Gamecock fans (36.2% FG%, 21.8% 3P%, 67.9% FT%), but he hasn't let that affect his effort, as he is one of the better defenders in the conference (84.0 DRtg, 1.7 SPG, 0.7 BPG), and he is the second-leading rebounder for USC. Henry and Chatkevicius have been solid, efficient players for the Gamecocks, and it has made a huge difference. Neither is going to impose their will offensively, but they can both score from the inside at a solid clip (Henry: 50.0% FG%, Chatkevicius: 58.3% FG%). Chatkevicius also has the ability to hit the three (44.4%), and is actually the greatest threat from downtown. A 6'11 player who can knock down the outside shot is always a tough match-up, Jimmie Taylor better be ready. Neither guy is great at rebounding, but they do a solid job. The main thing these two bring is how good they are defensively (Henry: 89.7 DRtg, Chatkevicius: 86.3 DRtg). Both can protect the basket well.
- G Marcus Stroman (5.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 4.1 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- G Justin McKie (4.8 PPG, 2.2 RPG)
- F Michael Carrera (4.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 0.9 BPG)
- F Mindaugas Kacinas (6.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 0.9 SPG)
The Gamecocks, like many of Alabama's opponents this season, don't have a ton of depth on the team. The difference in Frank Martin's squad is that they have good quality off of their bench. Stroman is a freshman with lots of potential. He can score well from inside the arc (41.1% FG%), but he is not a threat at all from three at this point in his career (11.1% 3P%). He has also struggled from the free throw line (58.3%). However, Stroman is a great passer, leading the team in assists despite being a freshman who starts the game on the bench. McKie is a solid overall guard, as he does an admirable job on the boards and on defense. He can also score at an above-average rate (40.0% FG%, 78.9% FT%).
Carrera is one of the most like-able players in the country, as his motor is something that anybody can admire. Despite being 6'5, he has played in the post most of his South Carolina career, and he's done a good job at it. He hasn't played as much this season, due to other, taller guys stepping it up. However, he is a scrappy player who likes to battle on the boards and play strong defense (87.0 DRtg). Kacinas is one of those aforementioned guys who really stepped his game up this year. He is the leading rebounder on the team, plays well around the basket (56.9% FG%, 85.7 DRtg), and knocks down his free throws (80.6%). There is hardly a drop-off when he comes out on the floor.
What to Watch For
- Defense. Alabama has been on an absolute tear in conference play defensively, locking down both Texas A&M and Tennessee last week. The Vols went nearly the final fifteen minutes of game time without a basket, as Alabama went on a 21-2 run to close out the game with authority. Teams are averaging 41 PPG in SEC play against Alabama right now. That is obviously not going to last, but that is still quite a stat. Here's the crazy thing, South Carolina probably has the better defensive unit. The Gamecocks are 40th in the country in scoring defense, giving up only 59.6 PPG. Even more telling is that they are 10th in the country in defensive rating, coming in at 86.2 as a team.
- Road Game Momentum. Alabama finally conquered its road demons on Saturday with a dominating defensive effort. If the Tide can grab a second away victory in a row, this team might start to build a psyche that they not only can win on the road, but can do so consistently. That mindset is absolutely crucial to winning games in conference play. Many of Alabama's best opportunities for quality wins come away from Coleman Coliseum (at Kentucky, at Arkansas, at LSU), so it it imperative that the Tide continue to develop a winning road mindset.
Three Keys to Victory
- Take Care of the Ball. South Carolina, in case you missed it before, is a really good defensive basketball team. The main reason that is the case is because they are very good at smothering their opponents. It is very hard to get a good look off against the Gamecocks, much less make the shot. What Alabama can not afford to do is make scoring even more difficult by giving away possessions. Carolina's guards have active, quick hands and their forwards can swat shots. Every possession is critical when playing a defense as good as the Gamecocks.
- The Three Point Line. The best way to get good looks against South Carolina is by extending the court and knocking down three-pointers. The Gamecocks are 4th in the country in 2P allowed and 26th in 2PA allowed this season. However, they are 84th in 3P allowed and 201st in 3PA allowed. In other words, they will give their opponent the three point line, because they are locking down everything else inside the perimeter. Alabama hasn't been a great three-point team this season, but for some reason that hasn't stopped the Tide from throwing up their fair share of deep balls. Expect to see quite a few of them this game. If Alabama pulls off the road win, 3P% will probably be a key reason why.
- Take Away the Two. These three keys all flow together nicely, because just as South Carolina fails to shut down the three-point line, they also fail to use the three-point line to their advantage. The Gamecocks are 310th in the country at 29.7% 3P%, which is a dreadful stat. Florida and Ole Miss both successfully forced South Carolina into uncomfortable shots by denying penetration and forcing them outside. Anthony Grant loves to utilize the 2-3 Zone, which would be a fantastic idea for this game. Alabama just needs to be aware of the two big guys who can leak out and knock down perimeter shots.
This is another big road game for Alabama, as the following few weeks will be the meat of the schedule for the Crimson Tide. A 3-0 start in SEC play would be a phenomenal start for this team. However, South Carolina is a good basketball team, and they know how dire it is that they avoid a 0-3 start in conference play. Alabama will have to play even better than they have the last few games if they want to continue on their current roll.
The game tips-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised by ESPNU.