KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's men won the first round of a two-round basketball fight this season against South Carolina, defeating the Gamecocks 56-55 on Jan. 11 in Knoxville.
Can the Volunteers be as successful in round two?
The teams face off at at 6 p.m. Saturday at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia in a game that will be televised on the SEC Network. It's an important one for both teams, as South Carolina is 15-9 and 7-4 in the Southeastern Conference with the Vols a game behind overall as well as in the SEC.
The Gamecocks have won seven of their past nine games, with both losses coming on the road, against Auburn, 80-67, and Ole Miss, 84-70. They defeated Kentucky 81-78 on a last-second 3-pointer by Jermaine Couisard on Jan. 15, four days after the Tennessee game.
How can the Vols be successful in the rematch? Here is a look at three key factors going in:
1. Protect but attack: Valuing the basketball will be crucial for the Vols. South Carolina's defensive philosophy is to make things as uncomfortable as possible for opponents, but Tennessee can combat that by not turning the ball over and attacking the rim. It has done both pretty well the past couple of games, and the Gamecocks are prone to foul. Out of 353 Division I teams, only one (Cal State Bakersfield) allows opponents to get to the free-throw line as often as South Carolina.
2. Defend and dictate the pace: The Gamecocks aren't elite on offense, but they are effective. In the first meeting, the Vols forced them into their least efficient shooting of the season in part because Tennessee dictated a half-court-style pace and highlighted one of South Carolina's weaknesses, which is half-court offense. If South Carolina gets this matchup into a full-court game, the Vols are in trouble, but if Tennessee can get the pace to its liking and force the Gamecocks into longer possessions, the edge will swing to the visitors.
3. Bench contributions: The contributions of Tennessee's reserves have been inconsistent at best this season. When they've been there, the Vols have done well, such as in the first meeting, when freshman Drew Pember came off the bench to score eight points and grab a pair of rebounds in 10 minutes. Maybe it's Pember; maybe it's players such as Olivier Nkamhoua and Davonte Gaines, who stepped up in Tuesday's win over Arkansas. But Tennessee can't rely just on its starters in a game like this one, when the grind and the pace will force the Vols to dive into their bench some.