VIDEO: Lakeem Jackson, Bruce Ellington discuss SEC playClick
NO. 22 VANDERBILT COMMODORES (11-2, 0-0 SEC) at SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (9-4, 0-0) When: 5 p.m. today Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia TV: ESPN2 Tickets: Available at the box office Vanderbilt's probable starters: G Brad Tinsley 6-3 Jr. (10.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg); G John Jenkins 6-4 So. (17.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Jeffery Taylor 6-7 Jr. (14.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg); F Lance Goulbourne 6-8 Jr. (8.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg); C Festus Ezeli 6-11 Jr. (13.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg) South Carolina's probable starters: G Bruce Ellington 5-9 Fr. (14.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg); G Brian Richardson 6-4 Fr. (8.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg); F Lakeem Jackson 6-5 So. (9.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg); F Damontre Harris 6-9 Fr. (3.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg); C Sam Muldrow 6-9 Sr. (9.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) Notes: South Carolina finishes a four-game home stretch with its first SEC game of the season. ... Vanderbilt was the Gamecocks' last SEC win, in the regular-season finale of last season. ... USC is 7-12 all-time in SEC openers, and 8-11 in SEC home openers, but has won its opener in each of the past two seasons. ... The series is tied at 23 wins apiece, with USC leading 11-10 in Columbia. ... The Gamecocks are 1-8 against ranked Vandy teams, but the win was last year. ... The Commodores have won four straight and nine of 10. ... USC is coming off a season-high 15 blocked shots vs. S.C. State, the highest single-game total for any SEC team this year and the second-highest mark in school history. Next game: South Carolina tips off at Alabama at 9 p.m. on Wednesday.
"Getting ready to see what we're up against in our conference," Jackson, the Gamecocks' sophomore forward, said after practice on Thursday. "That's what we've been striving for, to make a mark, and I think we've got a good chance of doing that."
Time for the real test.
The Gamecocks begin the SEC season this afternoon when No. 22 Vanderbilt visits Colonial Life Arena, the first of 16 games that will make or break the year. USC (9-4) has only had three winning SEC seasons in its history (two more were 8-8 campaigns), one under coach Darrin Horn, and is hoping to add another this year.
With such a youth-oriented team, some say the chances are slim. But the Gamecocks feel they have as good of a shot as any other team in the league, and although they're focusing on the standard one game at a time, they think they can parlay a lot of one-games into several wins.
"I'm super excited," leading scorer Bruce Ellington said. "Everybody's been excited; we're just ready to play."
The start of January means the start of conference season, as well as the often ridiculous early looks at who's in and who's out of the NCAA tournament. It will be a standard process until March 13 (Selection Sunday) makes the 68-team bracket reality, with analysts judging and re-judging every win, loss and new RPI movement.
The Gamecocks aren't picked to be in the bracket at this point, but there are 16 games to go. Neither the players nor coach Darrin Horn won't be paying much attention to what ESPN is saying until there's a reason to.
"We want to be there, but you're only going to be there if you're winning," Horn said. "Veteran teams understand that. That's something that we're learning."
It begins today with Vanderbilt. The Commodores (11-2) are coming to town a bit ragged, but still present a rather formidable opponent.
Vandy is one of two SEC teams (No. 10 Kentucky) in the Top 25 and has lost its two games by a combined six points. Coach Kevin Stallings likes the makeup of his team, but at present, its health is severely challenged.
Forward Andre Walker probably won't play after sustaining a high ankle sprain, Stallings saying it's one of the more severe sprains he's seen in his lengthy coaching career. Center Festus Ezeli is battling a knee injury. Leading scorer John Jenkins is coming off a concussion but is expected to start.
"We feel good about where we're at," Stallings said earlier this week. "Obviously, the injury bug has gotten us a little bit. We've been able to fight our way through it for the most part so far. Everybody's weaknesses will get exposed in the next several weeks."
Horn believes he's found some solid rotations after tinkering with his team over the first 13 games, and the Gamecocks have looked very good at times. A slow start against S.C. State in the last game turned into an offensive clinic; it's those kind of light-bulb moments that Horn seeks more consistently.
The last game, plus today's game being at home, is a grand opportunity to find another spark and use it to get a headline-grabbing win. The team on the other bench is what Horn hopes to see out of his bunch as the final 16 games are whittled into the final 68.
"Their team looks like a little like we hope ours does in a year or two," Horn said. "You take all of those things and the good and the bad and then you head into league play. For us with this team, I think it's going to be a continual process."