SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (9-13, 1-7 SEC) at TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS (11-12, 3-5) When: 8 p.m. today Where: Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn. TV: SEC Network Tickets: Available at the box office South Carolina's probable starters: G Bruce Ellington 5-9 So. (10.6 ppg, 1.7 rpg); G Damien Leonard 6-4 Fr. (6.6 ppg, 1.3 rpg); F Anthony Gill 6-8 Fr. (8.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg); F Malik Cooke 6-6 Sr. (12.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg); C Damontre Harris 6-9 So. (6.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg) Tennessee's probable starters: G Skylar McBee 6-3 Jr. (6.2 ppg, 1.1 rpg); G Cameron Tatum 6-7 Sr. (8.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg); G Josh Richardson 6-6 Fr. (2.8 ppg, 1.3 rpg); F Jeronne Maymon 6-7 Jr. (11.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg); F Jarnell Stokes 6-8 Fr. (8.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg) Notes: South Carolina is back on the road for the third time in four games. USC has lost three straight. Tennessee has won two of three and three of five, which followed a three-game losing streak. The Volunteers lead the series 35-23 and have won nine straight at home, plus nine straight overall. Coach Darrin Horn has yet to beat Tennessee, the Vols and Mississippi State the two teams in the conference he has not beaten. UT's Trae Golden is the team's leading scorer (12.9 ppg) and comes off the bench. Harris has blocked at least two shots in 12 games this season. Next game: South Carolina tips off at Arkansas at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.
VIDEO: Darrin Horn
"I'm not going to start demanding the ball at any time," Anthony Gill earnestly said. "If I'm kind of hot, maybe, but nothing outrageous."
Considering that Gill is one of the few South Carolina players that is hitting consistent shots, that may not be what the Gamecocks want to hear.
USC takes its struggling offense back on the road to Tennessee tonight, hoping for a win that will break a lengthy losing streak against the Volunteers (last win - 2007) and also a win that will start the second half of the SEC season off on the right foot. The Gamecocks (9-13, 1-7 SEC) can only lose two more games if they hope to avoid a sub-.500 finish in the league for the third straight year, and while they know that the second half of the schedule is much, much more favorable than the first, they also know that there are no easy games in the SEC.
Tennessee (11-12, 3-5) is struggling, but was expected to after the fallout of the Bruce Pearl era. Rather than take a few years to rebuild, though, first-year coach Cuonzo Martin has his team playing tremendously tight defense and believing in itself - the Volunteers shocked then-No. 13 Florida on Jan. 7 and stunned then-No. 13 Connecticut two weeks later.
The Vols are beating who they should beat and pulling a few upsets. In short, they're doing what USC hoped to be doing this year, with a young squad.
But the Gamecocks can't find the answer. Problems were thought to be solved when coach Darrin Horn loosened the reins on his ballclub, letting it run and create on the fly instead of trying to run a half-court system (which it was not doing very well). The competitiveness of the games was much increased, and it paid off in a win over Alabama.
Since then, USC played Ole Miss to the wire and lost on a missed free throw, had a 10-minute stretch of sorry rebounding cost it in an eight-point loss at Florida and was blown out of the water by No. 1 Kentucky. The offensive lulls that have defined the season continue to pop up, as the Gamecocks have no go-to player and often see one player explode at the expense of the others having silent games.
Gill, the team's freshman forward, is a very talented prospect who has started every game. When he can stay out of foul trouble, he can impact due to being a matchup problem - opponents don't know how to effectively guard him, because he can be a banger in the paint, or step outside for mid-range jumpers and the occasional 3-pointer.
After scoring 10 points against Kentucky, Gill's shooting for the past three games stood at 12-for-20. Going against Tennessee, which has 265-pound Jeronne Maymon in the paint, 250-pound Jarnell Stokes on the wing and 6-foot-7 Cameron Tatum disrupting the point guards, USC will need a "tweener" to cause some problems.
"I think the big thing with Anthony is just continuing to be aggressive," Horn said. "And have some consistency with that. There have been stretches where he's not doing anything he does well. He's always been a producer and when he's aggressive, those things come."
USC is getting steady production from center Damontre Harris, but hardly anyone else. Bruce Ellington continues to struggle running the offense, Malik Cooke is like Gill in that he can be the high scorer every night, but has only done it in nine of USC's 22 games and Damien Leonard fits in the same vein.
Against Kentucky, Leonard drove the lane and scored a career-high 19 points. If he can do that again, if Harris stays out of foul trouble and Ellington can get it together, perhaps USC can break its losing streak. Horn is a career 9-23 in February and March, including an 0-2 mark this year, and for a team hoping to show improvement, time is running out.
If those three can't get it turned around, then someone has to step up. Gill can be that player, although he might have to shed the nice-guy persona and start asking for the ball. "Just whatever helps the team the most at that time," he said. "You don't want to do anything out of control."
Out of control is where the season is heading. The chances to reverse it are decreasing.