Kentucky-South Carolina Preview

# 1 KENTUCKY (19-0, 4-0) at SOUTH CAROLINA (11-8, 2-3)
When: 9 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 26
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, S.C.
TV: ESPN
Records: Kentucky (19-0, 4-0), South Carolina (11-8, 2-3)

It was precisely 40 days ago when SI’s Seth Davis predicted Kentucky’s first loss would happen on the road, January 26th, against a Devan Downey-led South Carolina squad. Davis’s explanation for his pick:

“I think this team has the ability to rise to the occasion against good teams, even on the road, which is why I didn’t select their Jan. 12 date in Gainesville. Kentucky is more likely to lose because it overlooked a lesser opponent that is good enough to beat them. By the time the Cats get to Columbia, the folks there will have had this game circled for months. For Kentucky, it will be just another game.”

And even though this part was left out, I’m pretty sure Davis was expecting South Carolina to be a decent squad when he made is prediction.  However, South Carolina’s done a couple things that Good Teams don’t normally do.  Specifically:

1) Losing to Wofford (Who?) on December 19th, the day after Davis game them his quasi-endorsement.

2) Dropping six of their next ten games.

Even then, there were times when it appeared Darren Horn’s squad was starting to turn it around.  Victories against Auburn and LSU showed signs of promise, but since then they’ve lost three straight, the most recent coming at Florida via a Chandler Parsons’ buzzer beater.

But the one constant throughout South Carolina’s season has been the play of Devan Downey.  The senior point guard is leading the SEC in both points (21.9) and steals (3.2) per game.  Downey’s managed to turn it up even more since the start of league play–he’s averaged 31.6 ppg in five SEC contests and is accounting for 46.6% (158/339) of South Carolina’s scoring.

It’s safe to say that unless Kentucky runs into Kansas or Villanova in the NCAA Tournament in March, Downey will be the best point guard John Wall goes up against all season.  Last year Downey single-handedly beat the Cats twice, averaging 22 points, 4.5 assists, 4.5 steals, to go along with one fadeaway game-winner that still gives Kentucky fans nightmares.

But tonight should be a good test for UK’s young backcourt.  Downey is a quick, crafty, Iverson-esque scorer and a pesky defender.  I’m not sure if they’ll put Wall or Bledsoe on him, but it should make for an interesting matchup to watch either way.

As for the frontcourt matchup, South Carolina is going to have a tough time competing with Kentucky’s size.  The Gamecocks average just 36 rebounds/game (compared to UK’s 42), their leading rebounder pulls down just 5.4 boards/game, and they don’t have a single player suiting up tonight taller than 6’9”.

Other stuff to watch tonight:

– Darius Miller.  Bet you didn’t see that coming.  He’s coming off a huge game against Arkansas, and Kentucky fans are hoping for another one tonight.

– South Carolina is a second-half team.  They’ve outscored their opponents 783-673 in the second halves of games this season (compared with being outscored 636-639 in first halves). Meanwhile, Kentucky’s had a tendency to let up as the clock winds down, allowing teams to make several games closer than they should’ve been.  The Cats did a better job of maintaining the intensity against Arkansas; hopefully, that same spirit will carry over against South Carolina.

– Since Kentucky’s yet to lose a game, there hasn’t been much made of the fact that Patrick Patterson hasn’t grabbed more than seven rebounds in any of the last six contests.  On top of that, he hasn’t had a 20-point game since his 21-pointer against Drexel on December 19th. USC’s weak front line, combined with Patterson being due for a big one, makes me think he could be a player to watch tonight.

– Speaking of players in semi-funks, Darnell Dodson has only hit five 3-pointers since his six-trey outburst against Hartford on December 29th.  In order for Kentucky to be great, they have to have shooters.  Miller and Bledsoe have both stepped up their shooting of late, but Dodson’s the guy Kentucky fans are expecting the most out of.  Hopefully he can get something going tonight.

– Daniel Orton, despite averaging just 11 minutes/night, has blocked 14 shots in Kentucky’s last six games.  When he’s playing stellar D (and not a complete liability on offense), he makes UK’s already unstoppable front line even more so.  Given USC’s smaller lineup, tonight will be a good opportunity for him to block a few shots and maybe even get something going on the offensive end.

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