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February 25, 2009
For First Place -- USC vs. Kentucky
KENTUCKY WILDCATS (19-8, 8-4 SEC)
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (19-6, 8-4)
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Sold out
Latest line: South Carolina by 1.5
Kentucky's probable starters: G Michael Porter 6-3 Jr. (4.0 ppg, 1.9 rpg); G Jodie Meeks 6-4 Jr. (25.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg); C Patrick Patterson 6-9 So. (17.9 ppg, 9.0 rpg); F Perry Stevenson 6-9 Jr. (7.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg); F Ramon Harris 6-7 Jr. (5.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (20.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (15.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (11.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg); F Sam Muldrow 6-9 So. (6.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (11.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina faces Kentucky again after winning 78-77 on Jan. 31 at Rupp Arena. ... The Wildcats lead the overall series 41-8 but have lost four of the eight in Columbia. ... Downey and Meeks entered Tuesday as the No. 3 and No. 1 scorers in the league, respectively. No. 2 Marcus Thornton of LSU played on Tuesday. ... Downey needs just eight points to reach 1,500 for his career. ... The Gamecocks have not swept the season series with the Wildcats since 1996-97, when they won the SEC regular-season title. ... Meeks has scored 30 or more seven times this year, including 54 against Tennessee. ... The Gamecocks are 6-0 in home SEC games this year. ... Kentucky is 4-2 on the SEC road.
Next game: USC plays at Vanderbilt at 9 p.m. on Saturday.
South Carolina coach Darrin Horn talked about tonight's game hosting Kentucky on Tuesday, calling it one of the great days for basketball and Gamecock basketball in particular.
It just got a whole lot bigger.
LSU beat Florida on Tuesday, clinching at least a share of the SEC regular-season championship. That removed the Gators from a three-way tie for first in the SEC East.
So tonight, in Columbia, Kentucky and USC throw down for first place in the division.
"We've gotten to this point because we've gotten good at what we do," Horn said. "I'll be telling you that six years from now, if we're playing for our sixth first place in six years. That's the process we're trying to build here."
The future's on hold. But it can set a big piece of its definition tonight.
The title will not be decided tonight, not with three regular-season games left to play. Despite the Tuesday loss, Florida still figures in, and consideration must also be given to Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt down the stretch.
But tonight's winner is in the driver's seat, and their foot could be considered to be squarely on the gas pedal.
"Keep winning," forward Mike Holmes said recently. "We know we're going to be up there if we keep winning."
USC hasn't played Kentucky with this much on the line since that magical year of 1996-97, when a trio of first-team All-SEC guards could do no wrong and the Gamecocks won the school's first SEC championship. Yes, USC has beaten Kentucky since then, even done it a few times in the SEC tournament.
But none of those times ever turned into anything down the line. A win tonight, looking at the favorable USC schedule and the difficult ones facing Kentucky and Florida, could be yet another milestone in a season already full of them.
Horn thanked his fan base, part of which (The Garnet Army) he helped inspire, and looked forward to another sellout at Colonial Life Arena. He didn't say he expected to see everyone there, he said he loved the support he was getting and was confident they would be there.
"We probably wouldn't be in this position without them," Horn said. "I really feel like we've done it together."
Some were present for the Gamecocks' 78-77 win at Kentucky on Jan. 31. More -- plenty more -- should be in the house tonight.
The Wildcats (9-8, 8-4) will doubtless come out full of moxie after the first game slipped away. All-SEC contenders Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson represent one of the most lethal duos in the league, ranking first and sixth, respectively, in scoring.
But USC's Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick are also on the list, ranking third and 10th. The supporting cast they've got proved they could handle Kentucky on a hostile court, so a home court might be more of the same.
Might be. Horn was concerned with Kentucky's depth and athleticism on Tuesday, for good reason.
"I go back to their toughness and the way they guard and their depth," he said. "Much more concerning that they've got two guys who can get 50 for sure, and all these other guys that are capable of that."
Horn mentioned that while Kentucky is the program fans look at for the very definition of college basketball history, his program is trying to create its own. One step toward that is tonight.
Because it bears repeating, USC vs. Kentucky, for first place in the SEC East.
Wonder how those that predicted the Gamecocks to finish fifth in the division in the preseason feel now?