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March 5, 2009

Tennessee vs.Kentucky: How does USC defend?

Playing Kentucky is a challenge, but at least there's somewhat of a plan to follow.

The opponent knows most of the Wildcats' offense will go through Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks. Double down on those two, or hope one has an off night, and there's a good chance you can win.

South Carolina worked that to its advantage in its second win over Kentucky last week. Meeks had 18 points and Patterson had 28, but eight of the latter's shots were blocked.

That game was for first place in the SEC East. Tonight's game is for first place in the SEC East.

Too bad the Gamecocks can't follow the same plan.

"Great team," guard Devan Downey said. "Whole lot of athletes, you know?"

Uh, yeah.

Tennessee (18-10, 9-5 SEC) takes the court in a few hours wielding probably the best group of athletes in the league. The lineup is stacked with rangy, tall, quick guys who are each so equally dangerous that concentrating on one guy would be a suicide mission.

The choices are mind-boggling. Does a team choose to first defend preseason player of the year Tyler Smith? Or bullish center Wayne Chism? Maybe the pair of 6-foot-7 guards -- J.P Prince or Scotty Hopson? Perhaps rapidly improving point guard Bobby Maze?

And that's just the starting five.

"Like any team in the league, key guys are key guys," coach Darrin Horn said. "Different guys have stepped up at times. Again, I think the strength of their team and any team is they've got a few guys you know are really good every night but they've got a lot of guys who are capable of it. The most talented, deep team in our league, no question."

The first game of the series, on Jan. 17 in Knoxville, featured the Volunteers holding a first-half dunking clinic and on cruise control past USC's battered transition defense. Tennessee's speed seemed too much to handle as the Vols leaped to a 17-point lead with less than nine minutes to play.

From there, it was a completely different game. USC's defense, while bruised and beaten, had managed to tie up Tennessee enough times to deprive it of any timeouts. When Downey began hitting, the Gamecocks took off.

USC out-scored Tennessee 29-15 in those last nine minutes, losing 82-79. It was then that Tennessee's weakness was revealed.

The great athletes didn't know how to work with each other to burn clock and run a set offense. They kept trying to do it by themselves and USC kept getting the ball.

That was a positive. The negative was the 31 minutes previous to the run. The X-factor was Tennessee still scored 82 points without Chism, who had no points and fouled out.

Tonight, the Gamecocks seek to right that wrong. The second-half spurt let them know they could hang with anybody and they used it to take off on a four-game winning streak.

There's a little more on the line tonight.

"I think we didn't come out ready to play," Downey said. "We dug ourselves in a hole. But we still had an opportunity to send the game into overtime.

"Can't act like it's not a big game. It's a big game. I think if we go out and do what we can to the best of our ability, we'll be OK."

NOTE: As confusing as it may have sounded on Wednesday night, the bottom line remains the same -- USC will get a first-round bye in the SEC tournament.

No matter if the Gamecocks go 2-0 or 1-1 in their next two games, they'll be in. The only thing to be determined in those scenarios is who wins the SEC East title and gets the No. 1 seed -- USC or Tennessee.

The only situation that had folks confused was if USC was to go 0-2 and Florida was to beat Kentucky on Saturday. If that happened, Tennessee would be the top seed, USC would be 9-7, Florida would be 9-7 and Kentucky 8-8. (By beating Arkansas on Sunday, Vanderbilt could also be 8-8, but the Commodores have already been locked into the fifth seed in the tournament, according to an SEC release).

In that scenario, the SEC would look at the tiebreakers. First, head-to-head. USC and Florida split.

Second, record within the division. Each would be 5-5.

Third, record of the two teams against the No. 1 seed in the East (Tennessee) and on down through the division. Each team would be 0-2 against the Vols. Second and third (which USC and Florida are trying to figure out) would be skipped, so fourth-place Kentucky comes into view.

USC swept Kentucky. The Gators will have split. USC would win.

Vanderbilt could tie the Wildcats in record, but they also split their season series. So the tiebreaker for that would be record within the division. Kentucky would be 5-5. Vandy is 3-7.

USC will play at either 3:15 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. on March 13.



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