It is very rare that the game that I mark on my calendar when the season begins is Kentucky vs South Carolina in Columbia. In fact, in the long history of Kentucky basketball, I cant really think of a game in Columbia that has ever mattered. The only game I can ever even remember in South Carolina was the one that I attended, where while sitting in the gym in Columbia waiting for the game to begin, I found out that the space shuttle Columbia had exploded returning to our planet. Noting the irony, I then proceeded to watch Kentucky dismantle the Gamecocks yet again, wondering the entire time why Dick Vitale continually refers to the school as a “sleeping giant.” Until they hire Anthony Grant (which may be this year), they are not a sleeping giant, but they are a team capable of beating Kentucky and thus this must-win game tonight in Columbia has huge importance.
In fact, it is not an exaggeration to call this game Kentucky’s most important of the year. Barry Booker, who will be calling the game tonight for Raycom, was on our radio show tonight and said that he thinks the Cats have a much better chance of beating Florida at home on Senior Day than winning in Columbia. The Cocks are a team that can beat you with the three pointer, it will be their Senior Day and it is the last game to ever be coached in their home arena by Dave Odom. Add to that, the fact that it is Kentucky coming to town and the crowd and players will be ready. Kentucky is on the heels of a very emotional contest in Knoxville and must maintain the focus that they showed in that game….something not necessarily easy to do with Senior Day and a trip by Florida on the horizon. The game is so difficult that in Vegas, South Carolina is currently listed as a 2 point favorite…..remarkable considering the relative performances of the two teams. But with Patterson out, the Cats are hard to predict and thus the Vegas money is on a home win by the Cocks.
So how do the Cats win tonight? Well first, they must do a better job than they did at Rupp guarding the three point line. There is only one way South Carolina can win the game…..spread the Cats out, drive and dish for open threes and have them go down. Even without Patterson, Kentucky’s inside game is superior to South Carolina (yeah they are that weak down low), but as they showed in Lexington, they can drain the three. Downey is a GREAT point guard at getting into the lane and Bradley/Jasper must make it priority #1 to stop his penetration. On offense, Kentucky must do a better job of getting a good shot a bit earlier in the shot clock. While holding under 10 seconds was a great strategy against Tennessee, it is unnecessary against South Carolina and the Cats should use Bradley/Crawford’s ability to get in the lane and score points. The shots Kentucky hit against Tennessee simply wont fall every game….but they dont need to take those shots tonight against a team far worse than the Vols defensively.
Ultimately however, this game likely wont come down to those factors. Even without Patterson, Kentucky is a better team than South Carolina. What does matter is that Kentucky must meet the challenge of the magnitude of the game. Make no mistake, a win here is crucial to making the tournament. There is a school of thought that Kentucky could lose to Florida and still make the Big Dance….I dont know if I agree, but it is possible. But a win tonight, considering South Carolina’s overall record is imperative. Kentucky has the chance to make noise in the SEC Tournament by getting the #2 seed in the East, but to do that, one has to win this game. Everytime the Cats have faced such a game this year, they have come strong and pulled it out….but this one has always worried me. South Carolina is the kind of team that can be demoralizing and can hit shots in a hurry that make a game’s scoring patterns fluctuate. Such a team is much easier to beat at home, where such a rally can be withstood, as happened earlier this year. There will be a moment in the game tonight when Kentucky falls down by 7-8 and the crowd is loud and it will be easy for the Cats to lose focus, fall down 15 and lose the game. But this Kentucky team has shown a propensity in the past to have that challenge put before them, meet it and turn the deficit around and pull out a victory. IT must happen tonight, or the Cats run at the NCAA will be on life support.
IF you asked me after San Diego, if the Cats could have one game in Columbia and a home game versus Florida to make the tournament, I would have taken it in a heartbeat. Now its here and tonight, in the most important game so far of the year, the Cats gotta win…..and if the guys on the team perform like I know they can, they will.