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What to Know: No. 1 Tennessee at South Carolina

(Photo via Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina)

No. 1 Tennessee heads back out on the road on Tuesday to take on a South Carolina squad that has found its rhythm in SEC play.

The Vols (18-1, 6-0 SEC) will look to win in Columbia, South Carolina for only the second time since 2015 when they take on the Gamecocks (10-9, 5-1 SEC) on Tuesday night at 6:30 Eastern. Tennessee has won 14-straight games this season, but South Carolina has been a much better team and a more difficult opponent since entering conference play.

South Carolina opened up their SEC schedule by winning four-straight games, defeating the likes of Florida, No. 14 Mississippi State, Missouri, and Vanderbilt before being blown out by 22 points on the road against LSU. The Gamecocks would respond by beating No. 16 Auburn at home by three but lost on Saturday by four points to a bad Oklahoma State team.

The Gamecocks have lost two of their last three games, but they’re still playing much better over the last month than they were heading into SEC play.

Tennessee has had their fair share of struggles over the last couple weeks, but they’ve been able to overcome slow starts and hot shooting from opponents to remain undefeated in conference play. Junior forward Grant Williams won SEC Player of the Week for this past week after totaling a career-high 43 points against Vanderbilt and averaging 31 points, 5.5 rebounds, three assists, and 2.5 blocks in UT’s two wins last week.

South Carolina head coach Frank Martin is in his seventh season as the Gamecocks’ head coach, and he’s looking to get his program back on track after making an improbable Final Four run two years ago.

Here’s everything you need to know when No. 1 Tennessee faces off against South Carolina in Columbia on Tuesday night.

Better in SEC Play

South Carolina entered their SEC schedule with a 5-7 record and low expectations. The Gamecocks had lost to schools like Stony Brook, Providence, Wofford, and Wyoming in the first couple months of play, and it looked like they would be in the basement of the SEC.

But so far, the Gamecocks have been one of the biggest surprises through the first month of conference play.

Frank Martin’s squad have won five of their first six SEC games, and they’ve taken down two ranked SEC teams in the process.

So what’s changed for the Gamecocks over the last month?

For one, South Carolina is shooting the ball quite a bit better. In non-conference play, the Gamecocks shot 41.8 percent from the floor and 31.1 percent from three. In SEC play, South Carolina is shooting 44.4 percent overall and 32.2 percent from behind the three-point line.

Not only are the Gamecocks shooting better and scoring more, but they’ve been getting to the foul line a lot more as well. South Carolina has attempted the second-most free throws in conference play of any SEC team this season. The Gamecocks have attempted 148 free throws and have made 107 of them in six SEC games. The Vols have also shot 148 free throws in SEC play, but they’ve made 127 of their attempts.

The one area that South Carolina has gotten noticeably worse at during SEC play is taking care of the ball. They’re forcing turnovers at about the same rate as they were in non-conference play (just over 15 turnovers forced per game), but they’re turning over the ball just as often against SEC teams.

In six conference games so far, South Carolina is averaging 14.8 turnovers per contest. Before SEC play, the Gamecocks were averaging 13.5 turnovers a game.

A Terrific Trio

One reason South Carolina has improved their play over the last month is because of the play of their three best players.

Seniors Chris Silva and Hassani Gravett along with freshman A.J. Lawson have all been exceptional performers in SEC play this season. All three are averaging over 12 points per game against conference foes.

Silva is the most well-known star on South Carolina’s roster. The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 14 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in SEC play this year, and he’s shooting 67.5 percent against conference foes. He’s also hitting 85.3 percent of his free throws in SEC play, and he’s averaging a team-high 5.7 free throws a game in South Carolina’s six conference games.

The 6-foot-1 Gravett is averaging 15 points per game in six SEC contests, and he leads the Gamecocks with 2.5 assists per game in conference play. Freshman A.J. Lawson hasn’t played quite as well in the SEC schedule as he did to start the season, but he’s still averaging 12 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in SEC play.

One thing to keep an eye on will be Silva’s foul troubles. He’s picked up at least four fouls in five of South Carolina’s six SEC games, and he’s fouled out in two of the Gamecocks’ last four games.

Block Party

Both teams like to block a lot of shots each time they take the court. And that could lead to a good defensive match on Tuesday.

As a team, Tennessee is averaging just under six blocks per game in 19 games this year, and South Carolina is averaging just below five blocks per contest. Chris Silva has rejected a whopping 40 shots this season for South Carolina, and Tennessee’s Kyle Alexander has blocked 37 field goal attempts.

In SEC play, both South Carolina and Tennessee have been nearly identical in their total number of shots blocked. The Vols have blocked 33 shots as a team in six conference games (which leads the SEC), and the Gamecocks have totaled 31 blocks in their six SEC games.

Time to Reverse a Trend

Over their last six games, Tennessee has had a tough time stopping teams from hitting threes. Part of that has been because of poor perimeter defense, but it’s also been because teams have just suddenly gotten hot from beyond the three-point line against the Vols.

Before their match-up with West Virginia on Saturday, the Vols had allowed 10 or more made three-pointers in four-straight games. But even the Mountaineers got close to that total, hitting eight threes and shooting 38.1 percent from distance. The Vols have now allowed at least eight makes from three in six consecutive games.

In their first 13 games, the Vols were holding teams to just 28.1 percent shooting from three. But over their last six games, Tennessee’s opponents have made 39.2 percent of their threes.

It’s not like Tennessee has faced a bunch of teams that are proficient three-point shooting teams either. Missouri and Florida are the only teams in this six-game stretch who are shooting better than 35 percent from three on the season. The other four teams have been average at best from three for most of the year.

South Carolina will be the worst three-point shooting team the Vols have faced over the last few weeks, as they’re only making 31.4 percent of their threes as a team. But Vanderbilt was hitting a similar percentage before the Vols faced them on the road, and the Commodores ended up hitting 47.6 percent of their three-pointers.

Carolina Blues

Tennessee hasn’t had the greatest luck playing South Carolina in Columbia despite dominating the series overall.

The Vols won 15-straight games against South Carolina from January of 2008 through January of 2015. That streak got snapped thanks to a 60-49 win by the Gamecocks in Knoxville in March of 2015, and South Carolina has gained the advantage in the series since then.

Counting that win, the Gamecocks have gone 4-3 against the Vols over their last seven meetings, and they had won two-straight in Columbia against Tennessee until the Vols won last year there. Overall, the Vols are just 15-16 in 31 games in Columbia. Their last win there came in Donnie Tyndall’s first and only season as head coach when Tennessee picked up a 66-62 win on the road on January 20th, 2015.

Tennessee is 14-3 all-time when they’ve played South Carolina and been ranked in the AP Poll, however. Their last loss as a ranked team against the Gamecocks came in 2006 in the SEC Tournament.

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