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What to Know: Tennessee at South Carolina

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

For the second time this season, Tennessee and South Carolina will square-off in men’s basketball. This time, the two will meet in Columbia for a crucial match-up with only a handful of regular season games remaining.

The Vols (14-10, 6-5 SEC) will travel over to Colonial Life Arena to take on the Gamecocks (15-9, 7-4) on Saturday night. Tennessee defeated South Carolina in Knoxville in mid-January by a score of 56-55, and a late drawn charge by John Fulkerson helped seal the deal for UT.

Since then, South Carolina has massively improved their play, while Tennessee has remained in the middle of the pack in the SEC. But both need a win on Saturday as they jockey for position in the SEC standings.

Tennessee has beaten the Gamecocks in five-straight contests, and UT owns an all-time record of 47-27 against South Carolina. Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes has faced off with South Carolina head coach Frank Martin multiple times both at Texas and at Tennessee, and Barnes is 9-7 all-time against Martin.

Freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James is still questionable for the Vols, though he did participate in practice during the week. James has missed UT’s last four games after re-aggravating a groin/hip injury from the preseason.

Here’s everything you need to know about Saturday’s Tennessee vs. South Carolina match-up that tips off at 6:00 PM Eastern on the SEC Network.

Not the Same Gamecocks 

When Tennessee last played South Carolina on January 11th, the Gamecocks were in the midst of some of their worst basketball of the season. South Carolina had beaten Virginia in late December, but they followed that up with a loss to Stetson and a double-digit home loss to Florida before taking on the Vols. The Gamecocks then shot just 32.8 percent overall and 15.4 percent from three against Tennessee in their 56-55 loss in Knoxville, their second-lowest point total on the year to that point.

Since that loss to UT, the Gamecocks have found their offense, and they’ve been a much different team.

South Carolina’s loss to UT dropped them to 8-7 overall and 0-2 in SEC play. Since then, the Gamecocks have won seven of their last nine games and have improved to 15-9 overall and 7-4 in conference play.

In that stretch, the Gamecocks have averaged 77 points a game and have shot 46 percent overall as a team, including 36.8 percent from three. South Carolina’s defense has also been impressive in that stretch, holding teams to just 68.6 points a game, a 38.4 percent shooting percentage, and only 25.8 percent from three.

South Carolina hasn’t just beat up on scrubs in that stretch either; the Gamecocks have beaten Kentucky in Columbia and Arkansas on the road in their last nine games, too.

Tennessee, meanwhile, has struggled with consistency since beating South Carolina. The Vols have gone just 4-5 since their win over the Gamecocks in Knoxville, averaging 68.4 points and only shooting 28.8 percent from three in that span.

Heating Up

Two of the biggest reasons South Carolina has been able to turn around their season has been the play of sophomore guard Jermaine Cousinard and senior forward Malik Kotsar.

Cousinard has been pivotal to the Gamecocks’ uptick. Through South Carolina’s first 14 games, Cousinard was averaging 9.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.6 assists. But Cousinard was inserted into SC’s starting lineup when the Gamecocks took on Kentucky after their loss to UT, and he’s been a different player since then. In his last nine games, Cousinard is averaging 16.3 points, 3.4 assists, and 2.4 rebounds while shooting 44.2 percent overall and 34 percent from three.

As good as Cousinard has been on the perimeter and directing the Gamecocks’ offense, Kotsar has been just as good in the post.

In Kotsar’s first 19 games, he was averaging 9.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.0 assists. But in his last five contests, the senior is averaging 14.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.2 blocks, and 2.2 steals a game while shooting 58.7 percent from the floor.

As a team, South Carolina has improved in many facets since they last took on the Vols, and Cousinard and Kotsar have been the sparks to the Gamecocks’ revival.

Settling In

When Santiago Vescovi arrived on Tennessee’s campus as a mid-year enrollee, he immediately turned heads with his three-point shooting ability and some of the flashy plays he could make on offense. But turnovers were a big concern when he first started playing for UT, as was expected.

In Vescovi’s first five games with the Vols, he was averaging 11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.8 assists, but he was also averaging a whopping 5.6 turnovers. Over his last seven contests, however, Vescovi has been much cleaner with the ball, and UT’s entire team has followed suit.

The freshman is averaging only two turnovers a game in his last seven games, and he’s averaging 12.0 points, 4.7 assists, and 3.6 rebounds in that stretch as well.

As a team, the rest of Tennessee’s roster has followed Vescovi’s lead and have cleaned up their turnovers, too. UT was averaging 13.9 turnovers a game as a team through the first 17 games of the season. But over the last seven contests, the Vols are averaging just 10.4 turnovers a game and have had fewer than 10 turnovers in three of their last seven games. UT had just three games of fewer than 10 turnovers in their first 17 games total.

Get to the Line

The last time Tennessee faced South Carolina, the Vols took advantage of the Gamecocks’ propensity to foul. Nobody in the SEC fouls more than South Carolina, and that held true against the Vols in Knoxville. UT got to the free throw line 28 times against SC, their second-highest total of the season to that point. The Vols made 22 of their 28 free throws, and the Gamecocks made just 13 of their 22 attempts from the charity stripe.

Getting South Carolina to repeat that kind of reckless play on defense will be key once again on Saturday.

In 11 league games, the Gamecocks have committed 269 fouls, the most in conference play by any SEC team. Their 545 fouls on the year are the sixth-most in all of Division I basketball, and teams have gotten to the free throw line 643 times against South Carolina. That’s the fourth-highest total in all of Division I.

It would be one thing if South Carolina was good at drawing fouls and making free throws themselves to counter that, but they aren’t.

The Gamecocks are making just 61.6 percent of their free throws this season, which is the seventh-worst percentage in the country. Their 62.9 percent clip from the free throw line in SEC play is the worst in the conference.

Tennessee, meanwhile, is in the top 50 in the country in free throw shooting as a team, making 75.3 percent of their shots from the charity stripe. The Vols haven’t done a great job of getting to the free throw line consistently, though, averaging just 19.5 free throw attempts a game in SEC play, the second-lowest average in the conference. UT has done a better job lately of getting to the line, however, as they’ve averaged 22 free throw attempts a game over their last seven games. The Vols are averaging 28.7 free throws a game over their last three contests.

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