SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (16-4, 5-2 SEC)
FLORIDA GATORS (18-4, 5-2)
When: 9 p.m. today
Where: Stephen C. O'Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
Tickets: Sold out
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (19.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (16.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (11.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg); F Sam Muldrow 6-9 So. (5.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (11.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg)
Florida's probable starters: G Nick Calathes 6-6 So. (18.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg); G Walter Hodge 6-0 Sr. (7.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg); C Alex Tyus 6-8 So. (12.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg); F Chandler Parsons 6-9 So. (10.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg); F Dan Werner 6-8 Jr. (9.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina returns to the road after winning its first league game away from home against Kentucky. ... The Gamecocks, Wildcats and Florida are in a three-way tie for first place in the SEC East, although if there was a tiebreaker to be considered, USC would be ahead of both. ... The Gamecocks received 33 votes in this week's The Associated Press Top 25, their highest amount in six years. ... Florida leads the series 34-20 but lost the last game (Jan. 21) 70-69 on Fredrick's buzzer-beating layup. ... Downey is the reigning SEC Player of the Week. ... USC has won four straight league games for the first time since the 2003-04 season. The Gamecocks have not won more than four straight since that same year, when they won five straight. ... Florida is 9-1 against USC in the last 10 meetings at the O'Connell Center. The Gators are also 12-0 at home this season and have won 14 straight there dating to last season. ... Downey needs 16 points to become the 40th player with 1,000 points while at USC. His career total (first year at Cincinnati included) is 1,387 points.
Next game: USC hosts Georgia at 5 p.m. on Saturday.
These guys again.
A quirk in the SEC schedule again matches South Carolina and Florida up tonight, just 13 days after the two teams met for the first time. It's a different location, different TV network, different stakes.
The Gamecocks are hoping for the same result.
Less than two weeks after Zam Fredrick took a picture-perfect pass from Mike Holmes and swooped past Dan Werner for the game-winning layup, the play still resonates. USC (16-4, 5-2 SEC) used it as a springboard for a stretch of outstanding performances during four straight wins while the Gators (18-4, 5-2) rallied to play some of their best basketball of the season against Vanderbilt and Georgia, before being rudely knocked out of the run by Tennessee.
The two meet again tonight, national ESPN audience on hand, each coming off a short turnaround from a road game and each eyeing tonight's other game. Kentucky, which USC defeated 78-77 three days ago, hosts Mississippi State. Should the Wildcats lose, the winner of the Gamecocks-Gators tilt will be in first place in the SEC East, halfway through the league schedule.
USC coach Darrin Horn approached the Florida game the same way he has every other game. Not one word about his team's position in the standings or what "could" happen if the Gamecocks continue this run. While his fan base is dreaming of conference titles and NCAA tournament berths, the stoic coach is simply focusing on the next game.
"I don't think we need to get too excited about where we are because of the tough league we're in," he said on Monday. "Every game in this league is going to be an absolute dogfight."
No one on the team's paying attention to the national media talk of the supposed wretchedness of the SEC. Those pundits have a point -- there is no one team in the league that's head and shoulders above the rest and Monday marked the first time in 20 years an SEC team was not in The Associated Press 25.
None of it helps the 12 teams in the league. They all have to keep playing each other and trying to win, because no matter how the league's status is viewed, it's still got to crown a champion.
"There are no easy games in league play," Horn said.
Tonight is a great example. USC and Florida battled toe to toe in Columbia 13 days ago and despite the Gamecocks missing chance after chance, the Gators couldn't deliver the knockout blow. A missed Florida free throw freed Holmes to rebound and Fredrick to sprint and shoot, something that no doubt has been replayed several times in the Gainesville locker room this week.
"Darrin's done a great job with those kids," Gators coach Billy Donovan said on Monday. "We had a real hard-fought game and a tough loss in Columbia and a great win for them there in the end."
USC kept winning, its latest a monumental upset at Kentucky when SEC Player of the Week Devan Downey rose over Jodie Meeks for the game-winning jumper. Florida regrouped with 25- and 26-point whippings of Vanderbilt and Georgia before traveling to Tennessee three days ago and getting blistered 79-63.
It's a quick turnaround for both -- for Florida, more fatiguing since it played Tennessee after USC had beaten Kentucky and was already on the way back home. The Gators do get the game at home, though, where they have yet to lose this season.
The Gamecocks plan to approach the game the same way they have every game. Their confidence is high, although Downey said it's not crossed over into arrogance; their game is on, the team finding ways to stick around despite increasing inaccuracy from the free-throw line; their defense continues to find ways to cause three or four straight turnovers and convert them into points just when it seems like the opponent is going to run away.
It's a good time to be involved with USC basketball. The mission is to make this time great.
"The important thing is putting yourself in position to have a chance to win those games. Especially on the road," Horn said. "We were down 10 in the second half (at Kentucky) and never flinched and continued to play hard and have an opportunity to win the game."
"I think the Florida game is going to be much more harder," Downey said. "It's on the road, they feel like we stole one from them, they just got beat by Tennessee, they're going to come out playing with a whole lot of emotion. We have to be ready to match their intensity."