SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (17-5, 6-3 SEC)
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE (13-10, 3-6)
When: 3 p.m. today
Where: Coleman Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Tickets: Available at the box office
Latest line: South Carolina by two
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (20.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (15.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (11.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg); F Sam Muldrow 6-9 So. (6.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (11.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg)
Alabama's probable starters: G Senario Hillman 6-1 So. (13.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Mikhail Torrance 6-5 Jr. (8.9 ppg, 1.8 rpg); G Alonzo Gee 6-6 Sr. (14.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg); F Yamene Coleman 6-10 Jr. (3.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg); F Justin Knox 6-9 So. (6.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina returns after its bye week to begin a two-game road trip. ... The Gamecocks are tied for first place in the SEC East and have seven games to either improve or regress in that standing. ... USC is 1-3 on the SEC road this season and 1-10 all-time in Tuscaloosa. The lone win came in 1997, USC's conference title season. ... Alabama holds a 19-11 lead in the all-time series. ... The Gamecocks won the matchup last year, 67-65 in Columbia, where Downey converted the game-winning four-point play and Holmes had his coming-out party. ... The Tide are 11-3 at home this year. ... Alabama freshman JaMychal Green, who was hurt in a game against LSU, is probable for today. He is a two-time SEC Freshman of the Week award-winner.
Next game: USC plays at Mississippi State at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.
Today could be the best Valentine's Day any of South Carolina's Gamecocks have ever had.
And their sweethearts aren't likely to even be around.
USC (17-5, 6-3 SEC) takes on Alabama at 3 p.m. today. The other three teams for which the Gamecocks are tied for first place in the SEC East (Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky), play at 3 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 1 p.m., respectively.
By the time the Gamecocks are done battling the Crimson Tide (13-10, 3-6), little ol' USC, picked to finish fifth in the East during the preseason, could be all alone in first place.
If they win, and three more outcomes fall into place.
"I haven't said a word about it, simply because we have to continue to do what we've been doing," coach Darrin Horn said on Friday. "Where we are today isn't nearly as important as where we are at the end of the year."
Horn had to say that. Perhaps he really feels that way. Perhaps it's only to remind his team that while it's played better than what most expected, this season has yet to be final-stamped.
He claimed he hasn't looked at the SEC standings. He probably hasn't had to, considering he also gently chided the media and the fans for building up the first-place angle for the previous week, when USC was idle.
"I think that's always a possibility, thanks to you all and everybody out on the street, but again, this team has responded and stayed focused on the things they needed to do even when we haven't won," he said. "We have to continue to do that. Again, that's a human-nature thing -- when you're doing well, to relax and think you have it all figured out."
Looking at today's schedule, it's rather unlikely USC will have sole possession of first this evening. First, the Gamecocks have to win at Alabama, which they've done exactly once in 11 tries. Second, they would have to depend on league-winless Georgia beating Florida (after the Gators just lost to Kentucky), Vanderbilt beating Tennessee (possible) and 1-8 Arkansas beating the Wildcats.
But unlikely is not impossible. It could happen.
Horn nipped that hope quickly, whether he thought it could or not. All he was concerned with was Alabama and he hoped his team followed his lead.
"I'm never pleased," guard Devan Downey boldly declared earlier this year. "As a point guard, you never can get settled. I feel like we got to keep on growing. For me to tell you I'm pleased wouldn't be true cause you can't settle."
With seven games left, USC is in very good position to make a run at the SEC East, perhaps the overall conference, championship. Game 1 is today at Alabama, an opponent difficult to prepare for after a topsy-turvy season.
The Tide began well but there was massive trouble brewing. On Jan. 20, the school sent out a release saying point guard Ronald Steele, who'd battled injuries throughout his career, was leaving the team. The release made it sound like Steele was tired of having to fight to play with a body that wouldn't allow it.
Then, six days later, coach Mark Gottfried resigned. Scuttlebutt had a tiff with Steele as one of the reasons and a declining lack of production another, but whatever the real reasons, Gottfried and Steele were gone.
Interim coach Philip Pearson has tried to keep the team afloat but is 1-3 since being promoted (Gottfried was 2-3 in his last five games before he quit). Overall, Alabama is 3-7 since Jan. 6.
Still, the Tide are a dangerous team. Freshman JaMychal Green is one of the league's best newcomers, guard Senario Hillman has filled in well for Steele and Alonzo Gee is as versatile a player as seen anywhere in the country.
USC can't afford to take anything for granted. The Gamecocks are firmly in the SEC title chase (and the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth) and today is the first step toward making those dreams reality.
They're rested after a week off -- they don't get another break until a sort of mini-vacation from March 1 to March 5. That's when they host Tennessee in a Thursday night showdown for their home finale and then travel to Georgia for the regular-season closer two days after.
If they're thinking about the situation, they know better than to act like it.
"I think we got great rest and got refocused on the things that are most important," Horn said. "We think it's a plus right now but you know how that goes. If it goes good tomorrow, it was great, and if it doesn't, it was a bad thing."
GamecockCentral.com's Wayne Turner contributed to this report