Hoops preview: Auburn

South Carolina (10-17, 3-11) at Auburn (12-13, 4-10)
When: 9 p.m.
Where: Auburn Arena (9,121)
Series: Auburn defeated USC 79-74 in Columbia on Jan. 5, 2014.
There's a reason that surgery isn't a spectator sport. It's unpleasant to watch.
In Columbia back on Jan. 5, all Auburn guards KT Harrell and Chris Denson did was drop 25 points apiece while carving through South Carolina's defense like a med-school cadaver.
Denson and Harrell made a mockery of the Gamecocks' perimeter defense. They dropped shots from outside, they dribbled and penetrated and scored, they dribbled and penetrated and drew fouls, they dribbled and penetrated and kicked it out for open shots. It was like watching an unwanted surgery on an anesthetized patient - there was simply nothing South Carolina could do to stop the butchery.
Behind the two the Tigers built a comfortable 16-point lead, watched the Gamecocks storm back late then calmly reasserted themselves in the closing minutes to win their third-straight conference win after starting the SEC season 0-6.
That was then.
Now, South Carolina is playing its best basketball of the year, according to head coach Frank Martin - a record ice-cold second half Saturday against Georgia notwithstanding - while Auburn is slipping, having lost four of its last five with the only victory coming against a Mississippi State team tied for last in the SEC with the Gamecocks.
Still, for a team that hasn't won a road SEC game this year, Martin won't his Gamecocks overlook anyone, especially not a team with scorers such as Harell and Denson.
"Watching them on film, they've got two dynamic scorers in Denson and Harrell," Martin said. "One's a fifth-year senior, the other is a fourth-year junior. They're old, they play with great tempo, it's hard to get them rushed and they know how to put the ball in the basket. It's a hard matchup for everybody in our league, not just us."
Martin said Auburn's strength - guard scoring and penetration - positions them to take maximum advantage of South Carolina's biggest defensive weakness.
"Here's the dynamics of our team when you break down our guard play defensively - we always have to put Sindarius (Thornwell) on the best perimeter offensive player," Martin said." And then we get to pick from Duane and Brent how to match up with the other two perimeter guys. Brent is not very good defending point guards. It's just not his deal, he's not real good at it.
"Then that leaves you Duane to guard point guards on a more-regular basis. Well, then that puts Brent off the ball. Like let's say with Georgia, if you have big perimeter guys, now it's hard for Brent because guys get shots over the top of him, they run him into the post, it's hard. If you're going to be small, you need to be relentless on the ball, and Brent's not there yet.
"Those defensive matchups are why you see our team be a little inconsistent. We're relying on two freshmen and Brent, who defending the way we want to defend is not his strong suit. So we battle those issues every single day. They're fighting for us, and that's all we can ask of those kids."
Martin said he refuses to believe Auburn is struggling simply because of their record of late.
"When we're getting ready to play somebody I don't sit there and say, 'Let me see their record, oh, they're no good. We don't have to work as hard,'" Martin said." You look at film. You look at the team. You look at what they do. You look at how they play and then you try to create an opinion as to what to do to win that game.
"Auburn is good. Auburn just went in and went nose-to-nose with the number one team in the country (a 71-66 loss at Florida a week ago today). You don't do that in February by mistake. In February, if you listen to Billy Donovan speak about his team, they're playing as well as they've played all year. Well, Auburn just went in their building and went nose-to-nose with them. That should tell you how Auburn is playing."
Three keys to victory
DFEND THE PERIMETER: Denson and Harrell were unstoppable in January, and there's no reason to think Auburn won't employ the same strategy it did before of allowing them to break down USC's perimeter shortcomings. The difference, however, is experience - Thornwell and Notice have gotten it, and they are far better defenders and players than they were in early January. We'll find out tonight just how far theyv'e come.
LET CARRERA BE CARRERA: One of the biggest missing pieces to this year's team from lat year has been an explosive Michael Carrera crashing the boards and getting points from stickbacks and tip-ins and free throws after drawing contact. Of late, he looks as if he's returning to form, and against an Auburn team that's much weaker inside than USC's next two opponents - Kentucky and Florida - tonight is a perfect time for him to have his best game of the year.
MAKE BRENT SCORE: I'm on record saying I firmly believe Brent Williams could score 50 points in a game if he wanted to. With his basketball career down to the final four regular-season games, it's time for him to want to. Tell him he can't get on the plane home unless he takes 25 shots from the field and see what happens.
Probable starting lineups:
South Carolina
G - #0 Sindarius Thornwell, 6-5, 206 Fr. (13.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
G - #1 Brent Williams, 5-11, 172 Sr. (14.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg)
G - #10 Duane Notice, 6-2, 221 Fr. (7.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg)
F - #24 Michael Carrera, 6-5, 214 So. (6.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
F - #25 Midaugas Kacinas, 6-7, 210 So. (5.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
G - #13 Tahj Shamsid-Deen, 5-10, 163 Fr. (9.6 ppg, 1.5 rpg)
G - #1 KT Harrell, 6-4, 216 Jr. (18.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
G - #3 Chris Denson, 6-2, 181 Sr. (20.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
F - #2 Allen Payne, 6-6, 225 Sr. (7.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
F - #0 Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, 7-0, 226 Sr. (5.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Next game: South Carolina hosts Kentucky on Saturday at 6 p.m.