Auburn (10-9, 2-6) at South Carolina (8-13, 1-7)
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Colonial Life Arena (18,000)
Series: Auburn leads 20-14
Last meeting: Auburn defeated USC 74-71 in Columbia on Jan. 12, 2013.
The way the national - and local, according to Frank Martin - media portrays the Southeastern Conference, you'd think tonight's game between Auburn and South Carolina is little more than a battle to determine the worst team in the worst major conference in America.
It's a mindset Martin has grown tired of.
"I don' think our local media really embraces the quality of the SEC, and I think we all piggyback on what the national media says (about the SEC being down)," Martin said. "Let's talk about Missouri, go look at their non-conference schedule. Go look at where they won. Go look at the teams they beat.
"Go look at Arkansas. Everybody's raving about Minnesota right now, but Minnesota got beat by Arkansas. All of a sudden our teams start playing each other (and losing) and it's because our league is not very good. Yet our league beats some of these teams they're talking about.
"Missouri was 13-1 coming into league play and all of a sudden they're a bubble team? Give me a break. Our guys have gone nose to nose with these teams on their home courts, and that's why I'm so proud of them."
Even Auburn, with just one more win in the SEC than the cellar-dwelling Gamecocks, gets a bum rap, Martin said.
"(Head coach) Tony (Barbee) kept those kids together early," Martin said. "They had a couple of hard losses just like we did and then they finished their non-conference slate on a roll. They had some real good wins. They get into SEC play and all of a sudden there's something wrong with this team? No there's not.
"They're playing their tails off and he's doing a great job with those guys. Those guys are playing well. Now, over the last two games they got on that winning side, and when you have a team that's playing well, when they taste that victory, they tend to play even better their next time out, and that's what you're seeing from this team right now."
Auburn is led by the duo of guards Chris Denson (19.5 ppg.) and KT Harrell (19.2 ppg.).
"They have two explosive guards," Martin said. "And here's the other thing, not only are they explosive, but both of them are four-year guys. Chris Denson is a four-year guy. Harrell is a fourth-year junior who has been in that system for two years.
"Their center is a senior. Their power forward is a senior. Guys, they're playing well and when you have guys who have been in college that long, some of whom are coming to the end of their college career, that sense of urgency really really goes up a notch."
For the Gamecocks to taste success on a regular basis, their sense of urgency will have to match that of the Tigers, beginning tonight.
Three keys to victory
GO BIG: For South Carolina to begin winning close games, its inside play will have to improve, and the player with the biggest margin for improvement is Demetrius Henry. He's been a liability in SEC play, especially on the defensive end, and with no other consistent scorers to speak of down low, his play needs to improve there as well. While Laimonas Chatkevicius has gotten better over the past few games as his conditioning has improved, so, too, must Henry.
LET IT RAIN: USC is tops in the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage, and when the Gamecocks set about building leads, it's usually with a lot of help from the 3-point shooting of Brent Williams and Sindarius Thornwell. In Martin's system, those shots should come after the ball has rotated inside, and a major reason they've been successful is because that system has produced good looks. For whatever reason, however, late in games the Gamecocks seem to abandon the 3-point option, fail to move the ball around enough on the perimeter and wind up late in the shot clock taking a bad look. A successful 3-point shot affects the game in ways two-pointers don't, and South Carolina needs to use its accuracy advantage with them to its maximum effect.
NEVER LET UP: Whether shots fall or not, defensive intensity and focus should never waver, and unfortunately in USC's close losses of late it has. Sometimes it's the result of a silly foul or turnover allowing the opposing offense to disturb the defense's rhythm, sometimes it's an effort issue of not getting through screens and bothering passing lanes and sometimes it's just plain losing one's concentration for any number of reasons. The best teams win with defense first, and facing two of the highest-scoring guards in the league, the Gamecocks need to focus on disrupting Auburn's half-court offense like their lives depend on it.
Probable starting lineups:
G - #0 Sindarius Thornwell, 6-5, 206 Fr. (13.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
G - #1 Brent Williams, 5-11, 172 Sr. (13.3 ppg., 1.8 rpg.)
G - #10 Duane Notice, 6-2, 221 Fr. (7.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
F - #24 Michael Carrera, 6-5, 214 So. (7.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
F - #21 Demetrius Henry, 6-9, 215 Fr. (5.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
G - #13 Tahj Shamsid Deen, 5-10, 163 Fr. (8.9 ppg, 1.2 rpg)
G - #1 KT Harrell, 6-4, 216 Jr. (19.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
G - #3 Chris Denson, 6-2, 181 Sr. (19.5 ppg., 4.5 rpg.)
F - #2 Allen Payne, 6-6, 225 Fr. (7.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
C - #0 Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, 7-0, 226 Sr. (5.9 ppg., 6.3 rpg)
Next game: South Carolina travels to Tennessee Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.