The USC men’s basketball team will have a golden opportunity to put together consecutive SEC victories when struggling Vanderbilt comes to town Saturday.
Vanderbilt, missing its top seven scorers from a year ago, has struggled to score this season, ranking last in the league with 59.1 points per game.
Wednesday against Ole Miss, the Commodores appeared to have recovered from their disastrous 56-33 loss at Arkansas until Rebels guard Marshall Henderson’s desperation heave forced overtime and led to an 89-79 loss.
The setback dropped Vanderbilt to 0-3 in league play and 6-9 overall.
Meanwhile, USC returned from Baton Rouge, La., with the first SEC victory of the Frank Martin era. In so doing, the Gamecocks (11-5, 1-2) played with an aggression late in the game that had been missing in their first two league defeats.
Interior play from USC’s undersized post players keyed the win. Michael Carrera and Lakeem Jackson, each 6-foot-5, recorded double-doubles. Carrera’s 23 points (he also had 10 rebounds) were the most by a USC freshman since Bruce Ellington two seasons ago.
Jackson pitched in 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Earlier in the week, Martin said the Gamecocks’ most pressing issue was a lack of fearless play when the game was on the line. Personality played a key role in that tentativeness.
Martin said having Carrera all the way back from his hip injury and Ellington with the team full-time had added an intangible quality to the Gamecocks.
“I’ve said this before: Bruce and Michael Carrera give us a personality, something that we need,” Martin said. “We need a personality because — let’s just be honest here — we’re asking guys that never got in a game last year to be frontline guys. And I’m OK with that. I believe in them.
“It’s going to take time for them to engage that responsibility. I’m perfectly fine with that. I’m in no rush to get to the finish line.”
During his time at Kansas State, Martin’s teams often battled to find consistency during their first tour through league play before bouncing back with a strong February. A lot of that had to do with a season-long emphasis on practicing with the goal of getting better each day.
“That’s where our culture, our game, has changed. No one practices anymore at the grassroots level,” Martin said. “No one ever practices. Let’s just show up and play. Let’s just play. Let’s go play. Let’s play. Well, you know what they learn when they play? I’ve got my man. You’ve got yours. Take care of your business, and I’ll take care of mine.
“That’s why it’s so important that we practice,” Martin continued. “Every day in practice, we rehearse our rules, our responsibilities, we put our guys in repetition, so they learn to grow in it, learn to understand the importance of playing a certain way and playing together.”
After two learning experiences to open the SEC season, USC appears to reaping the reward that comes from gradual improvement.
“And we’re halfway there this year,” Martin said. “When you watched us play the very first game we played this year (a last-second exhibition win against Kentucky Wesleyan) and now you watch us play, do you think we’re a better team, yes or no?”
WHO: USC (11-5, 1-2 SEC); Vanderbilt (6-9, 0-3)
WHEN: 1:47 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Colonial Life Arena
RADIO: WNKT 107.5 FM
SERIES: Vanderbilt leads 26-24
COACHES: Frank Martin (11-5 in first season at USC, 128-59 in sixth season); Kevin Stallings (276-168 in 14th season at Vanderbilt, 390-231 in 20th )
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Vandy is coming off an 89-79 overtime loss against Ole Miss. It was the team’s second-best offensive effort of the season. … At the other end of the spectrum, Vandy has been held to 33 points on two occasions — a 50-33 loss to Marist on Nov. 23 and a 56-33 setback at Arkansas this past weekend. … The blowout loss at Arkansas came after a narrow 60-58 defeat against Kentucky. … Kedren Johnson is Vandy’s most consistent offensive threat, reaching double figures in 12 of 16 games.