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March 13, 2009(2E) SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (21-8)
(3W) MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (20-12)
What: Second round, SEC tournament
When: 3:15 p.m. today
Where: St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, Fla.
Tickets: Available at the box office
Latest line: South Carolina by two
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (20.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (15.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (10.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg); F Sam Muldrow 6-9 So. (5.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (10.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg)
Mississippi State's probable starters: G Dee Bost 6-2 Fr. (11.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg); G Ravern Johnson 6-7 So. (12.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg); G Barry Stewart 6-3 Jr. (12.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg); G Phil Turner 6-3 So. (8.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg); C Jarvis Varnado 6-9 Jr. (13.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina takes on first-round winner Mississippi State after sitting out on Thursday. ... The Bulldogs won the only matchup this season 75-70 in Starkville. ... MSU leads the all-time series 12-8 but USC has won three of five. The Gamecocks have also won both matchups between the two at the SEC tournament. ... Varnado leads the NCAA in blocks per game (4.6). ... The Gamecocks are playing for their seventh tournament semifinal berth.
Next game: The winner plays the LSU-Kentucky winner at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The opponent was rather irrelevant.
South Carolina is only interested in winning.
"It's on everybody's mind, but we're here for the SEC tournament," guard Zam Fredrick said on Wednesday. "We can't look ahead. We play one game at a time (today) at 3:15 and that will help our chances for the tournament.
"We can't say that we're not thinking about it, but if you don't take care of everything day by day, you won't have a chance to play in the tournament."
The Gamecocks, taking advantage of a rare bye in the SEC tournament, practiced once on Thursday and used the other time to either relax or scout their future opponent. Georgia and Mississippi State played in the afternoon, Mississippi State winning, so USC found out the only piece of information it was missing.
Not that it mattered that much. As coach Darrin Horn is fond of saying, the Gamecocks aren't going to change what they do for one opponent, simply because they need to worry about playing their game first.
"I think their strengths are still their strengths," Horn said of today's opponent. "They've got one of the most prolific shot-blockers in NCAA history."
He was definitely right about that. The Bulldogs' Jarvis Varnado was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season and makes his living above the rim. He swatted three shots against Georgia, four more in a 75-70 win over USC on Feb. 18 and has 146 for the season.
But it's not like USC (21-8) will suddenly stop playing its game because Mississippi State (20-12) is officially today's opponent. The Gamecocks must shoot well from the 3-point line, defend up and down the floor and rebound to win.
Just like always.
"If we come out and we have a mindset to play defense, we can beat anybody," guard Devan Downey said. "Last year was kind of, we knew, the only way we could continue playing was if we won the championship.
"This year, we're playing for a championship but ... I really can't explain it. We're playing for something, everybody's expecting us to do something. I can say that everybody's expecting something out of this year."
Downey and Fredrick spoke of playing with no pressure, although Fredrick mentioned "chip on our shoulders" more than once. One of those chips could be the Gamecocks' NCAA tournament hopes, which don't necessarily depend on winning today, but a win sure wouldn't hurt.
USC got some good news when Baylor upset Kansas in the Big 12 tournament, meaning the Gamecocks now look a little better for beating the Bears on Jan. 2. But Clemson, which beat USC on Dec. 30, lost to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament, which isn't good for the RPI.
Still, with 21 wins, 10 in the SEC, and an RPI among the Top 50, the Gamecocks are in decent shape. A win today helps that and the more wins that pile up in Tampa puts USC ever closer to its first NCAA berth since 2003-04.
"No pressure on us, but we do want to play well," Fredrick said. "Not trying to play perfect, but we're going to come out and play hard."
There's also another chip. USC is the only team in the SEC to never win the conference tournament. Auburn, LSU, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and expansion brother Arkansas have only won it once each, but that's still one more than the Gamecocks.
Naturally, Horn didn't point that out as a motivational tool. The good that could do is far outweighed by the bad.
"Actually, I didn't know that," Downey said. "If we come out and start off with the defense, we can hang with anybody in the league, if we start off strong on defense."
"You just told me, so that's more fuel for the fire," Fredrick said. "It's wide-open."