Kentucky basketball: Keys to victory game preview at South Carolina

Can the Wildcats avoid the upset?
Illinois State v Kentucky
Illinois State v Kentucky / Michael Hickey/GettyImages

Kentucky travels to Columbia, South Carolina, Tuesday evening for another bout with a conference foe. The Gamecocks announced this game will be a “Black Out” and have encouraged their fans to wear black apparel in support of the home team. Although the game has not been declared a sell-out yet, Colonial Life Arena will be rockin’ from the opening tip-off. For Kentucky’s tournament resume purposes, this matchup is currently considered a Quad-1 contest and features the 5th best SEC team. 

South Carolina Snapshot

The Gamecocks enter the game humming after an impressive road victory against Arkansas. They play deliberate, no-nonsense basketball. Coach Lamont Paris has turned his program around after a disastrous 11-win team just a season ago. They had only four conference wins last year, including an upset in Rupp against Kentucky. On Tuesday, his squad will look to secure their 4th conference victory in only six games. It's only fitting that it is against Kentucky. Coach Paris has a veteran-savvy team that is one of the oldest teams in the country. The starting five players have participated in a combined 464 total games. They are committed to defense. They don’t foul very often. They rebound. They take care of the ball. They work the shot clock. They find the best shots and shoot a high percentage. Overall, they have the recipe to slow down the red-hot Wildcats. 

Whacky, wild, weird

The Gamecocks and the Wildcats have a bizarre history. Since the 1949-1950 season, the two have played 64 times. In 64 games, the Gamecocks have only won 13 times which is the lowest winning percentage against teams they have played more than five times. In the Coach Calipari era, there have been very memorable games. Most recently, nearly exactly one year ago, the Gamecocks won at Rupp in a game that the Wildcats looked disinterested from the opening minute. However, most of the weird games happened in Columbia. The 2019-2020 team took a loss then went on to win 13 of the next 15 games and won the SEC regular season crown. The 2017-2018 Wildcats took a loss with a roster that currently has seven players on an NBA team. The Gamecocks have 1. The 2013-2014 team that went on the NCAA Championship game, lost in Columbia during a stretch of losing 4 of 7 conference games. Oddly enough, the two worst teams during the Calipari era (2012-2013 & 2020-2021) both won their games against South Carolina. Coach Calipari’s record on the road against South Carolina is a pedestrian five wins to four losses. But he has the perfect opportunity to add another big-time win to his resume on Tuesday. 

High octane

Kentucky’s offense is the headliner and should strike fear in the opposing coach’s scouting reports. Coach Calipari has built a modern roster that has shooting, playmaking, versatility, and length. Kentucky should expect South Carolina to use its physicality to slow the tempo down and force the Wildcats to take rushed, contested shots. The Gamecocks will do everything in their power to keep the game in the 60s. The Wildcats need to attack the paint against a team that does not block many shots. By opening up driving lanes, they should be able to knock down open shots around the perimeter and meet their average of 10 3-pointers. Kentucky needs to push this game to over 70 possessions and look to score in the 80s. 

Share the wealth

Kentucky is leading the SEC and ranks inside the top 10 Nationally at nearly 19 assists per game. They are the only team in the NCAA that has 4 players averaging 3.4 assists per game or more. The not-so-secret success of the high-octane offense has been the success rate at which the Wildcats move the ball. Even the best defensive teams in the country will struggle to chase the ball around the court and eventually get fatigued. Kentucky needs to look to early in the shot clock or late. If they cannot find a high-percentage shot early in the possession, they should find success driving to the paint. 

Rebounding edge?

South Carolina is similar to recent opponents Texas A&M and Mississippi State in terms of their commitment to rebounding. The only difference with the Gamecocks is their inconsistent rebounding on defense. Kentucky leads the SEC in defensive rebounds with more than 28 per game. South Carolina is one of the best offensive-rebounding teams averaging more than 12 per game. However, South Carolina ranks as one of the worst teams in the conference at defensive rebounding. Now that Kentucky has three 7-footers and a skilled veteran in Tre Mitchell, look for Kentucky to use their length and snag a few easy put-back points. 


This is a huge game for both programs. Coach Calipari has never lost to South Carolina in back-to-back years. Coach Paris is looking for a statement win in his second season in Columbia. Kentucky has a roster loaded with playmakers and looks committed to playing for each other. This should bode well for them against a team that relies heavily on their starters for production. This is one of those games that could find the Wildcats losing by halftime but winning by double-digits. We see it ending with Kentucky on top 84-74. Our MVP pick is DJ Wagner. Coming off his first career double-double, Wagner shows no signs of slowing down.