COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's already let three solid teams off the hook this year, losing three games by a combined 13 points.
With another ranked team on the horizon -- and their archrival, no less -- the Gamecocks are aching to prevent it from happening again.
USC travels to No. 18 Clemson today for a televised renewal of the annual grudge match. It doesn't hold nearly the same intensity and heat as the football series, but there's still plenty to play for.
The Tigers (5-0) want to keep their undefeated season rolling with a fourth straight win over USC, hoping to harness the home-crowd energy to overcome the loss of some key players. USC (4-3), although most of the players on the team weren't around for the past two one-sided losses to Clemson, wants to prove it's better than its recent games against the Tigers.
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Beating a ranked Clemson squad, especially after letting Southern Cal (unranked at the time but No. 22 this week), N.C. State (unranked last week but No. 24 this week) and George Mason squeak past would be just the solution.
"It seems that our set offense, we're scoring more out of, we can control the spacing of our offense a little bit better. It's going to be a work in progress," coach Dave Odom said. "Defensively, we're trying to bury it a little bit. Rather than just going with the full-court zone press, we're trying to come up with a scheme that will allow us the opportunity of full-court pressure defense, zone-wise.
"We're not to the point where we can totally do that yet, but we're close."
The first 10 minutes today should be akin to a tennis match, each team preferring to use speed and defense to score transition buckets. Clemson, led by Cliff Hammonds, K.C. Rivers and lightning bolt-freshman Demontez Stitt, charges out of the gates early and likes to hound opponents right off the tip.
But USC is more equipped to handle it this year, relying on speedster Devan Downey and fellow guards Zam Fredrick and Brandis Raley-Ross. The trio has been the most consistent part of the Gamecocks all season as they attempt to get their many new faces some experience, and Odom's early game plan all year has been the same as Clemson's -- score, steal, run, score.
After that, the Tigers will try to work their obvious height advantage against the smaller Gamecocks, but are missing a large chunk of it. Senior forward James Mays, their best rebounder, is out with a hip sprain and backup Sam Perry hasn't played all year after minor knee surgery.
Deprived of "The Energy Brothers" and also missing reserve forward Julius Powell -- he expressed plans to transfer earlier this week -- Clemson scraped by Purdue in its last game. The Tigers won 61-58 but were out-rebounded early and often, the Boilermakers running to a comfortable lead before Clemson charged back.
USC's rebounding troubles have been well-documented -- the losses to N.C. State and George Mason were each because of late lapses that let the opponent get two or three cracks at the winning bucket. Freshman Sam Muldrow was elevated to the starting lineup over Mike Holmes because of his rangy wingspan and has responded by averaging six boards per game.
Plus, USC can counter the non-rebounding by shooting the lights out. The Gamecocks blistered Campbell 92-52 in their last game, canning a school-record 16 3-pointers, and have increased their scoring average considerably over last year's total.
But there's still a way to go. USC's got a lot of raw talent but it's still repeating last year -- hanging close but not winning much. That can start changing today.
"We're becoming more mature as a team," said Dominique Archie, the old man of the squad as a redshirt sophomore. "We still got some kids who want to play the high school basketball game. But we're coming around."
SOUTH CAROLINA (4-3) AT NO. 18 CLEMSON (5-0)
• When: 4 p.m.
• Where: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson
• TV: Fox Sports Net South (cable channel 29 in Rock Hill)
• On the Web: Live Gametracker at uscsports.com, clemsontigers.com
• Tickets: Available at the box office
• South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 So. (18.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Jr. (15.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G Brandis Raley-Ross 6-2 So. (10.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg); F Sam Muldrow 6-9 Fr. (3.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 So. (9.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
• Clemson's probable starters: G Demontez Stitt 6-2 Fr. (6.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg); G Cliff Hammonds 6-3 Sr. (12.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg); G K.C. Rivers 6-5 Jr. (15.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg); C Trevor Booker 6-7 So. (8.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg); F Raymond Sykes 6-9 Jr. (2.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
• Notes: Clemson has won the past three games and the past two have been blowouts, 82-63 and 74-53. ... Coach Oliver Purnell has a lifetime record of 3-1 against USC but USC's Dave Odom has beaten Clemson more than any other school, 22 times out of 33 matchups. ... USC sunk a school-record 16 3-pointers in a 40-point rout of Campbell the last time out. ... Clemson held off a feisty Purdue squad in its first game without forward James Mays. ... USC reserve guard Branden Conrad is the son of former Clemson guard Bobby Conrad. ... Booker only needs two blocked shots to become the Tigers' all-time leader. ... The Tigers have never lost to the Gamecocks (5-0) when they have been ranked.
• Next up: South Carolina plays Providence in Philadelphia at 7 p.m. Thursday; Clemson plays at East Carolina at 7 p.m. Wednesday.