Gamecocks hope celebration ends with win over Bulldogs

The celebration peaks today in Columbia.

At least 130 former South Carolina basketball players will be at the Colonial Center to cap the Gamecocks' centennial celebration, featuring an alumni game, autograph sessions and a large recognition ceremony. It's going to be a good time.

What'll make it great is if the 13 players on USC's current team can win.

"We cannot be so concentrated on the peripheral things that are going to be going on," coach Dave Odom said. "It's going to be a wonderful weekend, but as I told the team (Wednesday) night, the thing that will make this a great weekend is if we can play really, really well and come out with a win. That makes everybody happy."

It shouldn't be too hard to find motivation, besides the obvious reasons for looking good in front of what should be a sizable crowd. USC, despite its 12-13 record (4-7 SEC) still has a lot to play for.

Mostly, keeping itself out of last place in the SEC, which would be an improvement over last year, and still trying its best to give Odom something he's never had in his previous six years with the school -- a winning league record.

One more loss negates that, and considering the Gamecocks host SEC West-leading Mississippi State (17-8, 8-3) today and still have to play Kentucky and at No. 2 Tennessee, the outlook is dark.

But it's still just an outlook.

"We've got to put two halves together, and we didn't do that," Odom said, referring to the Gamecocks' last game, an 85-82 defeat at Florida. "We have to give ourselves a chance to win by playing 40 minutes of basketball."

USC lost to the Gators after falling behind by 15 a couple of times and rallying to make it close. If the deficit hadn't been so large, perhaps the frantic spurt at the end, spurred by Evka Baniulis' hot 3-point shooting, would have turned out differently.

But it didn't, and USC headed home with yet another close loss. The road seems to get easier after today, with SEC West cellar-dwellers LSU and Auburn on deck, but first, the Gamecocks have to get past the Bulldogs.

MSU has surprisingly been on top of the SEC West all season, edging ahead of a solid Arkansas squad and holding off Ole Miss, although the Bulldogs lost to the Rebels on Wednesday. The game will feature a matchup of two Cousy Award finalists, USC's Devan Downey and MSU's Jamont Gordon, and the undercard should be a crowd-pleaser, as well.

USC freshman Mike Holmes has put together two terrific games, finishing at Florida with 16 points and 11 rebounds. When he comes in today, he'll be expected to hold his own against Jarvis Varnado, who only averages around eight points and boards per game but leads the country with 4.8 blocks per game.

"That guy's not hard to find," Odom said.

Holmes has been playing well, keeping his temper in check and showing off his jump shot instead of trying to move closer to the basket. He was allowed to do that against Alabama's Richard Hendrix and Florida's Marreese Speights, but Varnado's elite shot-blocking status might force Holmes to change his approach.

"He gives them a big presence," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. "Guy that can step away and score. Wish he could've waited (to have his best games) until we got out of there."

With the two matchups and the centennial, it'll at least be a festive atmosphere. Odom's just hoping the Gamecocks can repeat their last home performance -- a win over Alabama, clinched on Downey's four-point play with 15 seconds to go -- and step out of their recent home shadow.

Eight of USC's last 10 home games have been decided by eight or fewer points. The Gamecocks are 5-5 in those games.

"We've just got to be on our game," Odom said.