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January 26, 2010NO. 1 KENTUCKY WILDCATS (19-0, 4-0 SEC)
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (11-8, 2-3)
When: 9 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Available at the box office
Kentucky's probable starters: G John Wall 6-4 Fr. (17.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg); G Eric Bledsoe 6-1 Fr. (11.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg); G Darius Miller 6-7 So. (7.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg); F Patrick Patterson 6-9 Jr. (15.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg); F DeMarcus Cousins 6-11 Fr. (15.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Sr. (21.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg); G Brandis Raley-Ross 6-2 Sr. (10.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg); F Austin Steed 6-8 Jr. (3.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg); F Lakeem Jackson 6-5 Fr. (7.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg); F Sam Muldrow 6-9 Jr. (9.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina, reeling from three straight losses, gets a chance to make up for them by hosting the country's top-ranked team. ... The Wildcats lead the series 41-9 but have lost the last two, including a 77-59 thrashing in Columbia last year. ... Downey leads the SEC in points and steals per game, while tying with Houston's Aubrey Coleman for the national lead in steals. ... USC coach Darrin Horn is a native of Lexington, Ky., and played high-school basketball less than six miles from Rupp Arena. ... Kentucky coach John Calipari has won 65 straight conference games, including his time as coach at Memphis. He broke the record of 64 held by former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp. ... Calipari is one of two coaches to lead three different teams to a No. 1 ranking. The other is former USC coach Frank McGuire.
Next game: South Carolina hosts Georgia at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
One of Darrin Horn's favorite characteristics of freshman forward Lakeem Jackson is his confidence.
"He's extremely hungry and he's got a great work ethic," Horn said before the season. "All he's ever done is win."
That confidence -- and that winning streak -- would certainly come in handy tonight.
Everyone knows of the marquee matchup at Colonial Life Arena. Besides No. 1 Kentucky coming to town to play South Carolina, there's the very intriguing subplot of two of the country's finest players competing against each other -- Devan Downey, the Gamecocks' biggest weapon, going against the Wildcats' super-freshman, John Wall.
But Downey probably won't be matched up one-on-one with Wall that often. He'll most likely stick with Eric Bledsoe while Wall will have Jackson guarding him.
And the last time that happened, Jackson came out on top.
"I didn't ask. I wanted to," Jackson said on Monday. "They just gave me the job so I'm going in and getting it done."
A year ago, Jackson was a senior starter at The Christ School (N.C.) The Greenies were playing Word of God (N.C.) Christian Academy, featuring Wall as one of the most highly pursued recruits in the country, in the GSK Holiday Invitational.
Just like he did this year, Jackson was assigned to stop Wall. He volunteered and his request was welcomed.
"They were beating us by 17 points in the first half and I just had to contain him," Jackson said. "That's what I did and we came back and won the game."
"His running to double-team John Wall really made the difference for us," Jackson's high-school coach, David Gaines, said last year. "We knew that Lakeem could make the best point guard in the country give the ball up and he did, and they had the wrong guy shooting the ball at the end."
Wall has the tendency to make his opponents look foolish. As Horn said on Monday, Wall and the rest of Kentucky's freshmen are NBA lottery picks, not just ordinary rookies.
The Gamecocks may have an answer for at least one of them. Yes, it was a year ago when both were in high school and the situation has drastically changed -- Kentucky's cruising along with a perfect record and a newly-christened No. 1 ranking while USC's lost three straight and is struggling to stay afloat.
But Jackson knows Wall and has proven he can play with him. If he can do it again tonight, maybe the 0-7 record USC currently has against No. 1 teams ...
"He's a real good player," Jackson said. "Really good ball-handler. I think he's like my height, a little slimmer. He's really quick. He can get up and down the court. I have to just try to contain him. It's my job to stop him, so I'm going to take pride in that and get it done."
Wall will be aided by Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins and returnee Patrick Patterson, who had a rough night in Columbia last year. The Gamecocks (11-8, 2-3 SEC) have to try and slow the Wildcats (19-0, 4-0 down) and find some other offense besides Downey.
"We've got to get more offensive production from some other guys," Horn said. "I don't know that we necessarily need somebody to step up and get 18 to 20 points a night ... we need a little more from them so there's some balance there."
Downey has been magnificent and will naturally draw much of the Wildcats' focus. That could open up a lot of looks for the rest of the Gamecocks, who have to convert those opportunities.
If they can do that, get a slight lead and perhaps turn on some of the shot-blocking prowess that defined last year's win over Kentucky in Columbia, then ...
The game is close to a sellout and Horn is hoping the atmosphere at the CLA will be electric. He shouldn't have much to worry about -- ESPN cameras have a way of bringing fans out.
USC has a tremendous opportunity. The Gamecocks have Jackson, who has guarded Wall. They have Downey, who is averaging 31.6 points in five SEC games. They'll have a rowdy student section to perhaps amplify the rest of the CLA crowd.
Combine all of that and maybe ...
"I think this is fun," Horn said. "This is why you want to be in this league and at this level."