Photo: Victoria Richman / The Daily Gamecock

Gamecock basketball schedule preview: 10 must-watch matchups

The 2016-17 basketball season for the both the South Carolina men's and women's basketball teams was one of the best in recent memory. 

The South Carolina women were crowned national champions for the first time in school history. The men's team made it to the Final Four for the first time in program history in its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2004. 

With the regular season rapidly approaching, the men were ranked 11th in the preseason SEC poll, while the women were seeded second in the country behind Connecticut. Here are the top five matchups that should be circled on Gamecock fans' calendars for the upcoming seasons. 

Men

Dec. 9 at Clemson

With a Palmetto point on the line, Gamecock fans should mark this rivalry matchup on their calendars. South Carolina lost this matchup at home last year and will be eyeing this date for a rematch against a long-time rival. Similar to the Gamecocks losing Sindarius Thornwell, the Tigers lost playmaker Jaron Blossomgame to the NBA draft. Blossomgame averaged 17.7 points per game last year. That void will be filled by junior guards Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed, who both averaged at least 10 points per game last year. This will be a good matchup for South Carolina junior transfer guard Kory Holden, who averaged 17.7 points per game at Delaware in the 2015 season. Gamecock fans will be itching for a big win against a team that has given them trouble over the past few years. 

Jan. 6 vs. Vanderbilt

Last year, Vanderbilt won three games against ranked SEC opponents, including two against Florida and one against South Carolina. In the team's last meeting, South Carolina was up by six with a little over nine minutes to play, until Vanderbilt, the SEC’s top ranked three-point shooting team at the time, took the lead with eight minutes to go. The Commodores return star shooter and the best SEC three-point shooter from a year ago (11th in the nation) in Riley LaChance. He shot 48.3 percent from beyond the arc and also ranked sixth last year in assists per game (3.9) in the SEC. Vanderbilt did not have much success in the NCAA Tournament, losing its first-round game by two points to Northwestern. Despite the poor result, this will still be a game to watch. The Commodores gave the Gamecocks and other SEC opponents trouble by making a run to the semi-finals of the SEC Tournament, knocking out Florida in the first round. 

Feb. 6 at Arkansas

This is another team that gave South Carolina trouble at home in 2016. The Gamecocks lost to the Razorbacks, 83-76, at Colonial Life Arena. Arkansas finished with a 12-6 conference record, identical to South Carolina's last season. To go along with an impressive SEC record, the Razorbacks made it to the finals of the SEC Tournament. They return last season's sixth best three-point shooter in the SEC in Daryl Macon, who shot 38.7 percent from behind the arc and could be the X-factor in this meeting. These two teams couldn’t have matched up more evenly over the regular season last year. It will be an exciting matchup after Arkansas’s strong run in the SEC Tournament and South Carolina’s strong run in the NCAA Tournament in 2016. 

Jan. 16 vs. Kentucky

In the 2016-17 season, Kentucky finished the season atop the SEC with a conference championship and the best conference record to go with it. For the ninth year in a row, the Wildcats rank in the Top 5 in the AP preseason poll (fifth this year). This is arguably the best team that South Carolina plays each year. The Wildcats are consistently ranked among the best teams in the nation and play very well in the NCAA Tournament, having made it to the Elite Eight in six out of the last seven years. Kentucky will have huge holes to fill with three players  —De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo — selected in the Top 15 picks of the NBA Draft. This team is known for its "one-and-done" players and that will hold true for freshman Hamidou Diallo, a five-star recruit who ranked first among the shooting guard position and 11th among all recruits. Both the Gamecocks' and the Wildcats' young teams will go head-to-head in what should be a great game to watch in Columbia. 

Feb. 10 vs. Florida 

This will be a rematch of the Elite Eight game last season, in which the Gamecocks won, 77-70, to advance to their first Final Four in school history. For the second straight year, the Gamecocks will face off against the Gators twice in the regular season. Last year, the Gamecocks split the regular season series 1-1 with Florida and took the rubber match when it mattered most in the Elite Eight. The Gators will be powered by junior guards Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen. Chiozza averaged the ninth most assists per game in the SEC last season with 3.8, and Allen led the team in points per game with 14 en route to a spot on the All-SEC first-team. The Gators will seek revenge for the loss the Gamecocks handed them in the NCAA Tournament, while the Gamecocks will try to prove they belong in a top spot in the SEC. 

Women

The South Carolina women's basketball team plays 12 teams this year that received a bid to the NCAAA Tournament in 2016.

Jan. 28 vs. Missouri

Missouri finished with the fourth best record in the SEC last season and was 25th in the national standings. The last meeting between these two teams was on Feb. 29 in Columbia, Missouri, where the Tigers beat the Gamecocks, 62-60. Missouri will look to continue its recent success. This past season was the first time the Tigers made it to two consecutive NCAA Tournaments in more than 20 years. The Tigers bring back guard Sophie Cunningham, who averaged 17.5 points per game last season, which was the fourth best in the SEC. South Carolina's A’ja Wilson ranked second in the SEC in points per game with 17.9. With both teams featuring players who were in the Top 5 in scoring in the SEC last season, Gamecock fans will keep this game circled on their calendars. 

Feb. 25 at Tennessee

The Volunteers won the only matchup between these two teams by two points last season. During that game, South Carolina was ranked fourth and Tennessee was unranked. This matchup holds a unique story line. Te’a Cooper is a junior guard who transferred to South Carolina this past offseason. Also this past offseason, Cooper’s former teammate Diamond DeShields, who was last season's fifth best scorer in the SEC, decided to forgo her senior season at Tennessee. 

She announced in April she would be returning via Instagram, “Developing my game further and playing for championship(s) are always part of the plan, but giving these four young ladies an opportunity to be themselves… is my first priority,” DeShields said. Undergraduate transfers must sit out one year at their new school, according to NCAA rules. Cooper missed her entire sophomore season due to a knee injury, and could possibly be ineligible junior year, too. South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is arguing the rule because of Cooper’s lack of play last season. Cooper averaged more than eight points and two assists per game in her freshman season with the Vols. There's a chance Cooper could play in this matchup since it is in the latter half of the season.

Dec. 3 vs. Duke 

Identical to the men’s basketball team, Duke's women’s team earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and was defeated in the second round. It was an unfortunate result for a Blue Devils team, which finished runner-up in the conference tournament, with the second-best record in the ACC and a ninth-place national rank. 

This strong Duke squad will be led by redshirt senior guard Lexie Brown. Brown started her collegiate career at the University of Maryland and decided to transfer at the end of her sophomore year. In her first year at Duke, she averaged career highs in points per game with 18.2, rebounds per game with 3.5 and steals per game with 2.8. The 2016 season was her best in both field goal and three-point shooting at 49.6 percent and 40.1 percent, respectively. Expect this to be a high-scoring affair.

Feb. 5 at Mississippi State

Yangxing Ding / The Daily Gamecock


The rematch of the 2017 NCAA national championship game. Mississippi State knocked off four-time defending champion Connecticut in the Final Four, but lost to all three meetings with South Carolina, including the championship game. In the regular season, the Bulldogs lost by three points on the road at Colonial Life Arena. In the SEC Championship game, the Bulldogs lost by 10, followed by a 12-point loss in the National Championship game in Dallas. Despite these three losses, they still had a very impressive season. This was a season of many firsts for the Bulldogs, including their first time making it to the Elite Eight where they defeated No. 1 seed Baylor. In the Final Four, Mississippi State took down arguably the best collegiate women’s basketball team in history and the No. 1 seed at the time. This will be South Carolina's third straight game against a ranked opponent, and the Bulldogs will strive for their first win against the Gamecocks since 2010.

Feb. 1 vs. UConn

For many teams, facing UConn is the biggest game in the regular season. This meeting is no exception for South Carolina. These teams have played each other at least once since the 2014-2015 season. Not once has either team had a lower ranking than six, with one of them always being ranked first. If this game does not get a women’s college basketball fan hyped up, then nothing will. The matchup of the year will consist of two of the best players in college basketball. Junior guard Katie Lou Samuelson from UConn and Wilson from South Carolina. Both players earned first-team All-American honors last year, and recorded career highs in points per game. Samuelson finished with 20.2 points per game last year, ranking 18th in the nation. 

Some UConn fans speculate that the Huskies could’ve beaten South Carolina in the national championship if Mississippi State didn’t end their season a few days earlier. This gives UConn all the more reason to be motivated for the win they couldn’t achieve in April, while South Carolina looks to prove its the new power force in women's college basketball.



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