South Carolina vs. Kentucky

WHEN: 9 p.m.

WHERE: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.

TV: ESPNU RADIO: WTMA 1250-AM

RECORDS: USC 12-9, 2-6 SEC; Kentucky 15-6, 6-2

Line: Kentucky by 17

NOTES: Kentucky has struggled at times this year after going 38-2 (16-0 SEC) last season and winning the national title. But after a 1-1 start in SEC play, the Wildcats have won five of their past six games, including three straight … USC is coming off back-to-back losses to Florida and Georgia, after a strong showing the previous week, including a 21-point win over Arkansas.

South Carolina’s starting guards, Bruce Ellington and Eric Smith, are 5-9 and 5-11. The Gamecocks start 6-5 Lakeem Jackson on the wing. While Michael Carrera has long arms, he is still 6-5 — a liability in the post, where USC often needs him to play.

The Gamecocks have 6-8 RJ Slawson and 6-11 Laimonas Chatkevicius, and while the latter starts, he is a freshman and a project. In USC’s eight Southeastern Conference games, Slawson has averaged just 16.6 minutes, Chatkevicius 10.

The upshot: Longer opponents are likely to give USC trouble when the Gamecocks try to run half-court offense, which isn’t their strength in the first place.

In Saturday’s home loss to Georgia, the longer Bulldogs rendered USC impotent in the halfcourt — a situation exacerbated by USC performing so poorly on defense that it couldn’t rely on a fast-break offense that might neutralize Georgia’s defensive length more effectively than when the Gamecocks have to set up against it in the halfcourt.

This is once again a concern for USC coach Frank Martin as he prepares his team for today’s trip to Kentucky.

The Wildcats (15-6, 6-2 SEC) are more mortal than the group that went 38-2 last season and won the national championship. But they are long enough to give USC fits, and they have the country’s best shot blocker in 6-10 Nerlens Noel, who has 48 blocks in the past seven games, including a school-record 12 against Mississippi two games ago.

But for USC, the key to scoring against Kentucky — which ranks second in the SEC in field goal percentage defense in league play, while USC ranks last in field goal percentage — starts with playing better defense than the Gamecocks did last week against Florida and Georgia. The Gators shot 52.8 percent, the Bulldogs 58.1.

“After the first seven minutes in the Florida game and the whole Georgia game, our defense was embarrassingly bad,” Martin said.

Martin’s first team at Kansas State, in 2007-08, was sort of like this USC team — a good week here, a bad week there. But the Wildcats could always lean on freshman Michael Beasley, “to save us from a difficult day,” Martin said. Beasley was picked second overall in the 2008 NBA draft.

“We don’t have that right now,” Martin said. “And that’s OK. So that means that we better be rock solid at what we’re trying to be good at, which is our defense. And then that defense needs to create some easy opportunities for us to score (in transition). We haven’t gotten that the last two games.”

Said Jackson: “I definitely think it’s a good thing when you can get stops and get out in transition and make teams like Georgia or Kentucky run, because I don’t think their bigs want to get up and down (the court) as much. So I think that’s going to give us the opportunity to get an advantage over them.”

Kentucky’s clearest advantage against USC’s offense is Noel. He initially drew comparisons to Anthony Davis, the 6-10 star of Kentucky’s title team and No. 1 pick in last year’s draft. But while Noel is not as polished offensively as Davis was, he is an equally prolific shot-blocker. He is projected by NBADraft.net as the No. 2 pick this spring, behind Kansas guard Ben McLemore.

“You don’t have time for shot fakes (against Noel),” Martin said. “You don’t have time to hold the ball. When you see a crack, you better have your eyes on that target and let it go, and know that he’s coming, because he comes every time. But if you hesitate on your move, you better pass that ball, because blocked shots are turnovers. There’s not a lot of Nerlens Noels out there that block shots at his rate.”