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Preview/GameThread: LSU at No. 20 South Carolina (ESPN2, 6pm)

The Gamecocks and Tigers tussle for the top spot in the SEC

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

This one will tell a whole lot about where LSU's season goes in the final month.

By no means is a trip to a ranked team a "must win" for the Tigers but it has extraordinary significance for a slew of reasons.

It is one of LSU's final chances to get a good road win. It's one of their last three chances to beat a ranked team. South Carolina is one of three teams a game back of LSU in the SEC standings. They play each of the other two.

This is the time to build separation. This is the chance to really show that LSU is not the team that went 7-5 in the 2015 portion of the schedule, but rather is the one that is 8-2 in the SEC and pushed Oklahoma to the wire.

It certainly won't be easy. South Carolina has been the surprise team in the SEC, starting out 15-0 before wobbling in some road losses. The Gamecocks steadied the ship with a huge win at Texas A&M on Saturday, thrusting LSU into first place just in time for the visit to Columbia. It's fair to say Carolina's schedule has still been soft, but the win in College Station was anything but.

Plus, there are plenty of good reasons why USC is a solid betting favorite here. The Gamecocks are 14-0 at home this season, winning all but two of them by at least nine points. LSU has been solid enough on the road at 3-2 in league play, but the Tigers are also 3-6 overall away from home. Plus, given what we know about beating comparably good teams on the road, this is a tall task for the Tigers.

Between the lines, Carolina's strength: They will defend the hell out of you. They're among the 10 best rebounding teams in the country, body you up and play physical on defense and practically run through screeners at times. The Gamecocks often make games ugly, and that's how they like. They don't necessarily slow the pace up so much as muddy the proceedings, disorienting you with close outs in the passing lanes and depth that doesn't care much about offense.

For LSU, the task is simple. Play sound defense to force miss shots. Use fundamental rebounding to kick fastbreaks and avoid too much dribbling in the half-court offense. Make Carolina beat you beyond the arc but be willing to match their physicality depending on how the game is being reffed.

Again, LSU doesn't have to win this one. The goals would still be in front of them. This would be a nice shortcut to take. But there's no excuse for this team to come out anything other than ready to match Carolina's intensity in the biggest SEC game of the season to date.