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January 14, 2009SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (12-2, 1-0 SEC)
LSU TIGERS (12-3, 0-1)
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Baton Rouge, La.
TV: Cox Sports TV (tape delay)
Tickets:Available at the box office
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (19.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (16.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg); G Brandis Raley-Ross 6-2 Jr. (7.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (10.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (12.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg)
LSU's probable starters: G Bo Spencer 6-1 So. (12.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg); G Marcus Thornton 6-4 Sr. (18.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg); G Garrett Temple 6-6 Sr. (6.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg); C Chris Johnson 6-11 Sr. (8.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg); F Tasmin Mitchell 6-7 Jr. (14.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina heads to the road after winning its first SEC season-opener in the past seven years. ... LSU dropped its first league game 65-59 to Alabama a day after USC beat Auburn 68-56. ... The Gamecocks received their first votes in The Associated Press poll in almost four full years this week, getting three. ... It's a battle of the two rookie SEC coaches -- USC's Darrin Horn and LSU's Trent Johnson. ... The Gamecocks lead the series 12-9, the only SEC opponent USC has a winning record against (USC and Vanderbilt are tied with 21 wins each). ... The Tigers have won 15 straight at home while USC is 2-1 on the road this season. ... USC has not been 2-0 in the SEC since the 1996-97 season, when it began 11-0 en route to the SEC regular-season championship. ... Gamecocks guard Branden Conrad remains out with a fractured right foot. A hopeful timetable has him back by the midpoint of SEC play.
Next game: USC plays at No. 24 Tennessee at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
Sam Muldrow walked up the stairs in his black practice jersey, tugging at it to make sure it fell right on his 6-foot-9 frame.
He's been wearing it, sure -- but only recently as a ready-to-go South Carolina Gamecock.
"Felt pretty good to be back out on the court," Muldrow said on Tuesday, before the Gamecocks (12-2, 1-0 SEC) were set to leave for their first road league game of the season. "I enjoyed it. Felt good to be playing again."
USC coach Darrin Horn and the rest of the Gamecocks are hoping that good feeling keeps getting better.
"He's long, he's athletic, he's going to get his hands on a few balls," Horn said, listing areas where the sophomore forward can impact the game. "He's going to grab a rebound and get a tip-in and do some things defensively for us, especially that some of our other guys maybe can't do, just because of his length and athleticism.
"Hopefully he can do those things and do them more confidently and a little bit more comfortably, for lack of a better word."
Muldrow finally returned to the court in a 68-56 win over Auburn last week, playing 10 minutes. He looked predictably rusty, grabbing one rebound with no points and committing three fouls.
He also had two steals, contributing those ball-snatching arms of his to turnover-plagued Auburn's misery. The lack of statistics didn't seem to bother him -- sitting out for 13 games was so agonizing that simply getting told to dress was like Christmas all over again.
A 10-game starter who blocked 42 shots and averaged 3.5 rebounds per game last year, Muldrow was benched in the preseason because of academic problems. Once those got cleared, he sprained his left elbow in an early December practice and was told to keep the same seat on the bench.
He checked in against Auburn, left elbow wrapped in a black cloth contraption that looked like a leftover prop from the "Saw" film series, and began to feel his way back into the game. Much like guard Brandis Raley-Ross had to do when returning from a sprained knee, Muldrow was fine physically but far behind game shape.
Heading into tonight's game at LSU (12-3, 0-1), Muldrow estimates he's 90 percent toward being back to full game-readiness. The brace hinders what he can do but it's either not wear it and not play or wear it and work through it.
"I can mostly do everything, just hurts a little bit every now and then," he said. "Until I get all my strength back. Then I'll be able to take the brace off. Kind of hard to rebuild, but we got to work at it."
Muldrow said his academic status is fine while his basketball status is improving every minute. That's good for the Gamecocks -- they got a big win in their last game but tonight they're on the treacherous SEC road, playing a team full of bruising, long players.
The Tigers returned all five starters, except rookie coach Trent Johnson has played guard Bo Spencer over returnee Terry Martin all season. Marcus Thornton, Tasmin Mitchell and Garrett Temple have been through the SEC wars and remember too well what they did to win a 62-55 regular-season matchup in Columbia last year.
The 6-6 Temple guarded USC's Devan Downey and held him to six points. He did the same in the SEC tournament, but Downey got loose for 12 points and the Gamecocks won. Since no new Gamecocks are on the team this year, it's a solid bet that last year's game plan will be in use tonight.
Horn said as much when previewing the game, listing Temple as one of the most likable players in the league.
"Of all the teams we've played this year, he's probably one of my favorite players in terms of how he plays the game," Horn said. "I really like Temple. He's athletic and does all the little things. He just plays basketball.
"They're really athletic, they're very long. They got a couple of guys that have the potential of having huge nights in Mitchell and Thornton, specifically."
Having Muldrow back means Horn has an extra body to plug in the rotation, although USC, as it has all season, will still not have a complete roster due to Branden Conrad's fractured foot. But with another big man on call, perhaps Muldrow can get back into playing shape when the Gamecocks need him most -- on the road when trying to make a three-game winning streak four.
Muldrow only averaged 3.1 points last year but has a nice jump shot. Horn credited the forward's 3-point prowess -- "If it's the right one. I don't think we're going to be running him off of any staggers any time soon," Horn joked -- and his defensive ability.
For the player, it's a chance to further retreat from the dark beginning to his sophomore season.
"It was kind of hard watching because I knew I wanted to be out there," Muldrow said. "Now I'm out there, so ...
"It was very frustrating. I just had to fight through it."
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