Gamecocks ready for SEC opener

The Gamecocks open SEC play Saturday night against the Auburn Tigers. Carolina has not won an SEC opener since 2003 against Ole Miss, and is 5-12 all-time in SEC openers. Carolina has not won an SEC home opener since 2005 against Georgia, but this will be Darrin Horn's first trip through conference play. Carolina should also have forward Sam Muldrow available for the first time this season.


Muldrow has missed the entire season thus far, first due to a suspension over academics, and then to a sprained left elbow. However, he has returned to practice and if the doctors clear him following Friday's practice, Muldrow will be in the lineup against Auburn. Muldrow did some running on his own while he was injured, but three weeks away from the court have taken a toll on his basketball fitness. He will have to be eased back into the rotation as he works his way back into shape.

"He looks like he hasn't played in three weeks," said Horn. "I don't see how [Muldrow could play 20 minutes]. Basketball is one of those things where you've got to be out there doing it to be in condition."

The Gamecocks' 11-2 non-conference schedule has put them in a position where a strong in conference showing could put them in the running for a Tournament berth. They are a long way away from that happening, though, and Horn has preached to his players that the season is just now starting.

"The most important thing you can do at any school in any league is do well in conference play. We're excited to get started and be tested," Horn said. "Anybody that's been involved in college athletics understands the difference in league play regardless of where you are. I am very anxious to see how we're going to respond to that challenge."

Senior guard Zam Fredrick said the team has a specific goal going into conference play: they want to win ten games. Ten wins would be the most since eight wins in 2003-04, and join the 1996-97 (15 wins) and 1997-98 (11 wins) teams as the only Gamecock teams to finish with a winning SEC record. It would also probably mean they get to play in March.

"We're trying to get ten wins in the SEC," Fredrick said, adding "Of course, we want to win them all."

If the Gamecocks are to get to ten wins, it would be a lot easier if they can defend their home court, something they have not done well recently. Last season, they actually played better on the road, going 3-5 as the visitors, and 2-6 as the hosts. Dwindling attendance did not help, as there was little in the way of a home crowd to intimidate opponents or fire up the home team. Several players have admitted that it was easier to get pumped up to play on the road because they at least had fans cheering against them. It makes sense that the Gamecocks' two best performances this season came in front of 16,168 against Clemson and on the road at Baylor. Horn is hoping that the big win over Baylor, plus the 11-2 record will encourage the fans to come to Colonial Life Arena.

"I hope SEC play and the fact that we had a quality win recently helps, but that kind of stuff is beyond our control," he said. "We hope that they will; we think they'll like what they see. We've got one of the most exciting guards in the country in Devan Downey."

The Gamecocks trail in the all-time series against Auburn, 17-12, but won at Auburn last year and have taken three of the last five meetings. The Tigers are 10-4, but like South Carolina, their schedule lacks big names. Auburn did win 58-56 at Virginia, and take Xavier to the wire 81-74 in a loss at Cincinnati.

"I think it's a team that presents a lot of challenges," Horn said. "When they're rolling in transition, they're really good."

The Tigers are similar to the Gamecocks in size and style. Both like to play up-tempo, have undersized big men who can step out on the floor and shoot, and struggle rebounding the basketball. The Gamecocks have a good chance to play well inside with 6'7" Mike Holmes and Domique Archie finally playing opponents their size. Of course, 6'7"Korvotny Barber and 6'6" Lucas Hargrove are probably thinking the same thing for Auburn. Barber leads the Tigers in both scoring (13.0 points) and rebounding (8.1 boards). Downey leads Carolina with 20.5 points per game, and is second in the SEC. Holmes leads the Gamecocks in rebound with 8.7 per game, good enough for fifth in the leage, and is tops in offensive rebounding (3.8 rebounds per game).

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