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December 8, 2010Among the many tattoos are two that stand out. "Big" on the right bicep, "Sam" on the left.
When Sam Muldrow lives up to those two simple words, South Carolina benefits.
"I had two good practices leading up to the game," the Gamecocks' senior center said after a win over Clemson. "The way you practice is the way you play."
The 6-foot-9 senior will always be big, the biggest on the team in terms of height combined with experience. But it's when he plays big that the Gamecocks really prosper.
A strong season-opener was followed by some middling games, until USC traveled to Western Kentucky on Nov. 27. After a terrible first half, Muldrow came alive in the second half and extra periods, scoring 10 with nine rebounds and four blocks before fouling out. His jumper to send the game into double overtime came after he missed, got his own rebound and put it back up.
That bled into a solid game against Delaware State (four points, five boards, three blocks) where the guards handled the scoring, and a magnificent game against the Tigers. Muldrow was dominant from the tip, scoring 13 and soaring into the lane for some of his five rebounds. He also rejected five shots, two on back-to-back tries from Clemson's Demontez Stitt on the same possession.
When Big Sam lives up to his name, it gives the Gamecocks a presence in the post that they need to have. And as a senior, him picking up his game often requires no extra motivation from the coaching staff.
"I think it was us reminding him of what he's done for this team and how he's played, and I think it was him recognizing that he wasn't contributing in the way that was best for him to do his best, and best for him to help our team win," coach Darrin Horn recently said. "Normally, that is the case with seniors. They recognize it on their own, and respond."
Muldrow, who makes a mime look like a talk-show host, offered a barely perceptible shrug, even when talking about his two free throws that iced the win over the Tigers.
"I just want to go out and do my best and help my team win," he said. "I just went to the line and knocked them down."
With so much youth on this year's team, the Gamecocks needed leadership. Muldrow, having been at USC the longest, was a natural choice but Horn isn't the kind of coach who picks a leader and tells him what he expects -- he prefers to let leadership be harnessed by the players that choose it.
Muldrow seemed cut from the same cloth as Dominique Archie. Archie could often take over a game with his variety of skills, but would never be a vocal rah-rah guy in the locker room or huddle. When he decided to play lights-out, the results were impressive, but they usually begged the question -- why can't he do that all the time?
Muldrow has flashed those same tendencies. Against Elon, he poured in 20 points. In the next three games, he scored 15 combined. Going high and low in points scored was one thing, but Muldrow was playing soft, backing down from his opponents instead of holding his ground.
The WKU game sparked him. Horn saw his big man get back to basics and it paid off.
"I think he practiced better, was the big thing," Horn said. "He got back to focusing on rebounding and being a presence for us. I don't know if it would stand out because of the shots that Bruce (Ellington) and Ramon (Galloway) made, but man, he made some huge plays down the stretch. And I thought made a block on a big play that changed the entire momentum of the game in the second half."
In a difficult stretch (Wofford, at Ohio State, at Furman) and coming out of the exam break, the Gamecocks will need their center to stay dominant. The team has been playing very well, recording a 6-1 mark with the only loss at Michigan State, and finding varieties of ways to win.
Muldrow doesn't have to be the high scorer every night, but he has to be a presence. The Gamecocks' other players need to know that Muldrow will be there to clean up mistakes, help them learn and contribute. Big Sam has been there for the past three games.
He has to stay there, and if he forgets, he has the reminders etched nearby.