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January 9, 2009AUBURN TIGERS (10-4, 0-0 SEC)
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (11-2, 0-0)
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets:Available at the box office
Auburn's probable starters: G DeWayne Reed 6-1 Jr. (12.5 ppg, 1.7 rpg); G Quantez Robertson 6-3 Sr. (7.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg); G Tay Waller 6-2 Jr. (12.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg); F Korvotney Barber 6-7 Sr. (13.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg); F Lucas Hargrove 6-6 Jr. (8.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (20.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (15.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg); G Brandis Raley-Ross 6-2 Jr. (7.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (10.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (12.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina ventures into SEC play with its best record since 2003-04, when it last made the NCAA tournament. ... Auburn leads the series 17-12 but the Gamecocks have won three of the past five. ... The visiting team has won the past six in the series. ... Hargrove is a Pontiac native and played at Richland Northeast High School. ... Auburn coach Jeff Lebo and assistant coach John Cooper were USC assistants under Eddie Fogler. ... USC coach Darrin Horn's first game as a head coach was against Auburn. Western Kentucky lost 86-64 to the Tigers in the 2003-04 season. ... USC subs Robert Wilder and Austin Steed each tied their career-highs in points during their last games.
Next game: USC plays at LSU at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.
Zam Fredrick looked his interviewer in the eye and said he didn't pay any attention to it because his coach didn't pay attention to it.
"This is his first year," Fredrick pointed out. "He doesn't really look back on nothing because he wasn't a part of that. He's trying to make a change right now.
"It's a new year. New year, new attitude."
For South Carolina's long-suffering fans who remember the glory days of romping through the ACC, how refreshing that must sound.
The Gamecocks (11-2) head into another conference season tonight, riding their best start in six years and confident in their ability to make a little noise in a struggling SEC. The conference, by most national publications' judgment, is down and USC figures it's got as good a chance as anybody to wind up on top once March rolls around.
The question had to be asked. Fredrick responded as if it was something to be ignored.
But can it?
The Gamecocks' atrocious recent history in the SEC has been grueling to those fond of remembering John Roche, Kevin Joyce and all the others who made USC a basketball power in the late 1960s. USC has not had a winning conference season since 1997-98, has not won its conference season-opener since 2002-03 and is 5-12 all-time in those same conference openers.
It's enough to give a team a complex, especially when reminded the last time USC was above .500 at any time during SEC play was on Feb. 15, 2005. Fredrick brushed all of the history aside, rightfully stating that rookie coach Darrin Horn couldn't be held accountable for that, also saying Horn hadn't mentioned it to his team.
"Playing in the SEC, we've got good teams there," Fredrick said. "I see talent. It's going to be a good conference. We feel like we can win those games."
After a solid start and a recent quality win, the Gamecocks start the second half of their season by hosting Auburn (10-4) tonight. The Tigers mirror USC a bit -- especially considering coach Jeff Lebo is a former USC assistant -- but USC isn't looking at wins or losses by the opponent right now.
The Gamecocks are truly playing the clich?f one game at a time. Fredrick and guard Devan Downey say they haven't paid a lot of close attention to how the rest of the league has performed this year, because looking ahead and starting to figure how many games they have to win to get to the NCAA tournament is an invitation to disaster.
"We want to win all of them, but the goal is to go out and play hard and everything will take care of itself," Downey said.
Fredrick was a bit more specific, saying a goal was to win 10 conference games. A minimum of 10 gets the Gamecocks to 21-8, which could impress the tournament selection committee if some of those 21 are over the best teams in the SEC.
Still, that's too far ahead. Tonight is Auburn, winner of seven straight games, and hopefully an energized Colonial Life Arena crowd to support a Gamecock team playing solid basketball.
"The big thing our guys have to understand is we've done a good job to this point," Horn said. "It's hard to be good in any league if you don't win at home. That's something really important that we want to establish in our program."
USC may get some extra help. Horn announced on Friday that forward Sam Muldrow, who's missed the first 13 games with academic problems and a sprained left elbow, had a good chance of playing against the Tigers if he practiced well on Friday and the doctors cleared him. Not that Muldrow will immediately begin playing 20 minutes per game -- he's got to get back in game shape first -- but if he can get out there and begin working his way into the system, it gives the Gamecocks one more body and a few more minutes rest for the starters.
"That'd be big to get him out there," Downey said. "Big shot-blocking presence -- that would help all of us."
Downey, playing with a left hand full of tape, could use the aid after scoring 77 points in the past three games. Not that the Gamecocks are out of gas before the SEC season starts -- Horn's offseason conditioning program has paid off -- but it will help to have an extra body to plug in.
But the specifics can wait. Fredrick said he wasn't worried about how the Gamecocks do it, as long as they do it.
"It" being beating Auburn tonight, getting to 1-0 in the SEC and carrying on to LSU on Wednesday.
"We've seen we can beat good teams like Baylor. We know we can play to our competition," he said. "We're very confident because we just want to keep playing the game the way we play it. Try to make them do things that they don't want to do."