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February 21, 2009ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS (13-11, 1-10 SEC)
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (18-6, 7-4)
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Sold out
Latest line: South Carolina by 10
Arkansas' probable starters: G Courtney Fortson 5-11 Fr. (14.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg); G Stefan Welsh 6-3 Jr. (12.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg); G Rotnei Clarke 6-0 Fr. (11.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg); F Michael Sanchez 6-8 Fr. (6.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg); F Michael Washington 6-9 Jr. (16.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (19.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (15.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (11.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg); F Sam Muldrow 6-9 So. (6.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (11.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina returns to Columbia for two straight home games after splitting two road games. ... The Gamecocks trail the all-time series 12-8 but have won three of five and are 4-4 in Columbia. ... Arkansas has lost 10 of its last 11 games, including its past six. ... Like USC coach Darrin Horn, the Razorbacks' John Pelphrey is a Kentucky native and played college ball in the Bluegrass (Kentucky, 1988-92). ... Downey needs 33 points to pass the 1,500-career point plateau. ... Fortson is second in the SEC in assists, 11th in scoring and fifth in minutes. ... Washington leads the league in rebounding. ... Horn said that while injured guard Branden Conrad is out of his walking boot and continuing to rehab, there is no timetable for his return.
Next game: USC hosts Kentucky at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
A year ago, South Carolina was 12-13 and out of the postseason picture.
A year later, the picture is in the process of being printed.
"I feel like people are more enthusiastic about practice," forward Dominique Archie said on Friday. "People come willing to get better. Last year, this time, everybody was about ready to pack it in."
To listen to several national pundits, the Gamecocks are packing up -- as in, their suitcases for an NCAA tournament berth.
If only it were that simple.
"I think you have to ignore that stuff," coach Darrin Horn said. "All you can control is what you do and how hard you work."
Which is why Horn wasn't telling his players to take it easy in practice just because Arkansas, loser of six straight and 10 of the past 11 games, comes to Colonial Life Arena today. That 1-10 mark in the SEC may make the Razorbacks (13-11) look like patsies, but it's not like the Gamecocks (18-6, 7-4) have been crushing every opponent this year.
"I can't get over the fact that they have a lot of talent and at some point, they beat Texas and Oklahoma," Horn said. "We've got to get re-focused on doing the little things against a team that is very capable; a team that is coming in here very loose with very little to lose."
There's also the small matter of the SEC East standings, although the Gamecocks say they're not thinking about them. A win at MSU would have put USC on top of the division by a game with five to play.
Instead, the loss dropped USC into a four-way tie for first, along with Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida. At least one of those will lose today -- the Volunteers and Wildcats clash at 1 p.m. -- and the Gators play Vanderbilt at 3 p.m. USC will know a little more how much a win against Arkansas can benefit by the time the ball is tipped.
USC begins a two-game homestand against the Hogs after another road loss, seeking to regroup after a 75-70 loss at Mississippi State. The Gamecocks didn't play badly but didn't finish well, losing a lead in the last 10 minutes and allowing the Bulldogs to scorch them from the 3-point line.
The concern was the long season might have finally taken its toll on the Gamecocks' thin roster -- with Branden Conrad still out, USC plays with a 10-man team. Horn squashed that on Friday, saying the preseason conditioning program more than wiped away questions about the team's stamina.
"That's a non-issue," he said. "We just didn't make the plays we needed to the other night."
Horn has tried to conserve his scorers as best he can, sitting them before media timeouts to get as much rest as possible. That's why guard Devan Downey is averaging 32.2 minutes per game instead of the 38 or 39 he was posting this time last year.
He's also limited the physicality of practice.
"We do very little grinding ... in practice this time of year," Horn said. "Really, what you're seeing on the court during the games is what happens during the games. This time of year, we're really just kind of maintaining in terms of our conditioning."
All in order to keep as fresh as possible for what March may bring. The Gamecocks are in the hunt for the SEC East crown and the cherry that dangles in front of every other team in America, yet only 65 get to pick -- an NCAA tournament berth.
To get there, USC will first have to get past an Arkansas team that has mystified the experts. The Razorbacks beat Texas and Oklahoma, each in the Top 10 at the time, within a week during the non-conference season.
Yet they can't seem to beat anybody else. Their lone win since the one over the Longhorns (Jan. 6) was 89-80 over Alabama on Jan. 29.
"We're happy that we're back," Archie said. "Happy to get back home and try to get a win."