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February 16, 2009

Bigs Deal -- USC trio enjoys stellar stretch

Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick represent one of the most lethal backcourts in the country.

Those other guys aren't bad, either.

Over the past seven games, USC's starting frontcourt of Dominique Archie, Mike Holmes and Sam Muldrow has played a pivotal role in South Carolina's success. The trio has averaged 31.2 points and 19.3 rebounds over the stretch.

The record in those last seven? 6-1.

"I think maybe we've seen more progress in the bigs because the two guys that stand out the most are younger," coach Darrin Horn said on Monday. "You're going to see a greater learning curve for them and a greater improvement."

That'd be nice.

Archie's status on the block has been one of rotation. His versatility and abilities to play guard, forward and/or swingman made him a natural choice to keep his two-year streak of starting every game intact.

Holmes was the precocious sophomore who stepped into the spotlight in the last 10 games of 2007-08. With a wide, heavy body and long, muscular arms, he was a reliable option low.

Those two were in the starting lineup for almost every game early this season as USC went with a three-guard rotation. Archie and Holmes could score, sure, but Downey, Fredrick and the third man would be the guys to really put the ball in the hole -- everybody knew that.

Downey and Fredrick still shoulder the majority of the scoring.

But with Muldrow reclaiming his spot after missing the first 13 games, the bigs are doing more than their share.

"It was kind of hard watching because I knew I wanted to be out there," Muldrow said, shortly after his return. "Now I'm out there, so ... "

Exactly.

Muldrow started in a 70-69 win over Florida and contributed eight points and six rebounds. It was Holmes and Fredrick who stole the show, though, the former finding the latter on a length-of-the-floor game-winner as time expired.

But then Archie had 12 points against Ole Miss and 17 against Vanderbilt. And Holmes had three straight games of nine points and four more of at least 10. And Muldrow yanked 12 boards at Kentucky and pumped in a career-high 18 points against Georgia. And even though all three of them got in severe foul trouble at Florida (the only loss in the stretch), they combined for 32 points and 18 rebounds in a four-point defeat.

A team could get used to that, as the Gamecocks' 18-5 (7-3 SEC) record clearly attests.

Horn credited much of the bigs' development to assistant coach Cypheus Bunton but also said his entire staff plays a role. Whoever deserves the most credit, it's clear the move is working.

Now comes the hard part. USC's postseason fate rests on the next six games, beginning Wednesday at Mississippi State. In Starkville, the Gamecocks will face one of the nation's premier big men in Jarvis Varnado.

USC's trio can prove its worth -- again -- and perhaps put its name beside Varnado's when it comes to discussing powerful forces in the lane.

No new approach. Just same-old, same-old.

"We just keep believing and playing hard every day," said Holmes, after he beat Alabama on a buzzer-beating tip-in. "Like today."



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