COLUMBIA -- This has not been the season South Carolina's basketball team wanted. There are myriad reasons for that fact for the Gamecocks -- 14-13 entering tonight's final regular season home game against Tennessee.
But senior center Sam Muldrow is not among those reasons.
Before the season began, coach Darrin Horn applied some heat to Muldrow. As the only player that has spent more than two seasons in the program -- junior-college transfer Johndre Jefferson is the team's other senior -- more would be asked of Muldrow.
"You name it, we've done it," Horn said in January. "We've watched film. We've challenged him. We've met privately. We've called him out. We've encouraged him. Really, anything we could do to constantly remind him how important he is to our team and what an impact he can have."
The 6-9 native of Florence, recruited and signed by Dave Odom, has responded. The Gamecocks have provided a wild ride through the SEC season, winning three of four at the outset and two since then, but Muldrow has been reasonably steady.
"It's been very impressive. He's a great game-changer," junior forward Malik Cooke said. "He does a lot of different things. It's been a pleasure to play with him."
Muldrow is averaging 11 points, seven rebounds and an SEC-high 3.3 blocks a game. But his averages in conference play -- 12.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and four blocks -- are all higher.
"I just wanted to go out every night and do what I could do to help our team win and be a great teammate on and off the court," said Muldrow.
Muldrow set the tone early in the SEC season, notching a triple-double in the league opener against Vanderbilt -- an overtime win for the Gamecocks. It was just the second triple-double in school history and the first involving blocked shots.
Swatting shots became Muldrow's calling card early in his USC career. He wanted it to be that way. Upon arrival, Muldrow said he set a goal to break Brandon Wallace's recently set school record for blocks.
Feb. 12 against Georgia, he did just that. Now at 262 blocked shots, he's breaking his own record with each block.
"I've worked very hard for it," Muldrow said. "It's a great accomplishment."
Muldrow leads the Gamecocks in another statistical category, a strange one for a big man. Muldrow has connected on 34.3 percent of his 3-point shots, hitting 23 of 67 3's this season. That's up from 25.9 percent a year ago.
Muldrow made key 3-pointers in SEC victories against Vanderbilt, Florida, Arkansas and Mississippi. Fifteen of those 23 made 3's have come in SEC play.
Horn said he's felt increasingly comfortable with Muldrow's shooting range. This season, he's drawn up late-game plays for Muldrow to take a shot. He was an option when he made a late 3 against Ole Miss that helped the Gamecocks defeat the Rebels and end a five-game losing streak.
Muldrow might have shown enough as a senior to merit a legitimate look from NBA clubs in the summer months.
"I think he has a chance," Horn said. "Sam brings some specific skills for a guy that's 6-9. He's a terrific shot-blocker and he can shoot the basketball. I think those are two things that will be attractive. ... I think he does deserve a shot."
Muldrow isn't the same gangly kid that appeared on campus four years ago. This season, he's been South Carolina's MVP.
"The one thing I can say about Sam is, in my three years here, he's gotten better every year," Horn said. "He's grown up a little more. He's starting to do what seniors who are three-year starters in the SEC should do, come out and impact games."
Tennessee at South Carolina
WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m., Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: ESPN. RADIO: WTMA-1250 AM. LINE: Tennessee by 3 1/2
Tennessee (17-12, 7-7 in SEC)
HEAD COACH: Bruce Pearl (143-58 in sixth year at Tennessee)
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Melvin Goins, 5-11, sr. (8.0 ppg, 2.9 apg); F Scotty Hopson, 6-7, jr. (17.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg); F Tobias Harris, 6-8, fr. (14.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg).
NOTES: Given the NCAA allegations swirling around the Vols, Pearl has said it's easier for the team to play on the road than at home. … Senior center Brian Williams could miss tonight's game due to a back injury.
South Carolina (14-13, 5-9 in SEC)
HEAD COACH: Darrin Horn (50-39 in third year at South Carolina)
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Bruce Ellington, 5-9, fr. (13.1 ppg, 3.3 apg); G Ramon Galloway, 6-2, so. (10.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg); F Sam Muldrow, 6-9, sr. (11.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg).
NOTES: Having been off since Saturday, Horn said both Ellington (calf) and forward Lakeem Jackson (foot) are feeling better. … Horn is 0-7 against Tennessee. … There's a chance senior forward Johndre Jefferson could start, Horn said, as a Senior Night honor. It depended on practice Wednesday.
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