Conrad Cleared: Long Journey Pays Off

When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
Tickets: Sold out
Latest line: South Carolina by two
Tennessee's probable starters: G G Bobby Maze 6-2 Jr. (8.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G Scotty Hopson 6-7 Fr. (9.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G J.P. Prince 6-7 Jr. (9.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg); F Wayne Chism 6-9 Jr. (13.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg); F Tyler Smith (17.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (20.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (15.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (11.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg); F Sam Muldrow 6-9 So. (6.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (11.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina and Tennessee battle for at least a share of the SEC East title. ... A fourth straight sellout is expected, with USC launching "Operation Garnet" and encouraging all fans to wear the color. ... Brent Musberger and Bob Knight are on hand to announce. ... USC trails the all-time series 30-23, but is 14-8 in Columbia. ... The Gamecocks seek a perfect home SEC season, something not accomplished since the 1996-97 season. ... It's Senior Day for Fredrick and Branden Conrad, as well as manager Adam Ribock. ... Tennessee won the first game 82-79 on the strength of a huge first half, despite not having Chism's usual game. The big man fouled out with no points. ... Archie only needs 90 points to reach 1,000 for his career.
Next game: USC finishes the regular season at Georgia at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
It's always been about what he could do.
And most of the time, what he had to fight to be allowed to do it.
"It's definitely been frustrating," Branden Conrad said. "Any time you have an injury, it's frustrating. The toughest thing was not being able to be out on the court every day, especially with this team that I feel so close to."
Conrad will be recognized before tonight's game hosting Tennessee as one of South Carolina's two seniors. The other, Zam Fredrick, has been a two-year starter and ranks 10th in the SEC with 15.5 points per game.
Conrad has played in 18 career games, averaging 2.6 points. Yet he deserves as big of an ovation as Fredrick. Simply because his entire college career has been a repeat of the same theme -- every time Conrad seemed ready to break in, he was sent back to the bench.
On Wednesday, Conrad repeated the words he'd waited on for three months.
"I am going to be cleared to play," he said, gushing emotion that almost flowed through the phone. "The foot feels great."
At last.
He was a good high school player, averaging 18 points per game during his senior year at Providence Day (N.C.). He didn't get highly recruited but took an offer from Navy over a pledge from Air Force.
That's where the first bump hit. He stayed a Midshipman for two years and never played a second of a varsity game. He was put on the JV squad and given almost no chance of parole.
"I had never been through something like that," Conrad said. "Very tough."
Given the chance to leave before he was locked into a military service commitment, Conrad got a call from former USC coach Dave Odom, who said he'd take him as a walk-on. Conrad didn't think long -- although he had some interest from Clemson, where his father Bobby Conrad once starred, he chose the Gamecocks.
Part of the heralded recruiting class that brought four of USC's five starters to Columbia, Conrad sat out his transfer year, practicing but not allowed to play. Then when the calendar finally turned into 2007, Conrad was ready to go -- again.
But this time there was really nowhere to put him. When you're a guard and playing alongside Devan Downey, Fredrick and swingman Dominique Archie, you know minutes are going to be sparse.
Still, Conrad worked through it, happy to be in a new place with a new start. Then he got another after Odom retired and Darrin Horn entered.
Conrad was elevated to scholarship player and told to get himself ready. With only 11 players on the team, he was going to have to play and play lots.
Conrad worked hard, going through the brutal conditioning program Horn set up, and then got his chance. He didn't like how it came about -- third guard Brandis Raley-Ross sprained his knee in the season-opener and was out for six games -- but nevertheless, Conrad was there.
He heard his name introduced as a starter for the first time on Nov. 16 against Winthrop and boy, was it worth it. "That's definitely one of my favorite memories," he said, despite his name being mis-spelled ("Brandon") on Colonial Life Arena's video board.
He scored six points and had five assists that first night and stayed a starter for the next six games. Horn desired a three-guard set, especially with forward Sam Muldrow out of commission indefinitely, and Conrad fit right in.
Everything was perfect.
(Why is there always that until?)
"I was running five-on-oh offense and I came off a ball screen," Conrad explained. "I wasn't even near anyone. I turned wrong and heard it pop and came up limping."
Got that? Didn't kick a wall, or have his foot stepped on in contact drills, or fall down the stairs, or have a moped accident.
Conrad turned the wrong way in practice, with nobody around, and got a fractured right foot.
"It was just a freak accident," he said. "My foot was broken. I'd never had anything like that before. Only had sprained ankles."
Back to the bench. And for who knew how long -- the medical staff couldn't put a timetable on it because there was the concern of rushing back. Try to do too much too soon and the foot would re-break.
Conrad sat, made up his mind to rehabilitate as hard as he could and watched as his teammates took off. Raley-Ross returned as did Muldrow, transforming USC into a three-big lineup with Downey and Fredrick in the backcourt.
He talked with the players, encouraged them, sometimes got in their faces a little bit. One of the best moments was to see Conrad jettison his crutches and hobble over to hug Fredrick after a buzzer-beater against Florida.
"I think Branden's a great example of when you have people on your team who buy into their role," Horn said. "Roles are different for everybody. We challenge Devan a lot that he's got to be a game-changer on both ends of the floor because he can. That's not Branden's role, but he did such a good job with it.
"Because of his character, and because of his work ethic and the respect level he has from his teammates, because they know how hard he works and how bad he wants to win, he's even been able to fill a leadership role for us in injury and absence on the court."
Progress was slow but sure, and Conrad got the word against Arkansas to dress. He did the same against Kentucky and Vanderbilt but never played, using most of his energy exhorting his brothers on the court.
"It's been fun watching us throughout the season, battling through a lot of close games," he said. "It was difficult to not be out there with them, but they were encouraging me every step of the way. Especially about (tonight)."
USC and Tennessee play tonight with the winner getting at least a share of the SEC East championship. The Gamecocks and Volunteers are locked into the Nos. 1-2 spots for the SEC tournament, but a champion is yet to be determined.
Conrad could get to be on the floor, helping decide it. He said he'd been cleared medically, but didn't know if Horn would give him the traditional honor of starting during his last home game. It makes sense -- with the Vols such a run-and-gun team, starting a guy who's just coming off foot surgery might not be wise, despite the great story it would make.
"It would be nice, but then again, I just want to do whatever is possible for our team to win," he said. "My main focus going in is playing the way we want to play."
Conrad's ready to graduate in May and will look for a career in finance and real estate. But first comes tonight.
Whether he starts or not, he should finally be back on the floor, ready to resume what was shaping up to be a heck of a senior year. His teammates pointed the season in the right direction with him on the bench -- with Conrad back beside them, who knows what can happen?
"I guess I never really thought about a perfect situation, but it's a great situation," Conrad said. "Playing for something meaningful in March. It's very special."
Almost as much as the journey to get there.