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October 16, 2010

Horn Excited as Practice Begins

The whoops reverberated around the tunnel as South Carolina's basketball team charged out of the locker room, anxious to begin. One got the feeling that having to wait until the NCAA-mandated 5 p.m. start of practice was grating on the Gamecocks' last nerve.

With fall break on, most students off on mini-vacations or perhaps heading to Kentucky for a football game, USC had an empty campus on Friday. The interminable wait finally ended as Stephen Spinella launched a 3-pointer from the wing, saw it rim out but watched Johndre Jefferson clean it up with a dunk.

It's here.

"It feels like I say this every year, but hard to believe it's October," coach Darrin Horn said a day earlier at the team's Media Day. "This is an exciting time for us and this is a team and a season that I'm really excited for. I think our guys are, too."

Entering his third year at the helm, Horn has had his ups and downs. From the thrill of a 21-win inaugural effort, one that clinched a piece of the SEC East championship but fell short of the NCAA tournament, to last year's 15-16 dissolution, it's been an intriguing ride.

This year, really, is a question mark. It seems to be a given that this will be the first year of Horn's tenure that everyone will see a true representation of Horn's style -- his other two seasons featured tweaks to complement the talents of Devan Downey and then, as Horn said, a switch to survival mode last year. With all but one player (senior center Sam Muldrow) this year recruited by Horn and a whopping six freshmen on the roster, there's no accurately projecting what this team will do.

The Gamecocks, by the supposed book, may struggle this year, trying to find the right mix of freshmen, a transferring player in his first year of eligibility and returnees. The non-conference schedule and SEC (especially the SEC East) is as grueling as usual. That would seem to predict a case of having to suffer through this year to get to next, when more solid recruits report and another transfer becomes eligible.

Then again, USC may pull some surprises. Horn has no idea how effectively USC's freshmen will meld together and play this season, and neither does anyone else. The element of surprise will be intact for quite a while this year.

"We want to build something," freshman Bruce Ellington, a strong candidate for starting point guard, said on Media Day. "That's why we all came here. We think we can win right away."

USC's first action as a team will be on Nov. 4, a home exhibition against Kentucky Wesleyan. Eight days later, Elon visits for the season-opener. Four days after that, the Gamecocks will be at 2010 Final Four participant Michigan State for an ESPN matchup.

Time to grow up.

Quickly.

"We kind of feel like, with the basketball part of it anyway, we're back to square one with trying to really instill our style of play and the kind of things that we think are going to give us an opportunity, long-term, to be successful here," Horn said. "From that standpoint, it's really exciting. I think we're going to be a different team than we've been the last two years.

"I think this team will be a work in progress, but they're going to be a fun group to work with and a really, really fun group for everyone to watch."

PRACTICE OBSERVATIONS

The Gamecocks, along with their new game uniforms, received new practice uniforms from Under Armour. They are the same look as the ones that the women's team received -- black with inverted V's running up the sides, and can be switched to garnet.

Damontre Harris, physically, looks like Alshon Jeffery. He has the same kind of all-elbows-and-knees running style and has that kind of spread-out, lanky build, muscular but not bulky.

Ellington is as fast as he was at Berkeley High School and has some ups. He one-handed a dunk after taking off from the block.

There was no real separation between players who wore garnet or black jerseys on Friday. It was a mix between bigs/guards and guys considered to be starters and the substitutes. It's only the start of practice, but one guess as to how the starting lineup will look: Ellington, Harris, Malik Cooke, Muldrow and Lakeem Jackson. Instead of running a set two-guard/center/two-forward rotation, Ellington runs the point, Cooke and Jackson are interchangeable as guys that can go from shooting guard to forward, Muldrow in the middle and Harris at power forward. Once Ramon Galloway returns from injury, it could be more of a "classic" look, with Galloway at two-guard, Cooke dropping to swingman/power forward and Jackson at small forward.

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