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December 10, 2010

COMMENTARY: Horn's Team Growing Up Fast

"If you want to run with me,
Crawl before you walk."
----------------------- TRACY BYRD

Darrin Horn said it after the first game and after most of the rest.

"I think the story of this game is what we hope is going to be the story of this team and this entire program," he said after the season-opener over Elon. "The strength of our team is our team."

Through seven games, everyone who had a question mark about South Carolina this season -- and there were plenty -- is starting to see what he is talking about.

After three years of The Devan Downey Show, the Gamecocks are finding different stars every night. There is no go-to scorer on every trip down the floor, although freshman Bruce Ellington is rapidly becoming the team's biggest clutch shooter, and there is no domination of any man at any position every night.

But USC is finding ways to win, which has produced six victories in seven tries this season. The only loss was on the road at then-No. 2 Michigan State, a favorite to once more be in the Final Four, and while the Gamecocks have beaten teams they were supposed to beat, they have also beaten a couple that they perhaps shouldn't have.

Looking at the first seven games before the year, I thought USC would lose to the Spartans and lose at Western Kentucky. It was a road game, the Hilltoppers are a good team, USC was going to an extremely hostile gym carrying a bunch of fresh faces. The Clemson game, I considered a toss-up, because while the Tigers had returning talent and a lengthy series winning streak, the game was in Columbia.

USC won both, in double-overtime at Horn's old barn and by four points in a scrappy, defensive-minded outing against Clemson. While there is a long, long way to go, Horn is feeling good about his team thus far and his team is feeling good about what it has done.

"It gives us a lot of confidence as a team," sophomore Ramon Galloway said three days after the WKU game. "It shows that we believe in each other, that we can fight with each other, and win."

Brian Richardson is backing up Horn's claims of being a pure basketball player, able to hit from anywhere on the floor and play defense belying his thin frame. Sam Muldrow seems to be embarking on another one of his heavily productive streaks. Lakeem Jackson may not be high-scorer or high-rebounder any night, but he always has a few steals, a few blocks, a few assists and several insanely athletic moves to the basket. Malik Cooke seemed to shed an early-season malaise against the Tigers, flashing inside for points and rebounds while playing his most intense game of the year.

USC re-enters the season from the exam break on Saturday, hosting 2009 NCAA tournament participant Wofford, which also beat the Gamecocks last year. After that come two road games, one to No. 2 Ohio State, one to Furman, before returning home.

Then there's the small matter of Boston College at home on New Year's Day, when most of the usual fan base that fills Colonial Life Arena may still be trekking home from a bowl game, and that pesky SEC schedule, which begins on Jan. 8 hosting Vanderbilt. Horn's Baby Bunch will have its collective hands full.

But the start has been fine.

"It's really got to be about us and what we're doing," Horn said. "There are going to be some things you don't control during the game. But our effort, the way we want to play, running the floor, getting to the glass, getting after it defensively. We play hard in everything that we do."

Probably the best thing about it is the group knows what it's up against and won't get over-confident about any win. It's also not playing with a chip on its shoulder, despite the preseason projections, because the team realizes it lost one of the most dynamic players in school history and everybody else in the SEC East either returned theirs or got new ones.

This team can sneak up on a lot of opponents. It won't be getting major attention, even if it goes on a lengthy winning streak, because it is an SEC team and it doesn't have a superstar.

All that's left is to wait and watch it grow. It may be soon, it may be longer. It's all meant to build a long-term program, to coin another Horn phrase.

One that clearly already has its foundation in place.



USC-Clemson Game Week sponsored by Mallard Orchard Hunt Club

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