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July 30, 2011

Horn: 'Stick with us'



Part I of a three-part series examining the state of South Carolina basketball

Darrin Horn isn't blind or deaf. He sees and hears the scrutiny facing his program as he prepares to begin his fourth season at the helm.

He has a message for the critics.

"Do we understand there's grumblings and dis-satisfaction?," Horn asked recently. "Yeah, but you know what? We've got those. I would love to be further along."

Looking relaxed and happy a week ago, when he sat down for an exclusive interview with GamecockCentral.com, Horn talked about the struggles his program has faced and is facing. From an outstanding first season to a second year marred by injury to a third season that ended in a nasty fallout, the drop in perception of the Gamecocks' program has been precipitous.

The time since a near-crippling blow in late March has been spent rebuilding the team, both in chemistry and in numbers. Horn welcomed three newcomers to the program over the summer, and spent July scouting potential newcomers for the recruiting classes of 2012 and 2013. Certainly, he recognized his program was going through a bout of bad public relations, but he also recognized that he's been in this situation before and he felt that he and his team can handle it.

"Probably more than anything, I've learned that you've got to stick with what you believe and you have to keep grinding," Horn said. "We're really building a program. That's not something that's going to happen overnight."

The howls reached a crescendo in late March, when within three weeks, the basketball team was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. First, the team concluded a second straight losing season with a first-round loss in the SEC tournament, finishing a 1-9 skid and leaving Horn still winless in the postseason. Second, reserve guard Stephen Spinella and rising junior guard Ramon Galloway were given their releases (Spinella transferred to Monmouth while Galloway landed at La Salle) when Horn told them that they were welcome to return to the team, but probably weren't going to be playing very much.

The two sledgehammer blows came in the following weeks. Leading scorer Bruce Ellington, a freshman All-SEC selection and the player Horn planned to build his team around, abruptly changed face and decided he would join the football team. Horn had promised Ellington he could do so while recruiting him, but when Ellington actually did it, it left Horn without his floor general for at least the first half of the coming season.

That was followed by the curious case of Murphy Holloway, who had transferred to USC after two seasons at Ole Miss to be closer to his family and infant daughter. Holloway was being counted on to provide post presence in each of the next two seasons, but after his mandatory one year of sitting out due to transfer rules, Holloway requested to transfer again -- back to Ole Miss.

As outsiders wondered exactly what was going on in the basketball program, Horn re-confirmed commitments from signees Damien Leonard and Anthony Gill, then gathered his returning team around him. His message was simple.

"Was it somewhat expected, somewhat not expected?," Horn asked. "Yeah, on both. We've stuck together, we've gotten through it, now we need to focus on moving forward, getting better and continuing to grow our program."

Horn paused.

"Any time you're going through something like that, those things can feel like that," he said, alluding to the complaints that were steadily increasing. "Nothing could ever be worse than the loss of a player, which I went through at Western Kentucky (Horn had to face the death of point guard Danny Rumph in 2005). But it's the same feeling. It's part of building, part of handling adversity.

"It wasn't fun. At all."

Yet, the Gamecocks responded. Malik Cooke, the team's lone senior, told his teammates that they were all in it together, and they had two choices -- hang their heads and accept what everybody was telling them, or shut all of the others up by doing something about it. He was joined by Lakeem Jackson, the team's only junior, who grouped the shell-shocked younger players around he and Cooke and promised them that they weren't going to give up, so neither should the rest of the team.

"Malik has been so great about keeping us all inspired," Gill said recently. "He's always calling us, or texting us with little messages, encouraging us."

Horn hit the recruiting trail while the team began its unsupervised summer conditioning program. Horn nor his staff was allowed to watch, only to receive updates from the strength coaches, but all returns have been extraordinary.

"We made second session optional for the upperclassmen, and everybody came back and wanted to," Horn said. "We've got a group that wants to work hard and wants to get better and that's what we have to have to be successful. (Cooke and Jackson), they're the kind of guys, like the Scott Wingos, that you want your program to be about. They're hard workers, they're high-character guys, they care about winning more than anybody else.

"They've done a really good job considering they can't play right now (Jackson is recovering from foot surgery while Cooke dislocated his ankle and will be out until September). They're both taking ownership in that, which will be so important to our team."

Yes, the Gamecocks have recently struggled. Yes, there were problems.

But Horn is taking full responsibility, not promising a rose garden, but guaranteeing that it will get better.

"I think that will help me do a better job, going through last year with a team like that," Horn said. "I think if we made any mistakes, we stuck with some things and some guys, hoping to get production that we thought we could get, and it didn't happen.

"The guys that do return have been through that. They know what we went through, but they're committed to the same things that we are. They didn't come here thinking, 'I'm going to the team that's won 19 championships in a row.' I think that part, there's a little bit better understanding of it."

While official team practice won't begin until mid-October, the official team workouts (that can be supervised) begin when school starts. Horn will begin seeing what kind of hand he's been dealt, in terms of who will be the best equipped to handle his system.

There won't be any major overhaul of his style, that of running the floor and playing sticky defense as a creator of instant offense. There will be tweaks, Horn learning last season that trying to stubbornly fit square pegs in round holes isn't always the best plan.

"I don't think we'll change our mentality," Horn said. "Will we look at making adjustments to suit our personnel's experience? Yeah, we'll do that. Last year, maybe we could have done a better job of that. Are we going to become a walk-the-ball-up-the-floor, half-court team? No, that's not who we are."

Cooke and Jackson will be the team's leaders, despite being shelved for the moment with injuries. Five sophomores (including Ellington, who has attended some of the basketball workouts and played pickup games despite also training for football) will be back, as well as newcomer Brenton Williams, a transfer from Santa Fe (Fla.) College.

Gill and Leonard have been on campus all summer and gotten adjusted to the sometimes-harsh conditioning regime, but are already feeling the effects. "I never lifted in high school," Leonard said. "I had a few problems at first, but I'm used to it now. It's paying off."

Considering that USC has a 10-man roster for at least the first part of the season, Horn may consider adding walk-on players before the season begins, but the workouts will be concentrated on the ones he has now. He already liked their mental makeup.

"The guys that we have, we've added really good pieces, really good guys that are about the things that we want to be about," Horn said. "We've just got to keep working."

The book remains open on Horn and his tenure at USC. Another chapter begins to be written in mid-October and will be completed in March. Horn didn't put a spin on it, nor try to excessively negate the positive steps his program has taken, instead staying even-keeled and in the middle of where the basketball team is.

There have been great moments -- an SEC East championship, a win over a No. 1 team -- and there have been awful moments. Dwindling attendance at Colonial Life Arena during last season and the increasing fan unrest has been unsettling, although USC's administration has been firm in its support of Horn.

Horn has heard all of it. He doesn't accept that USC should be struggling or offer excuses.

"One of the things that's gone overlooked is we said we're going to get the best player in South Carolina every year, and the two full years we've had to recruit, we've done that (Ellington, with Gatorade Player of the Year R.J. Slawson in the same class, and then Leonard). When you look at some areas of what you need to do to get better, that's still happening.

"I agree with (the fans). At the same time, being on the inside of it, we understand there's a plan and there's a purpose and we believe we can get it done. And one of the reasons is the fans. If I said anything to them, I'd say, stick with us. We're as committed and we want it as bad as they do."

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