April 23, 2008

Horn, Gamecock Players Start To Mesh

Darrin Horn has now been South Carolina's basketball coach for three weeks.

In that time, he's tried to make inroads in South Carolina recruiting circles in order to fulfill his pledge that the best Palmetto State players will play for the Gamecocks.

He's also spent some time working with South Carolina's current group of players in accordance with NCAA rules that permit limited off-season workouts.

USC lost just one player - swingman Dwayne Day - off last season's squad that went 14-18 overall, 5-11 in the SEC. Eleven of the 12 scholarship players return.

Now that Darius Morrow, the lone recruit to sign with USC for next season, has been granted his release, it's likely USC will enter the 2008-2009 season with 11 scholarship players. The NCAA allows a maximum of 13 scholarships.

Horn said the transition from former head coach Dave Odom's medium-tempo style to his faster, full-court pressure pace has gone better than expected.

"The one thing that's really been exciting is we have a really good group of kids," Horn said at a recent breakfast meeting. "They have a good attitude and they're really working hard to adapt to what we want to do. That part has been really encouraging. It's going to be a major change because it's different.

"Some of them look like they're going to adjust pretty well. Some others, though, it might take a little bit time."

Most of the workouts have been dedicated to familiarizing the players with Horn's up-tempo system that relies on full-court pressure both offensively and defensively to wear down opponents.

"We're not going to start walking the ball up by any means," Horn said.

But, in order to implement that style the players must be superbly conditioned and willing to run the floor at a break-neck pace for 40 minutes.

"The comments we get is that it's a little tougher and a little faster," Horn said. "But that might be true anytime there's a change. The players' attitudes have been really good and they seem excited about that. That's the part that has been encouraging."

One of the questions heading into the 2008-2009 season is who will be the leader of the team. Devan Downey would appear to the natural fit. However, Horn said he hasn't yet crossed that bridge.

"We haven't really spent a lot of time sitting down individually and talking with guys about that," Horn said.

The paradox surrounding Downey is that while he broke the SEC single season record with 103 steals, as well as the school record of 93 takeaways, he's not considered a good defender because he's prone to taking too many risks.

Horn hopes to change that.

"We've jokingly let Devan know that he might need to be a little better defensively," Horn said. "There's a difference between stealing the ball, which is what he's really good at in terms of having good instincts and good hands, and being a good defender. To be a really good defender, you have to learn when there's a good time to do that (steal the ball) and when you have to be solid. I think that's where the growth will come.

"When you don't get it, our defense is in total breakdown mode and it hurts."

But the rest of the team is far from out of the woods, either. USC surrendered 71.1 points per game in 2007-2008 and finished last in the SEC in rebounding margin (minus 5.6), a product of Odom's preference for a smaller, quicker lineup in the second half of last season.

"(Defensively) is where we need to make the biggest growth," Horn said. "Again, some of it might just be a change in how we want to play in terms of terminology and philosophy. Our defensive philosophy in a nutshell is that we don't want (the opposition) to be comfortable. That's not how they played before. It's just a difference in approach."

Horn's defensive system requires the players to stay open between their man and the ball and shoot the gap for steals or apply pressure on the ball. Unlike Duke and some other major programs, Horn doesn't want his players defending with their back to the basketball.

"It's different. The way we deny is unique," Horn said. "The way we want to force people out on the floor is different. A lot of people help (on drives) from the wing. We don't. We're not going to make that (player on the wing) an option. We believe it defends the three better. So, if you're going to drive to the basket, you'd better be pretty good because I'm only going to give you one option. You're going to have to make a play.

"The way we play is mental. It's a mentality of how we want to play. The fact it's different, combined with we want to do it fast, we want to do it aggressively and we want to set the tone of how things are played, it's a different approach."

Rising sophomores Mike Holmes and Sam Muldrow could play larger roles in Horn's system since they have two of the key characteristics he's searching for - length and speed.

Muldrow averaged 3.1 points and 3.5 blocks in 13.9 minutes per game this past season. Horn looks for all those numbers to improve next season.

Muldrow led the Gamecocks with 42 blocked shots, an average of 1.4 per game, becoming the first freshman to lead the team in blocks since Renaldo Balkman had 43 in 2003-2004. Former Gamecock Brandon Wallace, who shattered the school record with 259 career blocks, had 35 blocks in his freshman year.

"Mike and Sam are guys that are going to continue to get better," Horn said. "I love Sam's length. He appears to be able to block some shots. He can give us some presence. He's a legit six-nine."

Holmes surged late in the season with four double-doubles in the final eight games, earning a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team.

"I love players like Mike Holmes," Horn said. "Some people might say he's undersized for this league. But he's tough and he competes. He has a knack for getting the ball on the rim. He's physical"

Dominique Archie, USC's third-leading scorer last season (10.6 ppg), has started all 62 games in his career at USC, and it appears likely that streak will extend into next season. Horn, though, must decide whether to play the Georgia native at the small or power forward spot.

But, then again, in Horn's system it might not matter where he plays.

"I think he's a terrific talent," Horn said. "Individually, he's probably been the most pleasant surprise of all. With the way we play, it will be important to utilize his skills properly. Even if he plays 'the four,' it might be out on the perimeter because of the mismatch. If he plays 'the three,' it might be on the inside because of the mismatch."

Horn's system tries to take advantage of the skill set a player brings to the table.

"We're not as caught up in positions as we are offensively with what someone can do," Horn said. "Some of that translates to the defensive end too. Athletically, (Archie) can defend on the perimeter and length-wise, he can defend in the interior. He's exactly the kind of guy we'll recruit here. He's extremely versatile. He seems to have some toughness about him. I don't think the position thing is important to us."

Horn said he'd like to find someone who can score consistently in the low post, an asset USC hasn't enjoyed in several seasons. Holmes and Muldrow could fit the bill.

While Horn interchanged a lot of Western Kentucky players last season - 11 WKU players averaged more than 11 minutes per game - he said he wouldn't do the same thing at USC unless the talent justifies it.

Last season, eight Gamecock players averaged more than 10 minutes per game.

"We haven't said we're going to play 10 guys," Horn said. "What we've told them is that we're assessing everything about the program, the players, the type of things you do in transition."

In Horn's utopia, starters will play about 25 to 30 minutes per game, while the bench players fill in the remaining minutes. That rotation worked wonderfully at Western Kentucky and produced a Sweet 16 team. Can he do it at USC?

"We're going to play the guys that can help us win," Horn said. "If we don't have nine guys who can do that, we won't do that. We're not going to play guys just to say we played them if they can't help us win. That's one of the misunderstandings about how we want to play."

NOTES:

-- Horn is still searching for the third assistant coach. Former Gamecock Michael Boynton has been interviewed for the position, while former USC assistant Rick Callahan is on the short list as well. Horn said he waned to hire the news assistant soon.

-- Horn said no current players have requested a release to transfer.

-- USC will travel to College of Charleston next season to open the Cougars' new building. Horn described it as a "nightmare" game. The Gamecocks will also play at Princeton in the back half of a home-and-home series in which the Tigers came to Columbia two years ago. Horn said he wants to play as many home games next season as possible. "So much of scheduling comes down to structure," Horn said. "It's not just who you play but when you play them."

-- Recruiting season ends April 30 for Division I college basketball coaches. After that, Horn will likely speak at multiple Gamecock Club meetings.


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