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November 12, 2010

HOOPS: Season Preview

ELON PHOENIX (0-0)
at
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (0-0)

When: 9 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: Fox Sports Carolinas
Tickets: Available at the box office
Elon's probable starters: G Drew Spradlin 6-5 Jr. (13.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg); G Chris Long 6-2 Sr. (9.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G Terrance Birdette 6-2 Jr. (6.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg); F Brett Ervin 6-7 So. (1.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg); F Scott Grable 6-9 Sr. (3.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Bruce Ellington 5-9 Fr.; G Brian Richardson 6-4 Fr.; F Lakeem Jackson 6-5 So. (7.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg); F Malik Cooke 6-6 Jr. (9.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg); C Sam Muldrow 6-9 Sr. (10.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina begins its third year under coach Darrin Horn. ... The game is the back end of a doubleheader with the USC women's season-opener against No. 5 Xavier, set to begin at 6:30 p.m. ... The Gamecocks are 9-1 in their last 10 season-openers. ... Elon is coming off a 9-23 season while USC was 15-16. ... USC won the only other game in series history, 102-78 in the 1966-67 season. ... Freshman forward Damontre Harris will not play tonight as he serves a one-game academic suspension. ... Stephen Spinella, who sat out the exhibition with an ankle injury, will play. ... Ramon Galloway (fractured foot) may be a game-time decision. ... In honor of Veterans Day, Horn has invited an officer from Fort Jackson to be honorary captain and will present him with a game ball prior to tipoff.
Next game: USC will play at No. 2 Michigan State at 10 p.m. on Tuesday.
*Note: Scoring averages are from last year, except in the case of freshmen. Cooke's averages are from two years ago at Nevada. He sat out last year after transferring.

Some hear the term "different" and think it's bad. Particularly in athletics, they hear "different" and believe that a team is getting away from the approach it has used, and if that approach was successful, then "different" can't be good.

South Carolina basketball this season, and for the next few seasons, will be different. The term doesn't mean good or bad, it simply means the truth.

"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," coach Darrin Horn said when practice began. "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."

It most definitely will be. And while "different" may not pay immediate dividends, it will substantially produce going forward.

Horn came in three years ago and had a stocked cupboard. Wonderfully creative scorer Devan Downey was in place for two seasons, the versatile Dominique Archie was there as well, Sam Muldrow and Mike Holmes could handle the post game and the bench was full of solid backups.

The first season, where the Gamecocks won 21 games and shared the SEC East championship with Tennessee, featured Horn finding out about his team and it finding out about him. The style and system that Horn rode to success at Western Kentucky was implemented, but slowly -- no coach would ever come into a system that could work simply on the talent at hand and try to change it.

Last year, dreams of the NCAA tournament were derailed by November, when Archie went down with a season-ending knee injury and Holmes returned to Columbia after Thanksgiving with a facial fracture. Holmes did not play again and was dismissed from the team on New Year's Day, and the Gamecocks had to meet and discuss a new approach.

With hardly any presence in the post, as Horn said, USC simply had to try and "survive." That entailed keeping the ball in Downey's hands as much as possible and hoping some of the others would have good games.

"We had to scale back on what we were trying to do because we simply didn't have the personnel to do it," Horn said in the preseason. "It wasn't what we planned to do, but what we felt we had to do."

Because the Gamecocks had Downey, they were always going to be competitive. He wouldn't allow them not to be, scoring at least 25 points in 11 of USC's 16 SEC games and at least 30 in five. Even with a fluctuating supporting cast (Muldrow one night, Brandis Raley-Ross the next, Lakeem Jackson and Ramon Galloway as the season came to a close), USC was hanging in games, handing then-No. 1 Kentucky its first loss of the year and posting a 4-3 SEC mark by February.

But the good times didn't last -- even Downey couldn't keep up his superhuman scoring forever, and although he was still pumping in 15-20 points per game, he didn't get much help. USC only won two games through February and March, sending it into the SEC tournament knowing it had to win at least once to salvage an NIT bid.

An 18-point lead over Alabama in the tournament disappeared as the Crimson Tide spurted to a 32-9 stretch, USC held to one field goal in the final 10 minutes. That Downey missed a free throw when he needed to make two to tie the score in the game's final seconds was more salt in the wound.

USC finished 15-16 and bid farewell to its fourth-leading career scorer. Three other seniors left as well. Archie applied for a medical redshirt season and was denied, ending his career, and Holmes had been gone since January.

Horn rolled up his sleeves and got to work. The popular term for what he is doing this year is "rebuilding," but he is not a fan of the word.

"Rebuild from what?," he asked during the summer. "We won 15 games last year. From an experience standpoint, will we be taking a lot of guys into that setting that have been in that kind of setting? No, I don't think so.

"But we haven't had depth like this. We haven't had athleticism like this."

Horn signed a six-man class and welcomed back his four-man class from last year. Transfer Malik Cooke is eligible and has two years remaining. Murphy Holloway transferred in from Ole Miss, although he is ineligible this year. Muldrow remains the only remnant from the Dave Odom era.

One of the coach's favorite phrases for this year is "building a program." He is putting the blocks in place for a team of his recruits and his system, which will take time to learn with so many new faces, but the project has begun.

As Horn pointed out during the summer, USC's baseball national championship didn't happen overnight. Ray Tanner has constructed his program since 1997 and went to the College World Series three times before he won it in his fourth.

"I think we've got to keep things in perspective for where we all are," Horn said. "We haven't been to a (NCAA) tournament but once in 12 years. We have not won a (tournament) game since '73. Right now, our individual program's not building on X number of tournaments. It's not building on X number of advances.

"We're starting from square one, and that's why I keep talking about program and building."

ROSTER

Stephen Spinella (G, 6-4, So.) Regarded as a pure shooter, Spinella struggled for minutes and points last year. When you're brought in to do one thing -- and for Spinella, it seemed to be hit 3-pointers -- and you don't (7-of-34 last year), it's a little concerning, but that's what the offseason is for. The sophomore knows he needs to be more consistent, and if he can, there will be a spot for him. The Gamecocks are seeking a long-range threat with Ramon Galloway out with a foot fracture. Spinella needs to get on the floor and show he's improved to gain a solid role.

Brian Richardson (G, 6-4, Fr.) Taking a backseat to some of the more heralded recruits, Richardson got his chance early and took advantage of it. Galloway went down and Richardson stepped in, impressing coaches with his do-everything style. He's a willowy guard, and there may be concerns about lasting through the season once it gets to February, but right now Richardson is playing well. He can shoot from out and in, rebound, handle the ball and has shown no hesitation about mixing it up in the paint. As Horn says, "he can just hoop."

Eric Smith (G, 5-11, Fr.) An impressive physical player, Smith will probably mostly be Bruce Ellington's backup at point guard but he will get some minutes, in order to rest Ellington and to take advantage of his skills at the two. Smith is broad enough to not lose anything if he elects to drive the lane, and he is reportedly very consistent from any spot within the 3-point arc.

Ramon Galloway (G, 6-2, So.) Galloway cinched a starting spot late last year by playing very well in the final stretch, but is being forced to watch from the bench after sustaining a foot fracture. He should be back by late November/early December but will have to work his way back into playing shape and get into the new style of basketball. He is the team's leading returning 3-point shooter and can disrupt a passing lane defensively, plus throw down a couple of crowd-raising dunks from time to time. An exciting player when he gets into a groove.

Malik Cooke (F, 6-6, Jr.) Expected to handle a lot of the scoring this year after transferring from Nevada and sitting out 2009-10, Cooke had a rough start in the team's exhibition. Horn passed it off as not playing live competition as a year, saying Cooke won't be having nights like that for the rest of this season. He seems to be the best bet on creating a shot, and can shoot from outside and in while cleaning the boards. His ability to play the three or drop down to power forward will help out Lakeem Jackson, who was often asked to play the four last year despite it not being his best role.

Bruce Ellington (G, 5-9, Fr.) Ellington didn't waste too much time making an impression, scoring a team-high 23 points in the exhibition and showing off his array of speed and quickness. Ellington has no fear of driving the lane and has no match on the fast break, but will be learning on the fly as USC finds out its best half-court offensive sets. Physically, he's ready, and his game is close to being SEC-ready. He'll be very fun to watch.

Damontre Harris (F, 6-9, Fr.) Early reports had Harris hammering Sam Muldrow and Johndre Jefferson in practice, never backing down from combat in the lane. The Gamecocks will need it. Muldrow and Jefferson are cut from the same cloth, in that they are elite shot-blockers but aren't classic centers. Harris isn't either, but he can be the physical part to the shooting and rebounding touch of the other two. He hauled in seven rebounds during the exhibition despite only playing 14 minutes and seems to be ready to go on the defensive end. Offensively, he may need to find a niche but he did swish a 10-footer the other night.

Lakeem Jackson (F, 6-5, So.) A pure athlete who has the capability to be a 10-and-10 guy every night, Jackson was asked to do a lot last year and mostly delivered. He just has to put it all together -- the Gamecocks could use the consistency, instead of 10 points one night and 10 rebounds the next. Jackson can play two-three-four and has no hesitancy about driving the ball or running into traffic for a rebound, and spent the summer working on his shot. He practiced jumpers from all over the floor and also worked on his free-throw shooting -- he was .500 the other night but there was no hitch or too-much concentration when he got to the line. Jackson is the floor general and when the team succeeds, he will be a major reason why.

Johndre Jefferson (F, 6-9, Sr.) He'll play, due to being the kind of rangy big-'un that can give the other bigs a few minutes rest every game, and can usually yank a few rebounds or block a shot when he's in. Jefferson simply needs to play more controlled. He was whistled for four fouls in a scant eight minutes during the exhibition, and with the team's dependence on Muldrow as the only real experienced post man, Jefferson will need to cut down on undisciplined plays. A bench player, but he will be called on.

R.J. Slawson (F, 6-8, Fr.) Opened some eyes during the exhibition by swatting a shot out-of-bounds in the final seconds, despite Kentucky Wesleyan being well out of the game. The reigning Gatorade Player of the Year from the state, Slawson will contribute some this year but is a bit of a project. He'll never plump up enough to be a true big man, but he will be a defender and scorer in the Brandon Wallace mode.

Sam Muldrow (F, 6-9, Sr.) The old man of the team, Muldrow will be relied on to handle the post game and keep doing what he does. Muldrow will be a dominant player in at least five games this year, and a solid supporting actor in the others. He is an elite shot-blocker, can rebound and can shoot the 3-pointer, which is always an option he can dust off two or three times per game. He does need to improve on his inside game, getting rebounds and putting them back in, but Muldrow will be heavily counted on. He has always been a solid player; if he can be spectacular a few more times this year, the team will benefit.

Carlton Geathers (F, 6-10, Fr.) A late addition to the recruiting class, Geathers will probably be redshirted this year to get his body ready for the next four years. A 6-10, 257-pound center from the athletically gifted Geathers clan, Geathers will play a part in the future but will probably best be served by learning and being a practice player this year. He did dress for the exhibition, but never removed his warm-up jacket, so it seems to be the standard -- a redshirt is a plan and never definite until the season is over. Unless the Gamecocks have massive injuries, though, it's likely Geathers doesn't play this year.

Murphy Holloway (F, 6-7, Jr.) He will sit out this year after transferring from Ole Miss, but will play an invaluable part in getting the team ready for the bruising SEC slate. Holloway can impart wisdom of some of the big guys that he's faced (although there aren't many left) and hasn't taken it easy so far in practice, bruising the other bigs with his game. That's his job until he can get eligible, and all reports say he is heavily succeeding.

SCHEDULE

Horn certainly didn't pull any punches in setting up his schedule. He is lining up the kind of non-conference slate that will definitely challenge his young group and get it prepared -- and used to -- the kind of competition it will face year after year.

The Gamecocks begin the season tonight against Elon, then head to No. 2 Michigan State on Tuesday. There is a game at No. 4 Ohio State, a home game against Boston College, a match at Western Kentucky, the annual rivalry game with Clemson (home this year) and a game hosting Wofford, which is coming off an NCAA tournament trip and received one vote in the preseason poll.

Then comes the SEC, which at least in the East division, is set to wipe out the stigma of the last two years. No longer will the SEC be the worst BCS conference in basketball, with five potential NCAA tournament teams in the East alone.

USC will play No. 9 Florida, No. 11 Kentucky and No. 23 Tennessee twice apiece. The Gamecocks also have home-and-homes with Georgia and Vanderbilt, which each received votes, and another vote-getter, Mississippi State, hosts USC on March 5. The East returned several dynamic players while USC lost its, so it's no surprise the Gamecocks were picked to finish last in the division.

But Horn isn't taking it easy on his young charges. They will face some of the nation's best right away, his version of sink-or-swim.

"To get a made-for-TV game of that caliber, quite honestly, I called the director of games and said, 'Hey, look. We want to be a program that you're making games for in the future. If we can get involved in some of those now, we'd like to do that,'" Horn said, describing the decision to play the Spartans, Final Four participants in each of the past two years. "The opportunity came about in a made-for-TV situation with unbelievable exposure. I don't think you can put a price tag on that."

KEYS

It would be unfair and unjust to ask anybody to replace Downey. He could do so much so uncannily well that his kind will likely never be seen again.

What the Gamecocks have to do is find pieces of what Downey did in their current group. Scoring 20-25 points per game won't come from one person; it will come from several. Downey's variety of shots and his ability to create can be equaled by three or four players doing one or two bits apiece during each game.

"I don't think it's going to be difficult, because coach Horn told me to come in and be Bruce Ellington," Ellington said. "He didn't tell me to try to be any other player who used to be here. Just come in and be me."

No one will catch Ellington on the break and he has proven he can direct the half-court or drive the lane. He has a way to go to be a complete point guard, but has the speed and physicality to play college ball.

Muldrow is the veteran below, and Cooke will regain his game after being away for a year. Jackson can contribute plenty of athleticism each night, flying for rebounds and putbacks as his jump shot continues to improve, while Galloway, when he gets healthy, can bring a lot of versatility to the two or three.

The other newbies will have a season-long open audition. Harris and Slawson will be called on to help in the post, and will have to find out if their games are best suited for backing into the basket, stepping out for a short jumper or simply playing defense. Richardson has already become known as a do-everything player, while Smith, like Ellington, is already an impressive physical player.

What Horn likes is the team's ability to show several different dimensions. There will be no more watch-Downey-do-it. The Gamecocks may run the steal-and-fast-break offense (Loot and Shoot), or may try to control the half-court and attempt to win 50-45.

Either way, they have the ability to switch and not be locked into one style of offense.

"Everybody's going to get a chance to do what they can do on offense," Muldrow said. "We're working on defense and rebounding because that's a big key for us."

It will also be paramount for outsiders to realize this is an extremely young team in an extremely veteran division. The Gamecocks will not offer any excuses for the season's result, and may not have to; what's important is for everyone to realize that patience -- for the next game, next season -- is a buzzword.

Horn is enthusiastic and so is his team. With the deck stacked against it, there's only way for the Gamecocks to go.

"We don't have a ton of experience," Horn said. "I think it will continue to get better, and it's going to need to for us to be as good as we can be."

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