By Wes Mitchell
Darrin Horn enters his fourth season at South Carolina with the pressure to win mounting after winning a combined 17 SEC games in the last three seasons.
In Horn's first season in Columbia, the Gamecocks were the surprise team in the league, earning a share of the SEC East title with double-digit SEC victories for just the third time since joining the league in 1992.
But since then the program has failed to get on track.
The Gamecocks will have to replace center Sam Muldrow who averaged 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds a game during his senior campaign last season.
The Gamecocks will also be without point guard Bruce Ellington, their leading scorer from a season ago, for the first part of the season. The sophomore started all 30 games of his first season at South Carolina, but joined the Gamecocks' football team in the summer and won't play basketball against until that season is over.
The Gamecocks will also be without junior forward Murphy Holloway, who sat out last season following a transfer from Ole Miss. In a strange move, the Irmo, S.C. native chose to transfer back to Ole Miss just a year later. Would-be junior shooting guard Ramon Galloway also transferred out of the program following last season.
South Carolina will look for senior leadership from forward Malik Cooke. The former transfer from Nevada averaged 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds in SEC play in his first season in Columbia last year and came on strong late, starting the final seven games of the season.
The Gamecocks will hope for the biggest improvement from sophomore forward Damontre Harris. Harris will miss the first few weeks of practice with a toe sprain but will be counted on heavily to play big minutes. Harris averaged 3.9 points and 3.4 rebounds when he started 19 games as a freshman. The 6-9, 226-pounder could be the Gamecocks most naturally gifted player.
Junior small forward Lakeem Jackson brings an element of toughness to the team and averaged 7.8 points and 5.6 rebounds a season ago. He'll be counted on as a team leader and always plays with maximum effort. Jackson will try to improve from the free throw line, where he shot just 42 percent last season.
Sophomore point guard Eric Smith wasn't as highly recruited as some of the other players in his class but did play valuable minutes as a freshman. Smith will be counted on to step up early in the season without Ellington in the lineup. A wild card at point guard is Brenton Williams, who transfers in as a sophomore after averaging 11.8 points and 1.9 assists in 22 minutes per game at Santa Fe College last year. Williams is a combo guard who could also be in the mix as a shooting guard.
Forward R.J. Slawson and guard Brian Richardson were forced to play major minutes as freshmen and will try to build off that early action as key contributors this season. Richardson averaged 5.9 points and 1.6 rebounds while Slawson averaged 2.3 points and 2.1 rebounds last season.
The Gamecocks also hope to get immediate help from freshmen Damien Leonard and Anthony Gill.
Leonard, a 6-4, 192-pound shooting guard from J.L. Mann HS in Greenville, S.C., averaged 22.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game as a senior. The former four-star prospect will instantly provide a shooting threat the Gamecocks, who were 329th in the country in shooting percentage a season ago, have lacked in recent years.
Gill is a 6-8, 235-pound forward from Charlotte Christian School. Rated the No. 18 power forward by Scout.com, the former four-star recruit averaged 19.3 points and 9.0 rebounds as a senior. Gill's recruiting stock rose throughout his high school career and he will be counted on to provide quality depth in the post.
South Carolina's out-of-conference schedule won't be easy either as early season match-ups with North Carolina and Ohio State will offer tough tasks for the Gamecocks.