Note: Scout.com went to its experts at each of the 12 SEC schools to put together preseason scouting reports for all the league teams while also polling our writers to determine their picks to win the division titles. Here is a look at the South Carolina Gamecocks.
By Doug Jolley
South Carolina fans are excited about basketball again. They weren’t quite sure who Darrin Horn was when the 35-year-old coach from Western Kentucky was hired on April 1, but he quickly won them over in his opening press conference, and has continued to do so since with his high energy and absolute focus on the job.
Horn took the mid-major Hilltoppers from Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16 last season, and quickly made the decision to move from his alma mater to the SEC when the Gamecocks came calling. Horn inherits a team from Dave Odom that closed poorly last season, with numerous close losses leading to a 14-18 overall record and a dismal 5-11 record in the SEC.
Horn and his staff combed the country for prospects, but didn’t land anybody new for the upcoming season, so they will start out with the same roster that Odom had last season, less graduated senior Dwayne Day.
The staff has been successful in obtaining some high-profile commitments for the 2009 and 2010 classes, but this year’s Gamecocks are going to have to be in top condition to be successful playing Horn’s aggressive full-court brand of basketball with a small roster. Horn says the team has been working hard to learn his running, aggressive style of play, and have been spending a lot of time in the weight room and in conditioning drills in preparation for it.
The team does return a solid nucleus, beginning with Devan Downey, a first team All-SEC point guard who averaged 18.4 points a game last year. Athlon Sports called Downey “the most dynamic true point guard returning this side of the other Carolina’s Ty Lawson.” Downey already excels at the hallmark of Horn’s style of basketball, which is scoring quickly in transition. And Horn has stated that he doesn’t think Downey has yet hit his potential.
“What’s impressive about him beyond his obvious talent level is he is a young man with a tremendous work ethic. I don’t think that there is any doubt that he wants to win,” Horn said.
Horn better win quickly with him. Athlon also predicted the redshirt junior will enter the NBA draft after this season as the No. 5 pick overall and the top point guard in the draft.
Horn said his team’s goal is to be in the NCAA tournament every season. It is not unrealistic to think that Downey and his backcourt mate senior Zam Fredrick Jr. can get the Gamecocks there this year. Fredrick has been streaky as a shooter, but can be lights out from three-point range when he is on. He and third guard Brandis Raley-Ross will have to improve their consistency for the team to improve. Evka Baniulis can be counted on to come off the bench hot and stroke a quick three when needed.
South Carolina lacks a true big man, especially one who can play well in transition as Horn’s system requires, and will be relying on Mike Holmes, a 6-7 sophomore forward to continue to play among the trees down low in the SEC. He finished last season strong enough to make the conference All-Freshman team. The other “big” man is slender (6-9) Sam Muldrow, who got limited playing time his freshman year, but whom Horn says is improving at a steady pace this fall. The team took a two-week trip to Europe this summer and came back with a 4-0 record against its competition, and Muldrow and especially Holmes played well.
Forward Dominique Archie has been Mr. Dependable for the Gamecocks, starting since his first game as a freshman and providing solid scoring and defense, despite being asked to play out of position his entire career.
Horn is realistic but upbeat about his chances in the SEC his first season.
“The transition has been great,” he said. “I think as a whole they’ve done a really good job adjusting to the way we want to do things. There are some times that get me really excited about what we have.”
Predicted Order of Finish (Voted on by SEC Publishers)
5. South Carolina
3. Ole Miss