Following a 66-55 first-round loss to a Mississippi team it defeated in the regular season, the Gamecocks were forced to take stock of a season that had a promising beginning but ended with everything going wrong.
After racing out to a 3-1 start in Southeastern Conference play, the Gamecocks dropped their last four games, nine of their last 10 and 11 of their final 13.
Finishing the campaign with a 14-16 mark meant USC lost more than it won for the second straight season and four of the last five. The team has not won a SEC tournament contest in four seasons with the last win coming against LSU in the first round of the 2007-08 campaign.
Although South Carolina brought in a talented freshman class, along with a major college transfer, it was expected the team would go thought tough periods. The Gamecocks started as many as four freshmen at times, but the surprising start to the season, which included a road win over SEC regular-season champion Florida, raised expectations the team wasn't prepared to meet.
Bad luck also hit the squad when starting swing man Lakeem Jackson injured his left foot. After playing ineffectively for a few games, USC coach Darrin Horn opted to sit him out for three games.
At about the same time in the season, freshman point guard Bruce Ellington, who got off to a fast start, was slowed by a calf injury. Neither player ever returned to his previous level of competitiveness following his injury.
"As a coach it is frustrating because when you have a group that has worked extremely hard but, when you are as young as we are, we could never get over the hump," said Horn.
BEYOND THE BOX SCORE: USC loses senior center Sam Muldrow, who was named by SEC coaches the league's Defensive Player of the Year. He finished as USC's all-time leader and the SEC's active leader in career blocks with 275.
The Gamecocks return 11 players, led by SEC All-Freshman point guard Bruce Ellington. Six of those players will be sophomores with four receiving at least one start and five receiving extensive action. Malik Cooke, a transfer from Nevada, became one of the team's most consistent performers and will be looked on for leadership as a senior.
That group will be joined by two national top 100 recruits, guard Damien Leonard and forward Anthony Gill. Junior Murphy Holloway, who led Mississippi in rebounding as a sophomore, will also be eligible after sitting out the 2010-11 season.
The team should be vastly improved in all areas, although it will have to find a way to replace Muldrow's shot blocking and intimidation factor inside.
--Sam Muldrow got off to a slow start against Mississippi but displayed the ability that has made him USC's best and most consistent performer this season. He finished with 12 points, nine rebounds and seven blocked shots, the most by a Gamecock performer in SEC tournament play. He blocked 103 shots as a senior and is the USC's career leader and SEC's active career leader with 275 blocks.
--Despite struggling during the second half of the season, freshman Bruce Ellington led the Gamecocks in scoring and assists. An all-state performer in football, who turned down a plethora of major college offers in that sport to play basketball for the Gamecocks, Ellington thought about attempting to also play football for USC but has opted to stick solely with basketball.
--Although USC limped to the finish line, freshman point guard Bruce Ellington believes the team will come back both stronger and wiser next season.
"We have a bunch of people who can score the ball," said Ellington. "We didn't hit a bunch of shots (against Mississippi) because the offense wasn't flowing real well. ... It has been frustrating but we just have to stay focused, work hard in the offseason and come back even better."
--Although USC entered the SEC tournament with a 14-15 overall and 5-11 league record, all is not lost for the future. Only center Muldrow and reserve forward Johndre Jefferson graduate. The Gamecocks started three to four freshmen throughout the season and played five extensively. With top 100 players Anthony Gill and Damien Leonard, joining University of Mississippi transfer Murphy Holloway there is the potential for significant improvement next season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 0 -- The number of SEC tournament games USC has won since Darrin Horn took over the program.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Down the stretch, he did what you want your point guard to do. He really took charge. He ran the team. The shots he took were good shots. They were aggressive. Bruce played really well down the stretch." -- USC coach Darrin Horn on the play of freshman point guard Bruce Ellington down the stretch against Mississippi State.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--Freshman PG Bruce Ellington has suffered through a frustrating season after getting off to a start that had every Southeastern Conference coach taking notice. But, although both his shooting percentage and shot selection remained suspect in the Gamecocks 60-58 loss to Mississippi State to close the regular season, he played with more confidence in leading the team in scoring with 15 points. More importantly, he was only charged with two turnovers in 36 minutes of play.
--Senior C Sam Muldrow got off to a sluggish start, but became USC's most consistent performer. Despite the team's struggles, he continued to play hard and lead by both example and results. That is a difference from early in his career when he was one of the squad's most inconsistent performers.
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