COLUMBIA -- Darrin Horn believes his South Carolina basketball team has "been better every time out," and the results support that claim. Now, the Gamecocks are going to learn if they're good enough to handle a vicious start to Southeastern Conference play.
Trying to avoid their third straight losing season -- and coming off SEC records of 5-11 and 6-10 the past two years -- South Carolina (8-6) begins its league schedule today at second-ranked Kentucky, a team with more than enough talent to make a serious run at third-year coach John Calipari's first national championship.
Few objective observers think the Gamecocks can win today. Unfortunately for them, their next seven games -- the first half of SEC play -- don't get much easier after this. They must play Kentucky again and No. 13 Florida twice. They also play Vanderbilt, Alabama, Mississippi and Auburn. The latter two figure to be the least daunting games, but they're on the road.
USC has certainly played its share of elite teams so far. The Gamecocks lost by 25 points to North Carolina,
now ranked third, and by just eight to Ohio State, now No. 6.
"It's not the first time that we've seen that type of team," Horn said.
"That doesn't make everything OK and all better. You've still got to prepare and play the game, but I think that's kind of the purpose of a non-conference schedule."
Kentucky leads the SEC rebounding margin (plus-9.5 per game) and field-goal percentage (48.5), and ranks second in the nation, behind Wisconsin, in field-goal percentage defense (35).
Six Wildcats average double-figure scoring, including freshman forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis. They are No. 2 and 3 on the team in points, and Davis also averages 10.6 rebounds. Kentucky's leading and No. 4 scorers are sophomores -- guard Doron Lamb and forward Terrence Jones. All four players were McDonald's All-Americans.
The Wildcats have remarkable length. Davis is 6-10, Jones 6-9, Kidd-Gilchrist 6-7 and Lamb 6-4. Their No. 5 scorer is 6-8 Darius Miller.
"I'm not so sure this isn't the best Kentucky team of all the talented teams that Cal's had," Horn said.
"From a sheer length, athleticism, depth standpoint and their ability to shoot the basketball -- and having a guy like Davis, who is a game-changing kind of presence -- I'm not so sure this isn't their best team that way."
"They're a team that if they're playing well offensively, they're phenomenal. Because defensively, with their length and athleticism and with Davis, their ability to not only keep you from scoring, but to create offense from their defense, really is outstanding. If they're playing well offensively and shooting the basketball well, I'm not really sure what anybody does with them. And a big part of that is their ability to defend and create offense off their defense."
If the Gamecocks want to even hang around today, they must make efficient use of their possessions. Horn is emphasizing to his players that he doesn't want to have a lot of possessions in games against teams like Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio State.
A big part of playing efficiently involves limiting turnovers, especially in transition. USC had a season-high 25 turnovers against North Carolina, but just eight in its best win so far, at Clemson.
That started a stretch in which USC won six of seven games, with the only loss coming to Ohio State. The other five victories were over lower-profile opponents, but taking care of business against those teams was important for USC, which lost its second and third games of the season to Elon and Tennessee State.
As the schedule allowed for more practice time and video analysis during the past month, Horn said he saw his players getting a clearer idea that "transition turnovers absolutely kill you. They're awful. They're, I'm starting to believe, the root of all evil in offensive basketball. I think our guys have a better understanding of 'now we see why that's such a bad play for our team in so many ways.' "