Uncertainty at USC: Key losses leave Gamecocks with many holes to fill
COLUMBIA -- Darrin Horn's fourth season as South Carolina men's basketball coach will begin with much uncertainty.
The Gamecocks won't have their three leading scorers from last season: point guard Bruce Ellington, post player Sam Muldrow and shooting guard Ramon Galloway. Ellington is playing wide receiver for South Carolina's football team until its season ends, Muldrow graduated and Galloway transferred to La Salle to be closer to family members with health issues.
Small forward Murphy Holloway was also going to be with South Carolina this season after sitting out last year, but he returned to Mississippi, the school from which he originally transferred to USC.
The Gamecocks' leading returning scorer is senior small forward Malik Cooke, who averaged 9.4 points last season.
Because of that uncertainty, nobody expects much from the Gamecocks.
Coming off back-to-back losing seasons, they were picked by the media to finish last in the Southeastern Conference. USC went 21-10 (10-6 SEC) in Horn's first season, then dipped to 15-16 (6-10) and 14-16 (5-11), including a 2-11 skid to end last season.
The most significant absence to start this year is Ellington, a Berkeley High graduate who averaged 12.8 points last year as a freshman. Filling in for him: Lakeem Jackson, a 6-5 junior small forward who started the past two seasons. He had six assists and six turnovers in USC's 69-59 exhibition win last Thursday over Division II Kentucky Wesleyan.
The Gamecocks also will miss Galloway's outside shooting. He shot 33.1 percent on 3-pointers last season. But Horn has a confident and capable shooter in freshman shooting guard Damien Leonard, a highly regarded recruit from Greenville who decided to stay in his home state. Leonard was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 22 shooting guard in his class and No. 85 overall recruit. He started the exhibition, scored nine points and shot 3 of 9, attempting only 3-pointers.
"He'll figure out that probably teams are going to say 'do not leave him open' and run at him," said Horn. "He'll learn how to pick his spots, because he can definitely do it. I think we saw (in the exhibition) that the greatest strength and what I love about him is that he always thinks the next one is going in."
With Muldrow (7.9 rebounds per game) gone, the Gamecocks also lost their leading rebounder from last season. Freshman Anthony Gill could help fill that role. He played 18 minutes in the exhibition, which he started, and was efficient: 14 points (most on the team) and six rebounds. Like Leonard, Gill was a nice recruiting pickup for Horn. Rivals rated Gill, who is from Charlotte, the No. 29 power forward in his class and No. 144 overall recruit.
Horn, whose freshmen debut Friday night at home against Western Carolina, understands that playing well against Kentucky Wesleyan and playing well against SEC teams are two entirely different things.
Gill downplayed the notion that he and Leonard could be difference-makers early in the season as the Gamecocks search for reliable options.
"I mean, a difference-maker?" Gill said. "I wouldn't call it that. I would call it just me and Damien being hard workers."