Grading the Gamecocks: An early review of how USC's basketball team is faring
COLUMBIA -- South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman will no doubt consider a lot of factors when he evaluates his men's basketball program after the season and determines whether coach Darrin Horn is the best option for the future.
Hyman doesn't like assessing programs in the middle of a season, but if there's one general feeling he is looking to get from Horn's squad this year, it is this: "I think a program's got to create hope," Hyman said two weeks ago.
Hyman recalled the story of Duke athletic director Tom Butters and the basketball coach who sputtered to a 38-47 record in his first three years.
"Tom Butters, he saw hope many, many years ago with Mike Krzyzewski," Hyman said. "And Mike Krzyzewski went through three years and a lot of people couldn't see the hope, but he saw the hope. And what did he do? He extended his contract."
Hyman certainly wasn't predicting that Horn, in his fourth season, will be the next Krzyzewski. But Hyman -- who works in a much more impatient age than Butters did -- wants to have similar patience as he looks for signs of hope from Horn's team.
The Gamecocks are 3-5 and beat Clemson on Sunday to enter an eight-day break -- for final exams -- before their next game, Tuesday at home against Presbyterian. While Hyman doesn't want to evaluate any program during the season, here is a quick report card on where the Gamecocks stand as they regroup during final exams:
Horn is experiencing the ups and downs of starting a freshman, power forward Anthony Gill. At times, Horn has been displeased with Gill's lack of aggressiveness. He was a non-factor in the loss to Providence. But Gill responded to Horn's prodding and played a big role in the Clemson win, as he nailed a 3-pointer that broke a tie with 1:21 left, a shot that put USC up for good.
While Gill is averaging 8.4 points and five rebounds, USC is getting less productivity from its other post player, Damontre Harris, who is averaging 5.6 points, but also five rebounds. Small forward Malik Cooke has been the most consistent scorer, leading the team with a 12-point average. RJ Slawson has played the fewest minutes of the frontcourt regulars (20.5), but still has 5.1 rebounds per game, most on the team.
USC was hamstrung by the absence of point guard Bruce Ellington (last year's leading scorer) for the first six games, and now by reserve Brenton Williams, who's been sidelined with a knee injury (though not for much longer).
Ellington's shot still appears rusty, based on the two games he has played. Small forward Lakeem Jackson looked uncomfortable at times playing point guard, and Eric Smith proved a better option there. Smith is second on the team with 8.8 points, and the Gamecocks need him to be an offensive threat as Ellington finds his shot.
Freshman shooting guard Damien Leonard has struggled mightily with his shot. He came to USC with a reputation as a sharp shooter, but other than 5-of-12 performances against Mississippi Valley State and North Carolina, he is shooting 6 of 46.
Horn started Brian Richardson against Clemson, and he shot 3 of 4 for nine points. Leonard played just five minutes, compared to Richardson's 22. It will be interesting to see Horn's approach with the shooting guard spot going forward.
You have to put these first eight games in context. Horn is leaning heavily on two freshmen, and he didn't have his leading scoring from last year, Ellington, for the first six games. Nobody expected the Gamecocks to beat North Carolina (and they didn't), but back-to-back losses to Elon and Tennessee State had many fans grumbling.
The Clemson win helped with hope, and the Gamecocks should be able to win five of their next six games (Ohio State being the exception) before opening Southeastern Conference play Jan. 7 at Kentucky. And that's when things will start to get tougher.