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March 12, 2009TAMPA, Fla. -- In the midst of practicing in the same building where his alma mater and former coaching stop pulled an upset, South Carolina coach Darrin Horn congratulated it on another.
"I thought it was great," Horn said of Western Kentucky's Sun Belt Conference championship. "I knew when they were picked low that they had way too many kids coming back that had a whole lot of success and had a lot of character."
The Hilltoppers, who Horn guided to the Sweet 16 last year before coming to Columbia, will make their second straight appearance in the NCAA tournament after beating South Alabama 64-56 in the Sun Belt tournament. Horn said he watched his former team and was extremely proud.
Picked to finish fifth -- the Gamecocks were picked in the same position in the SEC East this year -- WKU went 24-8, 15-3 in the league. The Toppers won the conference tournament for the fifth time in the past eight years.
"I'm real happy for (coach Ken McDonald) and his staff and his kids at Western Kentucky," Horn said.
ST. PETE WELCOMES: The St. Pete Times Forum was decorated with SEC banners and the videoboards were flashing USC's name throughout Wednesday's practice session. The streets outside were adorned with SEC banners on the lampposts and temporary decals on the sidewalks.
It was a little chilly, but that could have been because of the ice under the basketball floor (the Forum is the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning).
"It's cold in the Colonial," guard Zam Fredrick said. "Got to come out in the full warm-up for the game."
Not that he wasn't used to ice being under the floor -- that's how it was at Carolina Coliseum when the Gamecocks practiced there while it was still the home of the Columbia Inferno.
PLANS: Fredrick and Devan Downey had different plans for the Gamecocks' off day on Thursday. They'll practice off-site but there's some free time around 3:15 p.m. for them to do what they want -- perhaps, check out the Georgia-Mississippi State game, which sends the winner to face USC at the same time on Friday.
"I like to come get the feel of the arena and the atmosphere and everything," Downey said. "Definitely come check out a half or two of the Mississippi (State) game."
Fredrick had different plans, although he said he might flip his hotel room TV to the game.
"Probably playing video games," he said.
SHOUT-OUT: Fredrick also had a message for his alma mater, Calhoun County High School, which won yet another basketball state championship last week. Fredrick's father, former USC standout Zam Fredrick, coached the Saints to the eighth state title of his tenure.
"That's how we take care of business at home," he said. "That's what we do. No mercy for anybody."
THROUGH THE BOOKS: Although the Gamecocks would only have to win three games to claim their first SEC tournament championship, there will be eight teams playing today who have to win four. Through the 49 previous SEC tournaments, only 13 teams have accomplished the feat.
Kentucky did it in 1933, 1942, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951 and 1952 before the tournament went on a 27-year hiatus. Tennessee was the lone four-win exception during that stretch, in 1941.
Since the tournament re-started in 1979, only three teams have done it -- Auburn in 1985, Arkansas in 2000 and Georgia in 2008.
Mississippi State NEWS