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March 11, 2011

COMMENTARY: Bad Timing, Bad Finish Completes Bad Season

"Hey, remember that time?"
------------------- REGINA SPEKTOR

Go back to Jan. 19, and all was right with South Carolina basketball. The Gamecocks had pulled another stunner, rallying from five points down at the end of regulation to beat Arkansas in overtime, and they were 3-1 in the SEC and sitting all by themselves in first place.

An extremely young team was developing faster than expected. Point guard Bruce Ellington was drawing comparisons to departed star Devan Downey. Five Gamecocks scored in double figures that night, leading to thoughts of USC being a team that could hurt opponents in several different ways, one of those cherished pick-your-poison bunches that have the other sideline worrying well before the 40 minutes on gameday.

Coach Darrin Horn tried his best to pump the brakes.

"I didn't talk about being in first place," he quickly answered, when I asked him about containing the excitement. "You said that. I just said we're going to come back tomorrow, get back to work.

"It's when you think you've done something that you're headed towards a fall," he continued.

Eight days short of two months later, read that one again.

The Gamecocks completed a 14-16 season on Thursday with their third straight first-round exit from the SEC tournament. That 3-1 start became a 2-10 finish, with an 0-1 mark in the postseason.

Horn didn't look ahead or feel comfortable on Jan. 19. His players didn't, either.

But because the team started so well, playing far beyond its talent, and didn't finish, here comes the criticism.

I'm not going to sit here and tell anybody that USC doesn't have problems. Good Lord, there are problems, many of them rising from the question, "Who can score?" It boggles the mind that of the 11 players on this year's basketball team, all were incredibly athletic but none were consistent shooters - which, you know, is kind of the point of the game.

It wasn't fact that this year's Gamecocks were supposed to struggle, losing Downey and bringing in six freshmen, five that would have to play and play often. It was about as close to fact as speculation can get, though, considering the SEC schedule featured 10 of 16 games against teams that were heavy favorites to be in the NCAA tournament, with three of the other six on the road.

The hope was for this team to improve. That's all, improve. Whatever number of wins came with that, fine.

The Gamecocks finished about what I expected. Fourteen wins, especially with four of them over Wofford, Clemson, Florida and Vanderbilt (all NCAA tournament teams, with perhaps an exception of the Tigers depending on what happens this weekend), was a good body of work for this team.

But here's the rub - because the team won early, and lost late, that's where it will be judged. You're only as good as your last game, and the Gamecocks were bad and sometimes awful in all but two of their final 13.

Had they started off 2-11, and won three of the last four, finishing with the same record, different story. It would have shown improvement at the most important time of the season, and it would have been the story of the season - young team, supposed to struggle, understandable to have a losing year and the finish paves smoothly into next year.

They didn't. They did the opposite. And now, USC heads into an offseason wondering how it's going to find an entire offensive plan with just two new players (and two more who were on the team this year, but did not play). There are no magic solutions hiding in the bushes or five-star recruits that will magically appear at the practice facility - this is the hand Horn has to play with, a team built for the long haul but a team that finished with a lot of questions.

"With this group, I think part of what happened this week is we did so much better early on than anybody anticipated and expectation got bumped up," Horn said, "that maybe with us having adversity, was probably a little bit beyond what we were ready for."

USC may be the most dangerous school in the country when it comes to expectations for any athletic team. Despite just eight NCAA tournament appearances in history, there are many out there in cyberspace who believe that the Gamecocks can be a constant tournament team overnight. To want that is perfectly reasonable - to demand it right away from every new coach is foolish.

Horn has finished three seasons. His plan is in place. I can say with full confidence that the administration is completely behind him, knowing that it would take time and that Year 3 would be an asterisk. Now, if there isn't significant improvement by the end of Year 4, there may have to be a sit-down, but barring a complete bottoming-out, there won't be any change made then.

The Gamecocks simply have to learn how to finish. This is the fifth straight year USC collapsed in the time of year that no basketball team can afford to collapse. That was a problem that was in Columbia before Horn arrived, but no progress has been made to correct it.

There will be heavy movement within the next two months of SEC players (and maybe a coach or two) moving on. South Carolina will remain stable and see where the dominoes fall in terms of what it will have to face next year. Whatever the opponents field will be a challenge.

Yet the biggest one will come from the Gamecocks themselves.

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