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April 1, 2008

Horn ready for challenge at South Carolina

MORE: Rivals.com NCAA Tourney Central

If Darrin Horn was looking for a challenge, he'll find it in the SEC East.

Horn, the new South Carolina coach, can look forward to home-and-homes with 2006 and '07 national champion Florida (and Billy Donovan), 2008 Sweet 16 team Tennessee (and Bruce Pearl), and 2008 NCAA Tournament teams Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Georgia.

It's up to Horn, who was hired from Western Kentucky, to make the Gamecocks less of a David in a division of Goliaths.

"I think it's an extremely tough division, and it's a challenge and a great opportunity," Horn said Tuesday on a teleconference shortly after he was introduced as Dave Odom's replacement. "You want to be the best in your division, and if you are, it means you'll be good nationally.

"I'm coming from a league (the Sun Belt) that has made vast improvements and was strong in its own right. We want to have a chance to win a championship. If you do it in the SEC, you'll be relevant nationally."

Horn's Hilltoppers were relevant nationally this season after going 29-7 and making a surprise run to the Sweet 16 with victories over No. 5 seed Drake and No. 13 seed San Diego before being eliminated by top-seeded UCLA in the West Regional. The last time they made a Sweet 16 appearance was in 1993, when Horn was a player at WKU.

Horn, 35, went 111-48 in five seasons at his alma mater.

"Western Kentucky will always be special to me and my wife," Horn said. "I played there, went to school there, graduated from there and coached there. I'm thankful for the opportunity they gave me."

Horn said the opportunity to take over the Gamecocks' program came in a flurry of activity after his team got knocked out of the NCAA Tournament. He said it took about 48 hours from the time he got the initial call until he had accepted the job.

"First of all, this program has great leadership in (athletic director) Eric Hyman," Horn said. "I'm impressed with his vision for the program and the athletic department.

"There are a lot of positive things here. It's a state university, it's in a great league, there is existing talent, there's talent in the state. There's a passionate fan base. There's a lot of things you'd look at that you'd want that South Carolina possesses."

Whatever those positives may or may not be, they haven't translated into victories. Odom went 14-18 this season, including a 5-11 mark in the Southeastern Conference. He finished 128-104 in seven seasons, but his SEC mark was only 41-71. The Gamecocks made just one NCAA Tournament appearance during his tenure, in 2004, though they did win the NIT twice.

South Carolina does return all five starters from this season's team, including point guard Devan Downey, a first-team All-SEC selection.

"I've had a chance to see him, but I can't say I've studied it yet the way I will," Horn said. "Obviously he does what he does in the SEC and he has real ability. We'll continue to build on what he already has done, and I look forward to studying him on film and helping him get better."

Horn said he already had met with his new players.

"I did have a chance to meet them and was impressed with them as people," Horn said. "That will be important to the program, quality people. It's new for me, new for them, and there will be a feeling-out process. We'll both be going through changes."

Horn won't be putting WKU in his rear-view mirror too quickly. Part of his contract with the Hilltoppers calls for whatever school hires him to play four games against them as soon as it can be worked out in both schools' schedules.

"I would expect to adhere to that clause," Horn said. "That would be my wish. I have to sit down and look at that with the people I'm working with here and see what their goals are."

WKU figures to have plenty of quality candidates from which to choose its next coach. Horn stumped hard for Scott Cherry, one of his assistants this season.

"From Day One, I always treated that job like it would be my last," Horn said. "I didn't take it to get another job. We laid a foundation, and we left a succession of classes that have talent. I think continuity can keep it going. I don't know about Sweet 16s or anything like that, but continuity is a huge factor in keeping it going.

"I can tell you as someone who took over for a coach that had great success and had a different way of playing, that's very challenging because it's a different way. I think the program will take several steps back if they go that way. Scott Cherry is ready and deserving. He gives Western Kentucky the best opportunity going forward. I'd like to see what we've built continue on."

Cherry who played collegiately at North Carolina and was on the Tar Heels' 1993 title team came to WKU last summer after serving as an assistant at George Mason, including on the Final Four team in 2006.

Horn's predecessor at Western was current Georgia coach Dennis Felton. Horn is a former assistant at Marquette, and his boss there, Tom Crean, also was on the move Tuesday, taking the coaching job at Indiana.

MORE: Rivals.com NCAA Tourney Central

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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