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March 16, 2009

Schedule may toughen next year

When it became clear South Carolina wasn't invited to the NCAA tournament on Sunday, the reasons for the snub were tossed around. Not surprisingly, the Gamecocks' non-conference schedule drew a lot of criticism.

But that's not necessarily the only reason the Gamecocks aren't dancing.

"That's one of those things, when it doesn't happen, you woulda-coulda-shoulda all you want," USC coach Darrin Horn said on Sunday. "But it'd be hard-pressed for me to look at what the SEC received and say that the non-conference was the deterring factor.

"When your league champion receives an eight (seed), and a team like Tennessee, which did all the things you have to do in terms of playing a non-conference schedule and going outside your conference and competing, receives a nine and your tournament champion receives a 13, I don't know the determining factor was non-conference."

USC's 13-game non-conference schedule wasn't impressive, checking in recently as 93rd-toughest in the nation. The Gamecocks were 11-2 before conference play, losing only to College of Charleston and NCAA tournament-bound Clemson.

The wins were mostly against smaller schools, six from the state. USC drew kudos for going on the road and beating then-No. 19 Baylor, but outside of that, the only game that perhaps raised an eyebrow was a whipping of Princeton on the road.

It wasn't the weakest schedule in the country, but it was far from the strongest. Horn defended it, saying the schedule was set up for this team at this time.

"We purposely didn't add several teams that were too tough because we were going to try and lay a foundation to build something," Horn said. "We did try to schedule more than we ended up with but it just didn't, logistically and for other reasons, didn't work out."

His point was simple. With only an 11-man team (at full strength) and playing with a 10-man roster for all but two games this year, Horn didn't want to throw too much at his first team. He scheduled a slate to ease the Gamecocks into the season, since they were learning a new style under a new coach.

The second game of the year -- Nov. 16 hosting Winthrop -- figured to be a test but the Eagles were embarking on a trying season. The recent NCAA tournament staple was knocked out of the postseason picture almost from the moment it left Columbia.

Princeton, the game after the C of C loss, also figured to be a stern test, but despite it being a road game, the Tigers were easily dispatched. That left just Baylor and Clemson, which USC split against.

Those two and the Gamecocks' conference schedule provided most of the RPI statistics, which hovered between 40-60 for most of the year. The final number (58) was good but not good enough when considering USC's other statistics.

When Auburn and Florida were also relegated to the NIT, the Gamecocks were faced with winning 21 games, none against an NCAA tournament team. Obviously, USC couldn't have known before the season that Baylor would plummet from the Top 25; that Winthrop, Kentucky and the Gators would struggle; that the only NCAA teams it played this year (Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, Clemson) would all win when playing the Gamecocks.

It still stung a little, when a 10-win SEC team with a co-championship of the SEC East was left out.

"I think that in most given years, regardless of your non-conference schedules, as long as you don't stub your toe in it, 10 wins is going to get you in," Horn said. "History will tell you that. This year, that just wasn't the case."

Horn said he planned all along to add a few more big names to next year's schedule, since this year was meant to build a base. It's not, repeat, not a knee-jerk reaction to the non-conference slate this year being mentioned as a main factor in not getting an NCAA bid.

"We want it to be challenging the best that we can, relative to the team that we have and the structure that we're able to do. I don't think we'll be reactionary," Horn said. "I think we'll continue to do what's best for our program as we look to build this thing. This is a process. Whether you're in, or you're not in, we're still laying the foundation for something that we hope is going to explode and we can build on for years."

It does hurt for the Gamecocks' seniors, Zam Fredrick and Branden Conrad, to leave USC without getting to play in the NCAA tournament, but at least the returnees will have another shot. As Horn mentioned, with two-time first-team All-SEC selection Devan Downey set to return among three other starters, five other veterans and four recruits, the Gamecocks will be more prepared to deal with a tougher non-SEC schedule next season.

One such opponent should be Horn's alma mater and former coaching stop, Western Kentucky, which is in the NCAAs for a second straight year. Horn had a provision in his contract at WKU that any school that hired him away would have to schedule a four-year series with the Hilltoppers.

"It comes down to what we can work out," Horn said. "We've talked a lot about going to play home and home and find teams willing to do that with us. Going out and finding those teams and putting that together, that's what we want, and it also gives us a chance for success. It's something that we'll definitely do."



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