COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Coach Darrin Horn says South Carolina is focused on the upcoming Southeastern Conference tournament and not on its last-place regular season finish.
The Gamecocks (10-20) have lost five straight since beating Georgia 57-56 on Feb. 15 to finish 2-14 in the SEC, their poorest conference mark since joining the league in 1991-92. But Horn says his players get a fresh start when they take on Alabama in tournament play Thursday and that’s the approach he’s seen at workouts.
“The one thing that’s been really positive about this group of guys is they continue to work hard and have a good attitude and play and be in games,” Horn said Tuesday. It’s not OK to play that way and not win games. We understand that and we don’t make excuses for it.”
It’d be hard for anyone to, anyway.
South Carolina is at or near the bottom of many SEC stat categories, including field-goal percentage (11th) and three-point goal defense (12th). The Gamecocks are the only league team with fewer than 1,000 rebounds this season.
That’s led to a frustrating year as many have stayed away from the Colonial Life Arena or called for Horn’s four-year tenure at South Carolina to end.
Horn said on Monday’s SEC coaches’ teleconference that he wanted all focus to be on South Carolina’s tournament game and not on his future as Gamecocks coach, one which looks like could continue despite the team’s struggles.
Horn has received plenty of administrative support the past few weeks from university President Harris Pastides, athletic director Eric Hyman and members of the school’s Board of Trustees. Horn makes $1.1 million a year and has three years remaining on his contact. South Carolina would be obligated to pay Horn $2.4 million if it made a change, $800,000 for each year remaining on his contract.
Forward Malik Cooke, the team’s leading scorer at 12.5 points a game and its lone senior, has heard the complaints from around campus. He said, however, that hasn’t crept into the locker room and the players are still pushing as one to do as well as possible.
“I think the program’s going to go up,” Cooke said. “I think we have a lot of good character guys and great guys who work hard and I think we’re going to fine in the future.”
Not that South Carolina can’t end with a flourish. It’s been done it before. In 2008, a struggling Georgia team that was 4-12 in league play had a tournament to remember, winning four games, taking the SEC tournament title and gaining a surprise NCAA tournament berth.
Cooke said Horn brought that up to his team earlier this week.
Horn said it might help that South Carolina’s opening opponent is Alabama, one of two teams the Gamecocks beat in league play this season. Point guard Bruce Ellington converted a driving layup with 1.4 seconds left in South Carolina’s 56-54 victory over the Crimson Tide back in January.
The Gamecocks only other SEC win game against Georgia, 57-56, on February 15th.
Horn said Alabama is a much different team than the one that struggled at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia two months ago. The Crimson Tide press more and attack teams. Alabama has gone 7-3 since losing at South Carolina, although it fell to Ole Miss this past Saturday.
“This is a fresh start and we’ve got to understand that we’ve got to do the same things that we did in the first game to put ourselves in position to win the game,” Horn said.
The future? That’s for a later day. Right now, there’s something else to play for.
Horn has continually talked about blocking out distractions of all kinds. He thinks those lessons have taken hold during this stressful time.
“Anything that’s not, ‘What do we need to do to win the ballgame?’ is ultimately a distraction,” the coach said. “That’s something we try and teach them all the time.”