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December 30, 2008NO. 20 CLEMSON TIGERS (12-0)
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (9-1)
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV:Fox Sports Net
Tickets:Available at the box office
Clemson's probable starters: G Demontez Stitt 6-2 So. (9.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg); G K.C. Rivers 6-5 Sr. (14.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg); G Terrence Oglesby 6-2 So. (12.9 ppg, 1.5 rpg); C Trevor Booker 6-7 Jr. (14.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg); F Raymond Sykes 6-9 Sr. (9.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (19.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (15.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg); F Evka Baniulis 6-7 Jr. (9.6 ppg, 1.2 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (11.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (13.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina leads the series 86-72. ... USC is 8-0 at Colonial Life Arena this season. ... The Gamecocks remain short-handed with only nine players available. Guard Branden Conrad is out indefinitely with a fractured right foot and forward Sam Muldrow has yet to play because of academics and a sprained left elbow. ... Rivers is one of the reigning ACC Players of the Week after scoring 28 points in the Tigers' last win, a 91-72 victory at Miami to open conference play. ... Clemson is in the Top 25 for the third straight year. That has happened only twice in school history. ... The game is being played at a time other than the first week of December for the first time in five seasons. ... Clemson substitute Bryan Narcisse was recruited by USC coach Darrin Horn to come to Western Kentucky last year, but went to the Tigers instead when Horn took the USC job.
Next game: USC plays at No. 19 Baylor at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.
Darrin Horn drew immediate blood when he was hired.
Now it's time to act on it.
"I think all rival games are good," Horn said on Tuesday, previewing South Carolina's matchup tonight with archrival Clemson. "I grew up watching Kentucky and Louisville play and being part of Wisconsin and Marquette. Some at Western (Kentucky), not of this magnitude of course, but I think rival games are good for the schools, it's great for basketball for our state, to have this focus on these two teams playing.
"It's something that excites me and I know it excites our fans."
Excites? Try enflames.
USC-Clemson, even though it's off the gridiron and onto the hardwood tonight, always brings out the most passionate supporters for either school. Although there may not be a sold-out crowd tonight - each school's football team is playing a bowl game in Florida in two days - there will doubtless be plenty of orange/purple and garnet/black packed into Colonial Life Arena.
There was no concern about how Horn, a newbie coach in his first USC-Clemson game, would handle it after he jabbed at the Tigers during his introductory press conference. Queried about who his biggest rival was, Horn grinned and wondered if he should mention the specific name.
After revealing that he knew they wore orange, Horn took another shot.
"I think to mention the name would be to justify their existence, wouldn't it?," he said as laughter rang across the room. "I think I mentioned we're the University OF South Carolina."
Eight months later, Horn is preparing the Gamecocks (9-1) for his first entry into the rivalry. USC has lost four straight to the Tigers and with Clemson undefeated and ranked 20th in the country, it's going to be a challenge.
"I think it is," Horn said. "No question it's the best team we've faced. That comes along with being Carolina-Clemson. I think we'll find out a lot about our team -- this is a Top 25-caliber team."
Clemson (12-0) is coming off a 19-point win at Miami for its first ACC victory of the season and is enjoying the culmination of six years of work. Coach Oliver Purnell inherited a program that had spent most of the years looking up at the rest of the league and quickly turned it into a contender.
The Tigers played for the ACC tournament championship last year and then made the NCAA tournament. To USC fans, who have always enjoyed a sizable advantage over Clemson in hoops, it was quite a blow.
That, and losing four straight to the Tigers.
"They play hard, trap, coached well," point guard Devan Downey said, ticking off the Tigers' attributes. "Clemson is just a good team."
USC is enjoying its best start since its last NCAA tournament season (2003-04) and is fresh off a relaxing week off for the holidays. The Gamecocks will have to shed their Christmas meals quickly, though - the Tigers await tonight and No. 19 Baylor on the road is on deck.
The Gamecocks will again take the floor with a nine-man team and expect Clemson to shuttle their deep bench in and out of the lineup. Horn said he's stressing the game as important as any other.
"No doubt," Horn said. "Everybody knows it's important. It's important to me and our program as well, but again, there's other factors such as when it comes, how our schedule has fallen and how well they're doing. It's a little different in basketball where you have 30 games as opposed to football, where you have 12 games, but there's no question this is important to a lot of people."
Downey said he's trying to preach of the importance of the game, but is also keeping it at a realistic level. The Gamecocks will be judged on how they do in the SEC, and this isn't an SEC game.
That doesn't make Clemson a throwaway, though, not by a long shot.
"When we go out on the court (tonight), what happened in the past doesn't matter," he said. "We're just going to concentrate and try to get a win. I still tell my team to not put too much pressure on yourself; it's not going to make or break our season."
But it would be nice for Horn to get a rivalry win in his first try. At Western Kentucky, Horn counted Middle Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky as rivals but none had the bad-blood grudge-match feel of USC-Clemson. There's the game, there's future recruiting, there's bragging rights, there's a lot of criteria going into it.
Horn seems to have grasped the concept right away.
"It's something that can be used and is out there, but there are so many more factors that go into it that it's not an end-all by any means," he said. "You'd rather be able to say you're winning in that series than not, no question."
GamecockCentral.com's Wayne Turner contributed to this story