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June 22, 2009Darrin Horn looked relaxed and comfortable.
Why shouldn't he? Two of the biggest reasons for that expression were about to walk into the same room.
"Now that we have those guys, do we feel like we have a chance to be very good and how are we going to best utilize that and what are the challenges that come with that?" Horn asked. "It's really sort of just a different set of challenges, but if I had to pick one or the other, I'd take the one I have now, for sure."
Horn spoke publicly on Monday for the first time since rising fifth-year seniors Devan Downey and Dominique Archie pulled their names out of the NBA Draft and returned for their final collegiate seasons. South Carolina's second-year coach was glad to have them back, but didn't pin his team's success squarely on the duo.
His point was simple -- as a coach, he's been through the process before. Having the two back definitely makes the Gamecocks' goal of improvement more realistic, but had they not returned, the goal wouldn't have changed.
"We've got them until we don't have them," Horn said. "Our expectations are to be good enough to compete and compete night-in and night-out and to be a team, whether it's at home or on the road, that has a chance to win every game. That's what we want to do.
"That sounds really simple and boring but the fact of the matter is, if we accomplish that, then you know what? We'll probably be ranked, we'll probably be a tournament team, we'll have a chance to win games."
The chance he spoke of seems to be on much more stable ground.
Downey and Archie's return means USC has the SEC's top returning scorer (Downey) and one of its most versatile players (Archie). After several other SEC underclassmen did the same as the Gamecocks' pair, the league's reputation increased significantly.
The SEC East alone will have four teams (Tennessee, USC, Florida and Kentucky) which won at least 21 games last year, plus a Vanderbilt team that won 19. Tyler Smith returns to the Volunteers; the Gators lost Nick Calathes but return Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin; the Commodores return almost everybody and added hot prospect John Jenkins; and new Kentucky coach John Calipari brought in a sheaf of all-star recruits to aid in his rebuilding task.
Then there are the Gamecocks. Returning Downey, who Horn labeled the best point guard in the country, and Archie cements two starting spots and two more returnees (Mike Holmes and Sam Muldrow) have significant starting experience. Horn signed a four-man class, two of which (Lakeem Jackson and Steve Spinella) are already on campus, and expectations are high.
Not just Horn's and those of the USC fans, after a 21-10 team tied for first in the SEC East and made the NIT. The nation's eyes are on Columbia, too -- ESPN's Andy Katz recently ranked USC No. 23 in one of his preseason Top 25 polls.
"The sky's the limit," said Downey, who took his place in front of the microphones after Horn finished and was echoed with the same phrase by Archie. "There's no limit to what this team can do."
Downey and Archie applied for the draft intending to work out and see if they were considered "safe" prospects, with each knowing they'd return to school unless they heard something extraordinary. Each worked out a few times, Horn guiding them through the process and communicating NBA personnel's thoughts to them, until the deadline.
"They both (had) a real chance and they were liked in their workouts," Horn said. "Right now, for various reasons and circumstances, there wasn't a guarantee of being a high pick or lock for the first round. I think the experience was good and I think they learned some things and I think it'll be things that will hopefully drive them to improve and get better so that this time next year, they may feel better about that."
Playing in Europe, according to Horn, was never discussed.
"Because it's happening somewhere else and could become a trend doesn't mean it's happening in a specific situation," he said, referring to decisions by Clemson's Terrence Oglesby and Florida's Calathes to quit school and play professionally overseas. "That was not something we talked about. That's not something that came up in any of our discussions. Did it cross somebody's mind or something? Who knows?"
"I don't know where that came from," Downey said. "I really don't see how a player can do that and then somebody throws my name into the conversation. I was on the front page of the paper and I didn't say a word about it. That was just a crazy thing to me."
The feedback came in and each player decided it wasn't worth the gamble. They returned and USC's stock shot up.
Now the Gamecocks have to prove it was worthy. The expectations were low last year and they massively overtook them. This year, even in a healthy division, the expectations will be high.
Horn's got no plans to back down. He was asked what his expectations are.
"Undefeated, of course," he replied. "The reality of it is, we did not finish last year and there's a reason for that. It's because we've got to continue to work harder and get tougher and understand and mature and all of those things. Just to show up in another year and thinking it's going to be better doesn't make a difference."
NOTES: The other two signees, Ramon Galloway and Johndre Jefferson, are expected to enroll later. Galloway should be on campus for the Summer II session while Jefferson appears to be heading for a fall enrollment. Horn said no other games "that he could talk about" have been added to the schedule. Known opponents are Baylor, Western Kentucky, Clemson, Wofford, Furman and three games during a Thanksgiving tournament in Charleston.