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March 7, 2012

Outside distractions not an issue

VIDEO: Malik Cooke

Of course they've heard it. They'd have to be completely shut off in order not to, and in this age of social media, that's impossible.

But hearing is one thing, letting it fester is another.

"The one thing that's been really positive about this group of guys is they've continued to work hard and have a good attitude," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said on Tuesday, just before he and his Gamecocks departed for New Orleans and the SEC tournament. "That's not OK, to do that and not get the wins. We understand that and don't make excuses for it. That's a challenging thing for young people to do, but they have done that."

The boo birds have come calling, more and more frequently, as USC has finished a disastrous 10-20 season. The Gamecocks will match the worst overall loss total in school history (21) and own the program's worst SEC finish (2-14), no matter what happens this week.

It hasn't been easy, especially for 18-to-23-year-olds to listen to it from fellow students or outsiders, plus be able to read about it in the newspaper or on the web. Shoot, some folks might lose momentary control and post a snarky Tweet to the Gamecocks, most of whom have a Twitter account.

No matter. The Gamecocks say they wouldn't pay attention to it if they were winning. It's been drilled into their heads since Day One that they shouldn't pay attention to anything outside the practice gym, especially when they're inside it.

"We talk about that all the time," Horn said. "The importance of eliminating distractions. And they can come in a ton of forms. Anything that's not a part of what we need to do to win a basketball game is ultimately a distraction, but that's something that we try to teach them all the time."

USC begins the SEC tournament on Thursday, knowing that even with a win or two there, the season will be a failure. The Gamecocks' record didn't improve, and although some players did individually - and the overall competitiveness of the squad never wavered - there isn't a lot of hope on the horizon, at least not at this point.

Some have begun to wonder if Horn's job is in jeopardy after four years, each with descending win totals, but sources around the program and the athletic department have told GamecockCentral.com over the past few weeks that barring a major development, Horn will return in 2012-13. Athletic director Eric Hyman does have the final call, and he will not comment until the season is over, but he has been publicly supportive of Horn and the program during the season.

Horn wouldn't comment on any specific words of encouragement that he had received from Hyman on Monday during the SEC coaches' teleconference, but did say he had received support. "Regardless of any of that stuff, whether it was positive or negative, and it has been positive, we've got a game to play on Thursday," he said.

Horn's focus has been to prepare his team to play in the SEC tournament, which can represent a new beginning for every team. Some enter the four-day event knowing that they're going to be playing next week. Some are hoping to win enough so that they'll be playing next week.

USC is one of the latter. It's win-or-bust for the Gamecocks, as their win total won't come near to qualifying for the NIT. Their only option, if they want to continue the season, is win four games in four days and waltz away with the league's automatic pass to the NCAA tournament.

That would be a miraculous end to a trying season, and despite the record, would transform the season into at least a semi-success. Any NCAA tournament trip, especially to a program that has a mere eight in its history, is cause for celebration, no matter if a team has four wins, eight wins or 10 wins.

USC is hoping to end on a good note. The moans from outside may increase, but the Gamecocks' resolve has been immensely strong throughout the year.

"Everybody's real positive, ready to go into the SEC tournament and see what we can do," senior Malik Cooke said.

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