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March 9, 2012

Cloninger: What happens now?



"What happens now?
Need a hero to save the day,
Pick us up and just fly away,
What happens now?"
--------------------------- COLD

NEW ORLEANS -- So what happens now?

Now, Darrin Horn tries to proceed as if business is as usual, hitting the recruiting trail and trying to make his program better in 2012-13, despite the black clouds hanging over his head. Now, Eric Hyman has a decision to make - will Horn get a chance to lead South Carolina basketball in 2012-13, or does he need to call the experiment a failure after four years and re-start with a new head chemist?

There was nothing to say after the Gamecocks' 63-57 loss to Alabama in the first round of the SEC tournament on Thursday. The Gamecocks stoically packed their gear and exited New Orleans Arena, able to enjoy the last moment in the locker room with a few smiles and jokes, or wonderment at the situation facing Auburn's Varez Ward, before they boarded a plane on Friday morning and came back to Columbia.

Horn has been adamant that he has received support throughout this year. Hyman has publicly said during his radio show and in other opportunities that he is behind Horn, pointing out the team's large amount of freshmen and sophomores, and mentioning the good things that Horn has accomplished, such as graduation rates, academic success and running a clean program. The USC Board of Trustees, although it will be Hyman's final call, has publicly pledged its support for Horn, saying he needs more time.

Looking ahead at next year, with or without Horn, the USC basketball team has only slivers of hope. The best thing about the Gamecocks throughout a 10-21 season was they never quit fighting, or gave up, as last year's team did when the losses piled up. USC banded together, and that camaraderie and brotherhood was still evident in the losing locker room scarcely 30 minutes after Thursday's loss.

But the man responsible for that chemistry, senior Malik Cooke, is gone next year. Lakeem Jackson will be the only senior on the roster, and while he helped Cooke by keeping the team together this year, he may not be able to duplicate that next year. Cooke was going to play, and was going to be on the court all the time to help inspire teammates in huddles. Jackson, once a starter, has seen his playing time dwindle this year.

USC showed some individual improvement this year, particularly in the case of Damontre Harris, an all-SEC defensive selection and definitely a player to target next year on offense. Anthony Gill can be an all-SEC player if he learns to stay out of early foul trouble and be aggressive with the ball in his hands, Damien Leonard can be the same if he quits relying on being a solely outside shooter, Brenton Williams can be this team's point guard and a very productive scorer and R.J. Slawson is a very good role player, the man who can get five points and seven rebounds a night.

There are pieces to build on, but Horn has to know that his biggest piece, Bruce Ellington, will be back to build around. While Ellington said after Thursday that he had not made up his mind on what he will do next year, it's known that Ellington loves basketball as much as he hates losing. Knowing that if he plays basketball full-time, he'll be a star but the team may not win a lot, it may influence his decision. He may be a spare part on the football team, but he had a couple of outstanding moments during the season, and that team won and should at least win more than it loses in the fall.

With Ellington back full-time, Horn could try and tweak his offense around Ellington, Harris, Gill and Leonard, with Williams an X-factor off the bench. The Gamecocks often looked lost in a half-court set, and that needs to be addressed. Horn could also perhaps re-adjust how he plays defense, abandoning the constant switching that often seemed overwhelming to a young team and playing a simpler style. If Ellington does decide to play football, then Horn has to go with Williams as his point guard, and hope that it doesn't take as long as it did this year for Ellington to get back into "basketball shape."

Horn needs to add players, wherever he can find them, for next year. Junior college or late high-school additions, wherever, the Gamecocks need bodies. And during all that, he needs to schedule for what he will have - another young team that's missing its leading scorer from this year. Forget Ohio State and North Carolina - with an 18-game SEC schedule, Horn needs to sign up every cupcake he can find and bring them to Columbia to make the road as easy as possible. Confirmed games are Western Kentucky, Clemson and Elon, all at home, a "throwback" game against an unidentified non-conference opponent at Carolina Coliseum, a game against Manhattan in Brooklyn, N.Y., and wherever USC has to travel to play in the Big East-SEC Challenge.

Throw all that in the pot, and USC could improve. It would be very hard not to improve, at least on the surface, from a 10-21, 2-14 SEC season. Winning would bring the fans back, something that is a concern but not a significant financial one yet, and that could start the ball rolling.

One decision makes that process begin. Horn and the Gamecocks head into a weekend, and perhaps longer, not knowing what will happen next.

What happens now?

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