UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: South Carolina giving Horn time to build

South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Darrin Horn looked on as #2 Kentucky defeated South Carolina 79-64   on Saturday  January  7, 2012  in Lexington, Ky.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Darrin Horn looked on as #2 Kentucky defeated South Carolina 79-64 on Saturday January 7, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

When appraising South Carolina's basketball program, Athletics Director Eric Hyman suggests a quaint concept: patience.

The thinking goes like this: Coach Darrin Horn, the former Tates Creek High School star, is the right person to raise the Gamecocks' long-dormant basketball profile. His four-year record going into this weekend — 58-48 overall, 21-27 in the Southeastern Conference — reflects the immense task he faces and masks the progress made in building a solid foundation.

"If you're going to do things the right way, it just takes longer," Hyman said last week. "If it's too good to be true, usually it's too good to be true."

But Hyman acknowledged that patience hardly exists anymore.

"Because society's that way," he said. "Remote control. Instant gratification. I understand expectations. People are not realistic on the time line."

South Carolina basketball can be likened to Kentucky football. A lot of progress can be made, but not be seen in the win-loss record. The competition is fierce. The tradition is sparse.

South Carolina has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973, the longest drought of any SEC program. By comparison, Kentucky has won 76 NCAA Tournament games in that span.

The A.D. noted improvement in academics. Horn inherited a program in "the depth of despair," Hyman said. "We were in the danger zone with an APR (Academic Progress Rate) below 900, which is tremendously concerning." In the last four years, the basketball team has improved its APR more than any other athletic program at the school, said Hyman, who credited Horn.

"We have all the academic support to help people," he said "We can lead a young person to water, but we can't force him to drink. Coaches control attitude and they control playing time. They have to be committed to it. Darrin is totally committed."

Of course, winning is the key indicator in the bottom-line business of coaching. If championships remain over the horizon, then "a program needs to create hope," Hyman said. "... Darrin knows he has to create hope on the basketball court."

In his first season of 2008-09, Horn guided South Carolina to a share of the SEC's Eastern Division championship. That snapped a streak of nine straight non-winning league records and marked the program's first divisional title since Eddie Fogler's Gamecocks won the regular-season title in 1997.

Since then, South Carolina went 6-10 (fifth place) and 5-11 (sixth place) in the league.

Losses earlier this season at Elon (58-53) and at home to Tennessee State (64-63) fueled speculation of Horn being on the metaphorical hot seat. Meanwhile, home attendance continued to shrink. Since 2006, South Carolina's average crowds for non-conference home games have dropped by about 35 percent: from 12,786 in 2006-07 to 8,279 this season.

But Hyman said that fan interest remains high and only needs a reason to translate into ticket sales. "People here are starved for success," he said.

With injuries healing (RJ Slawson's foot strain and Brenton Williams' knee sprain) and Bruce Ellington's return from playing football, the Gamecocks arose. They won six of seven heading into Saturday's game at Kentucky. The exception was a 74-66 home loss to then-No. 2 Ohio State in which South Carolina led at halftime.

"People can see the light," Hyman said. "Subconsciously, if nothing else, they can see where progress is being made. We're playing with enthusiasm. They've gotten better as this year has gone along."

The A.D. likened Horn to South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier. In Spurrier's first five seasons, the Gamecocks were 35-28 (18-22 in the SEC). An ugly end to the 2008 season — a 31-14 loss to in-state rival Clemson followed by a 31-10 bowl loss to Iowa — fanned the usual inane talk-show, blogosphere and Twitter chatter.

"Everybody was saying 'Coach is too old,' 'He's over the hill,' 'He's forgotten football,'" Hyman said.

In the last two seasons, Spurrier's teams have gone 20-7 (11-5 in the SEC).

Hyman also noted the example of Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer: 24-40-2 in his first six seasons, More recently, he's won 10 or more games in eight straight seasons and 11 of the last 13.

Hyman's brother played for Mike Krzyzewski at Army. So the A.D. was well aware of calls for Krzyzewski's firing early in his tenure at Duke. Everyone knows how that turned out.

"The list goes on and on," Hyman said before adding, "There is something to be said for continuity."

UK schedule

Last week, UK Coach John Calipari continued to promote the idea of dropping a traditional non-conference opponent: Either North Carolina, Indiana or Louisville. With Texas A&M and Missouri joining the SEC, the league will probably expand its schedule beginning next season — from 16 to 18 games, Calipari and Alabama Coach Anthony Grant said last week.

Calipari said he had to be careful not to overload a freshman-oriented UK team or put the program "in jeopardy."

While wondering what risk threatened UK basketball, we ran Calipari's schedule concerns past college basketball numbers cruncher Ken Pomeroy.

"I've never seen evidence that a tough schedule makes it any more difficult for a team to compete for a national title, so I don't even know what too much would be," Pomeroy wrote in an email. "Plus, is the SEC going to play more conference games? I don't really see where adding Mizzou and A&M will have a significant impact on schedule strength."

Meanwhile, there was nothing particularly striking about the strength of Kentucky's non-conference schedule this season.

In non-conference play, Kentucky had the fourth-toughest strength of schedule among SEC schools. UK's rating of No. 62 trailed Vanderbilt (14th), Alabama (27th) and Ole Miss (53rd).

Among traditional elite programs, Kentucky had a weaker non-conference schedule than Duke (No. 3), Connecticut (No. 6), Louisville (No. 25), North Carolina (No. 45), Kansas (No. 22) and UCLA (No. 50) heading into this weekend. That's according to Collegerpi.com.

Pomeroy ranked Kentucky's strength of schedule as only the 168th toughest.

What's in a name?

Iconic arenas immediately bring to mind elite programs. Cameron Indoor Stadium means Duke. Allen Field House means Kansas. Pauley Pavilion means UCLA.

"You can take it from there," said Herky Rupp when asked his feelings about a corporate sponsor replacing his father Adolph Rupp's name on UK's arena.

Then again, Mike Ondrejko, the chief operating officer for Legends Premium Sales, works to arrange naming rights deals between sports facilities and willing sponsors. He said that Lexington could command a naming rights fee of $2 million-plus for Rupp Arena.

Ondrejko, who earlier in his career worked on the renovation of Madison Square Garden, came away impressed after touring Rupp Arena last month.

"You know anything is possible from a renovation standpoint," he said. "The infrastructure is there to put something together."

Big Blue review

When substituting for John Calipari on the call-in radio show last week, assistant coach John Robic heard a familiar topic raised.

A caller asked about how Kentucky mishandled the last 5.6 seconds at Indiana.

"I appreciate the question," Robic said before being unable to resist adding, "We covered it the last month."

When Robic filled in for Calipari on the Dec. 19 show, another caller asked about the ending to the Indiana game being a teachable moment.

The caller last week suggested UK, which had two fouls to give, should have fouled any Indiana player, rather than focusing on the ball handler. After cautioning that such a strategy risked an intentional foul, Robic said that the Cats had subsequently practiced late-game situations and hoped to have learned from the way the Dec. 10 game at Indiana ended.

If ...

Although missing its best player, forward Will Neighbour, Arkansas-Little Rock extended Kentucky last week. He injured his right shoulder last weekend. Yet the Cats didn't take the lead for good until about five minutes into the second half.

UK's sluggish first half led Coach John Calipari to play a little motivational what-if concerning Neighbour, a 6-foot-10 sophomore and UALR's leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker.

"If the big kid that got hurt played, we probably get beat," Calipari said.

When told of Calipari's comment, UALR Coach Steve Shields smiled and said, "I don't know about that.

"I thought our guys gave great effort. We certainly missed Will, but we had some guys to step up."

Football or basketball

South Carolina two-sport athlete Bruce Ellington returned kickoffs on Monday. He shot three-pointers on Tuesday.

On Thursday, he sidestepped a question about whether football or basketball would be his dominant sport in the future.

"I can't tell you that right now," he said.

For what it's worth, Ellington seemed to put a higher value on basketball in October. When asked then if he considered himself a basketball player playing football or a football player playing basketball, he said: "I think of myself as a basketball player playing football."

Double duty

Bruce Ellington, who played for South Carolina's football and basketball teams this school year, is not the only person doing double duty.

Andy Shain, who covers South Carolina basketball for the newspaper in Columbia, The State, did not work the game in Rupp Arena. With newspaper staffs shrinking, reporters and copy editors must take on extra duties.

Shain is part of the newspaper's coverage of the upcoming South Carolina presidential primary. Until the Jan. 21 vote, he'll cover home games (Jan. 10 against Vandy, Jan. 14 against Florida) while also working the political beat.

'Kind of messed up'

To review: Bleid Sports organized the "Rumble in Rupp," a high school basketball event planned for the Thanksgiving weekend in Rupp Arena. But concerns about NCAA rules led to a cancellation.

Well, history repeated itself when Bleid Sports apparently cancelled a Las Vegas Shootout planned for Jan. 27-28.

Findlay Prep Coach Michael Peck complained that he only learned of the cancellation last week. This came after Bleid Sports failed to return his numerous phone calls, he said.

The Shootout was cancelled because of concerns about NCAA rules for an event to be played at UNLV's home court. Why not move the event to an area high school, Peck said.

Stan Hughes, the coach of an Iowa-based Quakerdale Eagles prep team, said the cancellation left parents and fans of his players holding more than $7,000 worth of plane tickets and/or hotel reservations. Those people looked for Hughes' help in getting refunds.

"Kind of a messed up situation," he said. "It was a huge inconvenience. ... It put me in a bad state of mind."

A call to Bleid Sports was not returned.

Happy birthday

To former Ole Miss Coach Rod Barnes. He turns 46 Sunday. ... To Bobby Perry. He turned 27 Saturday. ... To Terrence Jones. He turns 20 Monday. ... To Kirk Chiles. He turns 63 Sunday. ... To Larry Stamper. He turned 62 on Friday.

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