In Defense of Darrin Horn and USC Basketball

In light of the general response I'm hearing from a lot of our fans to the Gamecocks' disappointing loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the first round of the SEC Tournament, I feel that I need to respond to what I believe are some general misperceptions about the state of our basketball program. These are, from more specific to general:

1. Darrin Horn's poor coaching cost us the game against Alabama.

2. We're going to be toast next year without Devan Downey.

3. Darrin Horn will never bring this team to the level that we hope to see our program rise to.

Let's take a look in order at these ideas, all of which I feel are on some level mistaken.

1. Darrin Horn's poor coaching cost us the game against Alabama.

The complaint against Horn's coaching in the Alabama game focuses on his choice to begin trying to run the clock out midway through the second half. I won't disagree that this was a questionable call on Horn's part. Going conservative--particularly when you're coaching a team that seems to run on rhythm and that's having its way with its opponent by playing uptempo--is always a tough call. However, I don't think we can totally slam Horn for this one. Consider this: we were up by 18 with around 11 to go. In this situation, it's reasonable to believe that you can try to begin running out the clock and, as long as your team manages to make a few more buckets, limit turnovers, and play good defense, win the game. Even if you were to score no more points, your opponent would basically have to score a little less than a bucket a minute to make the comeback, not an easy feat for the opponent if you manage to run most of the shot clock off on each of your possessions. The problem, of course, is that we completely failed in most aspects of what would be considered wise clock-draining procedure. Not only did we fail to create and make good shots, but we turned the ball over a handful of times and allowed 'Bama to score easy baskets, perhaps the cardinal sin of running out the clock. (Doing this is analogous to fumbling in the final five minutes of a football game you're leading, which is of course why coaches preach ball protection in that situation.) In other words, the problem was as much a failure to execute the game plan as it was poor coaching by Horn. Trust me; Horn didn't want Brandis Raley-Ross turn the ball over or for Downey to attempt and miss widely next-to-impossible shots.

Continue reading after the jump.

2. We're going to be toast next year without Devan Downey.

Downey, who was named unanimous first-team AP All-SEC choice today, will go down in history as one of the best basketball players to take the court in a USC uniform. He will be sorely missed. However, we will march on without him. While sans Downey, next year's team should be overall more talented than this year's, especially if we get Dominique Archie back. A talented freshman class highlighted by Downey's heir apparent Bruce Ellington will join us next year. In terms of raw talent, this group will be superior--outside of Downey-- to the class they are replacing. Moreover, this year's freshman class featured two stars in the making in Lakeem Jackson and Ramon Galloway, both of whom came on strong at the end of the year and will be stalwarts for years to come, especially if they can work on a few lacking aspects of their games over the offseason. (I'll have more to say about these and other returning players in an upcoming post.) In sum, while I expect next year's team to experience some growing pains due to youth, I think it will eventually provide the core of a team with greater potential than the one we saw this year.

3. Darrin Horn will never bring this team to the level that we hope to see our program rise to.

The most surprising sentiment I've heard aired over the weekend is the idea that Horn doesn't have what it takes to lead this team to success. I'll be forthcoming in saying that I really don't know if Horn will ever take our program to the elite. He may not. However, with all due respect to anyone that isn't on board with him, it's important to recognize that this year was a complete wash due to the injuries to Archie and loss of Mike Holmes and thus should not in any way be used to judge Horn's coaching ability. If you want to take issue with Horn's conservatism against 'Bama, fine. However, I'm willing to match that criticism with numerous pieces of evidence of Horn's coaching acumen. Hindsight is 20-20 on these sorts of issues, particularly for the arm-chair coach. The reality is that Horn is a young coach and will have his good days and bad days, and to me, he's having more good than bad.

This is all to say that what's making it hard for him to win enough games to keep us happy isn't his in-game coaching ability. It's the lack of talent in Columbia right now. We put very few players--really only Downey and Jackson--on the court who were getting much attention from relatively elite programs in high school, and we had no one who was considered comparable to the kind of players Kentucky starts. Whether Horn succeeds at USC or not--and the same goes for other newcomers to the SEC like Georgia's Mark Fox--will have everything to do with whether or not he can lure that kind of talent to us in the future. He's already shown with his successful recruitment of Jackson, Ellington, and incoming forward Demontre Harris. If he can keep getting players like that and can develop them, he can eventually get us at least close to the talent level present in Lexington, Knoxville, and Gainesville. That's when you'll start to see consistent results.

I think part of what I'm saying is that while a lot of what happened this year sucked, it was largely bad luck that did us in. Don't let that get you down heading into the future. There are still indications that we're headed in the right direction, starting with the nice recruiting class Horn has put together.

This post, as always, is intended to be a conversation starter. Disagree with me? Tell us why in the comments section.

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