If you're like me, you experienced Selection Sunday with a bit of ambivalence. Personally, I think that March Madness is the best thing sports has to offer--better than BCS Bowls, better than the World Series, better than the Super Bowl. It's an intense few weeks worth of great games, with every team playing at its best. I'm always shocked at how much better many teams seem to play when their backs are against the wall in March. There are always great upsets and great stories. It's simply an exciting time, and I enjoy every minute of it.
Of course, if you're a Carolina fan, you're left wondering why we can't be part of the fun. Carolina has a pretty abysmal record when it comes to making it to the Big Dance, not having made an appearance since 2003-2004. The pickings were pretty slim before that, too. Eddie Fogler got the Gamecocks into the dance in 1997 and 1998, but both of those teams were ejected from the tournament by low seeds, including 1997's shameful loss as a two-seed to fifteen-seed Coppin St., which was a 30-point underdog heading into the game. Prior to that, the Gamecocks made an appearance in 1989, it's only in a roughly 25-year period between the early 70s and the late 90s. We did have a few appearances in the early 70s, the heyday of the Frank McGuire era.
These days, we're farther than ever from being a competitive basketball program, a particularly sad thing to think about as we're on the cusp of yet another exciting-yet-Carolina-less tournament. The squad's 2-14 SEC mark this past season was the worst we've posted since joining the SEC in 1992. We don't have much history in basketball, but this was bad even by our past standards. Therefore, it's worth wondering what we need to do to get this team into the tournament with more regularity. I really believe that Carolina is positioned to be a good basketball program, but, clearly, some things have to happen for that to occur.
One possibility is a coaching change. Needless to say, that's probably what most Carolina fans want at this point, and while there's been some indication that Darrin Horn will get one more year, there's also been some indication that he might not. I'm not sure where I stand on that issue; part of me wants to say that any coach should get at least five years to make his program work, but things were so utterly dreadful this year that it's hard for me to get behind Horn. This past season was roughly equivalent to a 3-9 or 4-8 season in football, with one SEC win. Would that be tolerated, particularly coming off two more moderately losing seasons? Absolutely not. That being the case, it's hard to see how this will be tolerated, either, particularly considering the current problems with fan support.
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Of course, another way to look at it would be to ask if we can win next season with Horn at the helm. If there are signs of hope, perhaps it makes sense to give Horn another year to bring those hopes to fruition. The main thing that leads me to believe that there are signs of hope is the experience factor. Carolina only graduates a single player this year, Malik Cooke. Those are big shoes to fill, and I think it would behoove Horn to make a push for a good JUCO swingman, if there are any out there. (It appears that might, indeed, be the strategy we're pursuing.) Past Cooke, though, we're going to be a much more experienced team next year. Guys like Bruce Ellington and Damontre Harris will be upperclassmen, while Damien Leonard and Anthony Gill will be a year older. Carolina has lacked this kind of experience since Horn's first year, when we won the SEC East. Of course, that's partially Horn's fault, as we've had a lot of attrition; obviously, one has to believe that we would have been better this year with Ramon Galloway in a leadership role. And there may be more attrition this year if Horn stays. But if there's not, I think we will be in a much better position to succeed. Unless you're a team like Kentucky or UNC that can woo the one-and-done types, you need upperclassman leadership to win. It makes a big difference. Remember that group of players that struggled in Dave Odom's final two seasons? That's the same group that ended up winning a bunch of games in Horn's first year. A lot of people thought the coaching change was the key, but it hindsight, it was probably just as much the maturation of that group of players. Maybe Horn can have something like that again next year.
One thing I do know is that if Horn is given another year, it needs to be made very clear from the get-go that it's win or bust next year for his program. I'm not sure how many wins will be necessary, but I'm guessing that we would need to at least finish solidly on the bubble, with 20 wins or so. It will be time to put up or shut up for Horn--if that time hasn't already passed.