NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Three words have been uttered by Darrin Horn over and over this season: "Building a program." The USC men's basketball coach has said it at pregame news conferences, postgame ... anytime.
It might seem a curious thing to say about a program that celebrated its 100th anniversary the season before Horn arrived. But Horn's point is clear: In everything he did this year, from off-court discipline to on-court tactics, it was done to lay a foundation.
After all, this is a program that has not been to the NCAA tournament since 2004 - and will not go this year, barring a run to the SEC tournament championship, which opens today when the fifth-seeded Gamecocks take on No. 4 seed Alabama.
And this is a program that has not won an NCAA tournament game since 1973. By comparison, since 1996, each of the other 11 SEC programs has advanced to at least one NCAA Sweet 16.
Horn's first season was rosy from the start. The Gamecocks went 21-10 and were kept out of the NCAAs only by a late-season slide.
This season has been rocky, but it has had its moments. There was the win against No. 1 Kentucky in January and an upset at No. 13 Vanderbilt on Saturday. The Gamecocks finished the regular season 15-15 overall and 6-10 in league play. They played the final 24 games without two of their best players, Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes.
"I think the progress has been huge," Horn said Wednesday. "I think you look at - given the adversity our team has been through - (what) they've been able to do."
Horn pointed at several facts: The program's first win against a No. 1-ranked team. A share of the Eastern Division title last season. A two-year league record (16-16) that is among USC's best since it joined the SEC in 1992.
"We put ourselves in a position to compete every night," Horn said. "That's what builds a program. As you get talent in, as you get experience, as you get depth, then some things become easier. You're never going to win big if you don't have that. I think we've made huge progress in that area. I couldn't be prouder of our guys and our team, especially our seniors."
The Gamecocks entered the season with high expectations after stars Devan Downey and Archie pulled out of the NBA draft and returned for their senior seasons.
Downey has been outstanding, leading the SEC in scoring and earning first-team All-SEC honors for the third consecutive year.
But the season went off the rails Nov. 22 in Charleston, when Archie injured his knee against Miami. A few weeks later, he had season-ending knee surgery.
Holmes, a junior forward, sustained an eye injury over Thanksgiving break. Then he was dismissed from the team Jan. 1 for repeated violations of team rules.
Predictably, the Gamecocks slipped, finishing fifth in the SEC East. But they pulled out some stunning wins in the process.
"It's hard to categorize," Gamecock radio analyst Casey Manning said of this season. "Sometimes you have to take a step backwards before you can go forward. This year was a situation (of) 'what-if.'"
Manning, a former Gamecocks player, has been calling USC games since 1993, the first year of Eddie Fogler's coaching tenure. Manning pointed to the decision to dismiss Holmes as an example of Horn's focus on the future.
"You've got to realize he knew what he was doing when he said Mike Holmes has gotta go," Manning said. "Those are the long-term goals of the program, not just win this year. That was a decision that had to be made; it was the right one. If you had Mike Holmes, we wouldn't be 15-15."
The incoming recruiting class is rated by some analysts as the best in the SEC, headed by point guard Bruce Ellington and post player Damontre Harris. The current freshmen, led by forward Lakeem Jackson and guard Ramon Galloway, have been solid.
The big question is how the team will fare post-Downey.
"You're not gonna see many more Devan Downeys," Manning said. "But (Horn) has a pretty good class coming in. For the first time probably, he'll have the bodies he needs for his system. Next year will be a real interesting test. But I think it'll be the following year where we really should arrive in his system."