The South Carolina basketball program may have lost point guard Bruce Ellington to the football team for the early part of the season. And it may have lost forward Murphy Holloway back to Ole Miss before he ever put on a uniform for the Gamecocks.
But that didn’t keep coach Darrin Horn from putting together a tough non-conference schedule for his inexperienced team. The Gamecocks will play host to national power Ohio State, bring Providence to the Colonial Life Arena for the Big East/SEC Challenge, play North Carolina at a neutral site in the Las Vegas Invitational, and travel to face rival Clemson.
“It would have been easier to just completely dumb it down and rack up as many wins as we could and say, ‘Hey, look, we’re doing better,’” Horn said Monday. “But philosophically, building for the long term, that’s really not what we’re going for. What we want to see is what we’ve been talking about for months. We want to see progress. We want to see a team that gets better. I don’t necessarily think that two wins in Las Vegas, for example, means that we’ve arrived and we’re where we want to be. But it’s a process. It’s time to move forward and not rehash.”
Horn remains disappointed last season’s team, which finished 14-16 overall and 5-11 in the SEC East, did not get better. He’s determined to address that issue this season, even with Ellington, who started every game as a freshman, not available until the end of football season.
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“It would be nice to have him, sure. But we also know that (we don’t) going in. It’s not like an injury,” he said.
The Gamecocks will face at least six teams that posted 18 or more wins last season, including UNC, Southern California or UNLV, Clemson, Ohio State and Wofford, which all advanced to the NCAA Tournament. November’s Las Vegas Invitational will consist of two home games against Tennessee State and Mississippi Valley State and games in Las Vegas against North Carolina and then either UNLV or Southern Cal.
The game against the Tar Heels is the first meeting between the former ACC rivals since the 1996-97 season. Horn is excited about that challenge.
“There’s the North-South (Carolina) thing. There’s the background with the league (ACC) play and the history and tradition of playing,” he said. “Year in and year out, they’re going to be one of the top teams in college basketball and so you know you’ve got a team like that on your schedule this year. You can’t beat those teams if you don’t play them.”
Ohio State, which features All-American Jared Sullinger, is another one of those teams that will test a team led by returning forwards Lakeem Jackson and Malik Cooke, the only two upperclassmen on the roster.
“It’s obviously a very aggressive, challenging schedule for this team. But it’s one that fits with our philosophy of continuing to build and grow a program,” Horn said.
A closer look at USC’s 2011 nonconference slate:
Nov. 11 -- Western Carolina | First meeting since 2007. USC is 7-0 all-time vs. reigning Southern Conference’s North Division co-champion.
Nov. 15 -- at Elon | Horn is 0-3 in road games versus Southern Conference teams since coming to USC. Gamecocks beat the Phoenix in last year’s season opener 94-79.
Nov. 20 -- Tennessee St. | First of two Las Vegas Invitational games in Columbia. USC won its only meeting with OVC school in 1985. The Tigers coaching staff has USC connections: head coach John Cooper was an assistant from 1996-2001; assistant coach Rick Duckett was an assistant in 1982 and 2002-08; and assistant coach Sheldon Everette played for the Gamecocks in 2003-04.
Nov, 22 -- Mississippi Valley | Second Las Vegas Invitational game in Columbia. First meeting with the SWAC team.
Nov. 25 -- vs. UNC (at Las Vegas Invitational) | First contest in 15 years between former Atlantic Coast and Southern Conference foes. Gamecocks have not beaten the Tar Heels, a Final Four favorite, since 1990.
Nov. 26 -- vs. UNLV or Southern Cal (at Las Vegas Invitational) | Winners/losers game. USC holds 2-1 series lead after the teams split a home-and-home series in 2006 and 2007. Gamecocks lead the Rebels 5-1, whom they last beat on the way to the 2005 NIT title.
Dec. 1 -- Providence | Part of the Big East/SEC Challenge. Friars hold 4-3 series lead after a 2007 win in Philadelphia. Providence has lost 16 straight road games.
Dec. 4 -- at Clemson | USC snapped a six-game losing streak against the Tigers with a 64-60 in Columbia last year. The Gamecocks have not won at Littlejohn Coliseum since 2003.
Dec. 13 -- Presbyterian | South Carolina has won all but eight of 38 meetings with the Blue Hose, including a 2008 victory. Presbyterian returns three of its four top scorers from a team that beat Auburn, Wake Forest, Navy and Princeton last year.
Dec. 17 -- Ohio State | Center Jared Sullinger comes to Colonial Life Arena after getting 30 points and 19 rebounds in the Buckeyes’ 91-57 romp over USC last year in Columbus.
Dec. 21 -- Southeastern Louisiana | This will be the first meeting between the schools. USC assistant coach Neill Berry played on the 2005 Lions team that won the Southland Conference and lost to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Dec. 28 -- Wofford | South Carolina beat the reigning Southern Conference champions 64-53 last season and hold a 42-19 edge in the series.
Dec. 31 -- USC Upstate | The Gamecocks lead the series 2-0 after a 57-41 victory over the Spartans last year. Head coach Eddie Payne was an USC assistant from 1986-91.
Jan. 3 -- S.C. State | Tune-up game before the SEC season starts. USC is 17-0 versus the Bulldogs, winning 91-56 last year.