Eric Smith is the kind of recruit Darrin Horn needs to work hard to convince to attend USC.
Smith is a 6-foot point guard who will be a junior next season at Mullins High and one of the state’s best boys basketball players in his class. Smith grew up rooting for North Carolina, and he was offered a scholarship at Clemson as a freshman.
Horn was introduced as South Carolina’s coach on April 1. The next day, Horn was at Mullins recruiting Smith. A month later, USC offered him a scholarship.
But Horn’s energy only got him so far. While USC is in Smith’s top three, the player said he probably will see how the Gamecocks do in Horn’s first season before making his decision.
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“I want to win a national championship,” Smith said. “They haven’t done well lately.”
Horn’s recruiting situation at USC is the basketball version of whether the chicken or the egg came first. In the case of the 35-year-old Horn, does winning some recruiting battles lead to success on the court, or does success on the court lead to winning over recruits?
“It’s both,” Horn said. “I think we have to recruit that way right now and have some success (recruiting) without the on-court success. But I think the on-court success will enhance it.”
The men who preceded Horn gradually found out how hard it is to recruit top-notch basketball players to South Carolina. The state isn’t overflowing with talent and is sandwiched between North Carolina and Georgia.
Horn decided against the quick fix, and at this point he will enter his first season with no new players. Instead, he spent his first few months at USC building relationships with high school coaches in the state and offering scholarships to younger players such as Smith.
Dave Telep, the national recruiting analyst for scout.com, said Horn and his staff “blanketed” the AAU scene, as did every other high-major program this spring. But Telep saw the Gamecocks staff doing more.
“What most people don’t know is the foundation they began laying with the high school coaches by aggressively going out and contacting as many as they could during their first pivotal few weeks on the job,” Telep said.
The Gamecocks have no new commitments, though Horn continues to recruit the upcoming senior class.
He made late runs at Pinewood Prep star Milton Jennings — the sixth-ranked Class of 2009 recruit, according to rivals.com — and Union’s Devin Booker, a top-100 player. Both committed to Clemson, which was expected, especially in Booker’s case because his brother Trevor plays there.
The Gamecocks also missed out on Porter-Gaud standout Khris Middleton, who chose Texas A&M. So for the 2009 class, USC might be focusing its efforts outside the state.
The NCAA prohibits coaches from commenting on specific recruits. Telep said USC’s top target this year appears to be Lakeem Jackson, a 6-5 wing player from the Charlotte area whom Telep calls “a bonafide top-100 recruit.” Point guard Kenny Manigault, Jennings’ teammate at Pinewood Prep, also is in play for USC.
But the key to Horn’s recruiting push might be members of the 2010 class, such as Smith. Another player to watch is 6-5 wing Jason Morris, who has ties to Augusta and attends school in Connecticut.
“This is a guy where you can make a statement in your recruiting if you land Jason Morris,” said Jerry Meyer, the national recruiting analyst for rivals.com.
“So far, (Horn) doesn’t have anything to show for his work because he doesn’t have any 2009 or 2010 commitments,” Meyer said. “But I expect that to change. I expect Darrin to get a few. But to be honest, it’s hard to recruit for basketball at the University of South Carolina.”
So how do you change that?
Meyer’s recommendation for Horn’s staff is to be aggressive and not back off from a fight for a top recruit. It doesn’t hurt to show brashness and exude confidence in recruiting.
At the same time, Meyer said, USC must do a great job evaluating prospects, especially younger ones, and try to beat teams to the punch. USC has to find sleepers and identify young instate talent before other programs, including Clemson, get involved.
That has been the immediate challenge for Horn and his staff.
“If South Carolina hasn’t already been involved (in the recruitment of a player), there’s no affiliation, for lack of a better term, with the school,” Horn said. “And then if we’re just becoming involved personally, there’s none with us (the coaches). So we’re having to do that when everyone else has done it for a year already.”
Horn spent the past five years at Western Kentucky, where he knew if his recruiting opponent was Kentucky, Tennessee, etc., he would probably lose. At South Carolina, he knows that scenario doesn’t exist.
“One of the things we want to do, and part of the goal with the kids in the state, is we want them to be thinking about South Carolina and for it to be a premier option for them,” Horn said. “I don’t know if that’s the case or not.”
That might change with a trip or two to the NCAA tournament. Or with Horn becoming a constant presence on the recruiting trail, in this state and elsewhere.
“If a coach is going to get it done, I do think Darrin Horn is the type,” Meyer said. “He’s a tenacious worker, he’s got a strong personality, and he’s got some youth. And I think that’s what it’s going to take.”
Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.