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Morris: Overcoming injuries is not easy for USC - yet

College basketball coaches have talked for years about how good teams often become great ones through injuries to key players. The thinking is when the injured players return to the lineup, the remainder of the team has improved in the interim.

Darrin Horn is not so sure. His belief is that good programs -rather than teams - become great programs through injuries. Horn is not certain his South Carolina program is good enough, or far enough along, to improve without injured starters Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes.

"Getting it to where it's about the program and not the players is key," Horn said. "That's what we're trying to do, anyway. Maybe this helps us. Maybe it forces us to realize it more, earlier."

When an established program such as Duke, North Carolina or Michigan State suffers injuries to a key player or players, they continue to move forward. Each of those programs plugs in another player or two and do not miss a beat.

Programs at that level do not change their style of play in a player's absence. Attacking man-to-man defense will continue to be Duke's staple. North Carolina will keep pushing the tempo. Michigan State always will play tenacious half-court defense.

Horn uses North Carolina as an example. The Tar Heels lost four starters and almost all of their scoring from last season's national championship team. Yet UNC remains among the top teams in the country.

"I don't care how good the next guys are, whether they're McDonald's All-Americans, if you lose four guys who are that good with that much experience, you can't do what (UNC is) doing now if you don't have a program," Horn said. "The kids know (the program) works, they believe in it, they know it's (their) turn."

Horn admits his program is nowhere near that point. That's because he is building a program, something that has been in short supply around USC athletics for years.

Baseball and track are the two sports in which USC has enjoyed the most success in recent years. The reason? Coaches Ray Tanner and Curtis Frye have built programs for the long haul, programs that sustain success.

Steve Spurrier is attempting to do the same in football, although he is finding it takes much longer to build a program where none really existed. At least Horn has some historical success to build on thanks to the glory days of USC basketball under Frank McGuire.

Still, Horn's construction project will not be complete this season or next. It might take four or five years to get it where he wants it. It could take three or four - maybe five - solid recruiting classes for Horn's program to reach the point where it can sustain injuries and keep chugging along.

For now, though, injuries to Archie and Holmes hurt far beyond the pain each is suffering. Having those players on the floor was like having extra cash in USC's bank account.

Now, there is little margin for error. Without Archie and Holmes, USC cannot afford for Devan Downey, Brandis Raley-Ross, Sam Muldrow or Lakeem Jackson to have subpar outings.

Where the injuries might be noticeable is in USC's lack of depth, because newcomers Ramon Galloway, Stephen Spinella and Johndre Jefferson are not advanced enough to plug holes.

The depth issue has caused Horn to make adjustments in USC's style of play. Even though USC has played more zone defense this season than last, it played significant zone minutes in its loss at Clemson.

Those are the kinds of adjustments Horn hopes he will not have to make in two or three seasons. By then, maybe he will be in position to do what Michigan State did in 2000.

Star point guard Mateen Cleaves sustained a stress fracture in his foot and missed Michigan State's first 13 games. The Spartans were 9-4 without him, and coach Tom Izzo did not change the way they played.

When Cleaves returned, Michigan State was a better, deeper team. It went 23-3 and won the national championship with Cleaves in the lineup. When Cleaves sprained his ankle in the title game victory against Florida, Michigan State did not blink. It knew how to play without him.

Horn is probably correct. It is unreasonable to believe his program is to the point where it can become a significantly better team while Archie and Holmes recuperate. This USC team is certainly no Michigan State team of 2000.

Unfortunately for Horn and USC, there is little margin for error when it comes to wins and losses. The next six nonconference games will go a long way in determining USC's postseason fate.

The NCAA tournament selection committee does not care if USC has not developed a solid program.