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Emerson: Rebuilding is same old song for USC

YOU ARE A long-suffering South Carolina basketball fan. You have been patient. You have tolerated rebuilding projects. You have done this because you were told the payoff was near.

And now you may be asking yourself: Really? Are we really doing this again?

This was supposed to be the season. Everything was geared to capitalize on a strong 2008-09 season and get back to the NCAA tournament - maybe even end that 37-year drought without a tourney win.

And now it's back to the NIT - maybe - barring a miracle run in Nashville.

Once Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes were subtracted from this year's team, USC essentially was left with a different version of the 2007 team that struggled to a 4-12 SEC record. The similarities, when you break it down, are striking.

Star point guard Devan Downey (averaging 22.7 points per game this season) is a slightly better, higher-scoring version of Tre' Kelley (18.9 ppg. in 2006-07). Kelley was a first-team All-SEC pick, and Downey will be too.

Center Sam Muldrow (a shot-blocking fiend and third-option scorer) is this season's Brandon Wallace.

Shooting guard Brandis Raley-Ross (averaging 11.4 points per game) equals Bryce Sheldon, another senior 3-point specialist.

Freshman Lakeem Jackson, playing out of position at power forward, was played in 2007 by Archie, who also was playing out of position in the post.

The 2007 team did better in the nonconference (10-3 with wins at Southern Cal and Baylor) but worse in SEC play. (This year's team is 5-7 with two tough games and two toss-ups remaining.)

Another similarity? There was even a midseason contract extension for both coaches.

In 2007, the hope was the cavalry was on the way: Downey and Zam Fredrick were sitting out their transfer seasons, and it looked like Mike Jones was going to join them. The staff also was excited about two new big men: Holmes and Muldrow.

This time around, the hope and excitement centers on an energetic young coach and his highly-ranked recruiting class: explosive point guard Bruce Ellington; athletic big man Damontre Harris; and potential pieces in shooter Brian Richardson and 6-foot-9 R.J. Slawson. There also is a transfer, forward Malik Cooke from Nevada, who could start right away.

Still, does any USC fan might wonder if the cycle is starting all over again? When will USC get a player as special as Downey in here again? Are Ellington, Harris, Cooke and company really any better than Downey, Muldrow, Archie and company?

Here's the glimmer of hope you latch on to: While people knew Downey was good, they had no idea he would be this good. Muldrow and Archie also turned out to be better than anticipated. The same could happen with the incoming recruits, and if Jackson develops even an average outside shot, he can be very good. In a couple years, when Darrin Horn's recruits are sophomores and juniors, do you really expect another freak occurrence like losing the team's second- and third-leading scorers?

The fans have heard wait-till-next year for a while now, just like in 2007. Now, the whispers have been "wait till two years from now" when Jackson and Ramon Galloway are juniors and Ellington and Harris are sophomores. Horn harps on "building a program," and he has the faith of his athletics director to do so without having to sacrifice anything in the interim.

So yes, Gamecock fans, settle in for the long haul ... again. This isn't Kentucky. A coach can't come here and instantly bring in five of the nation's top 20 recruits. The model, instead, is Vanderbilt, a program that's in the mix almost every year. That didn't happen overnight: Kevin Stallings in his 10th year.

In the meantime, yes, the state of this season is frustrating, but it's nobody fault. And this year's team did produce one special moment, beating No. 1 Kentucky. It may end up being the only highlight in an otherwise drab season, but at least that moment happened. That's something to remember as the future once again becomes the story.