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November 18, 2008

Analysis: After two games, USC looking good

Two down, at least 28 to go.

But right now, South Carolina's basketball team is enjoying itself.

"I think in general, the goal's always to win," coach Darrin Horn said after an 86-63 walloping of Winthrop over the weekend. "I thought we saw some progress tonight."

The Gamecocks (2-0) won't be getting any votes in the Top 25 for a while and aren't on any "bubble" lists for the NCAA tournament. They've beaten two opponents who, while the Eagles are a very good team, they were expected to beat.

So while they're keeping their smiles brandished, they're also keeping themselves grounded.

Their biggest goals aren't accomplished yet.

"We're still growing, we're still learning," said point guard Devan Downey, repeating a theme he's said after each practice and game this season. "As a team, we're still learning. But the thing we're going to do is come to practice tomorrow and get it back together."

Thus far, Horn's system is suiting the Gamecocks, who lost starter Brandis Raley-Ross for the next three-to-four weeks but haven't checked their approach. Each of the two games featured USC running right at the opponent, mostly trying to get an inside shot instead of camping on the wing while the shot clock wound.

USC is shooting an average of 47.2 percent from the floor and is doing most of it with double-digits on the shot clock. After seven years of bleeding clock and waiting for a 3-pointer, the Gamecocks are being aggressive and going to the glass.

It seems to serve a two-pronged approach. If the shots go in, that obviously gives USC a lead to work with and a chance to use its speed to quick-switch to defense. If the lead gets sizable enough -- like it did against Winthrop, when a flurry of made shots and Eagles mistakes became a 19-0 advantage -- Horn can afford to sit his starters down for a brief spell until the opponent gets back into the game.

Every minute Downey and the other starters rest now is another minute they'll have at the end of the year.

Downey is again the team's sparkplug but is making an effort to get everybody else involved in the game. The offense is not depending on Downey to get the first-through-fourth looks on every possession -- rather, it's Downey taking over only when he has to.

Against Winthrop, after the Eagles cut the lead to eight near the end of the first half, Downey scored eight straight points. He stopped after that, partly because the second half had begun and the rest of the Gamecocks were fully rested and partly because once Zam Fredrick loaded up for a 3-pointer, the game was about to be over.

"The difference is Devan," Horn said.

Dominique Archie has played two sterling games, combining for 25 points and 19 rebounds. He's shown off a very good inside game -- a hidden present for much of the past two years -- and has really bought into Horn's defensive toughness, posting four blocks and six steals.

"I like to bang inside, but I don't have to stay inside," he explained.

Mike Holmes has also been playing well, throwing his body all over the court in pursuit of loose balls and rebounds. He's taken some hard shots in the paint, spending about a fourth of each game on his back after an inside shot, but has shown off a surprising touch on his jumper for such a big player.

"Like coach says, all five as one," he said. "We just have to help each other out and that's all I'm trying to do. We just had a lot of energy and we went down and gave it our all."

Branden Conrad also responded well in his first career start, rising above Evka Baniulis when Raley-Ross went down because Horn likes Conrad's steadiness in the guard role. He's not flashy but is contributing, dishing five assists and swiping three balls while scoring six points against the Eagles.

Conrad's presence will be extremely valuable in the future, especially if Downey is saddled with foul trouble (as he was against Jacksonville State) or has to leave the game unexpectedly (against Winthrop, he had a slight finger injury that wasn't serious, but had to be corrected on the bench).

As a whole, USC has scored in bunches and gotten its defense off its haunches and fully into gear. It was the same case in the first two games last season, when the Gamecocks scored 92 and 103 points against S.C. State and The Citadel, respectively.

Then USC lost 85-75 to a very good Southern Cal team and coach Dave Odom decided to begin working more of a set-offense gameplan, instead of letting speed set up the points.

That won't happen this year. Speed is crucial to what Horn's trying to do, and while the up-tempo pace tentatively leaves the door open for more injuries -- bodies hit the deck a lot more often these days, it seems -- it's the best option for scoring.

Hard to win without putting the ball in the hole.

"It's just OK," Horn said, cautiously keeping a lid on the team's performance so far. "We've got a long way to go."

But at least the early returns are encouraging, if not downright enticing.



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