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February 24, 2009Darrin Horn didn't waste time.
"I think we need to start off today by acknowledging that tomorrow's a great day for basketball in our state and for our program," he said on Tuesday, previewing South Carolina's game hosting Kentucky on Wednesday. "Simply because these are the situations that you want to be in at this time of year."
The situation -- USC (19-6, 8-4 SEC) and Kentucky (19-8, 8-4) are two of the three teams tied for first place in the SEC East. The other, Florida, plays LSU tonight.
Regardless of what the Gators do, the winner of Wednesday's game will have a big step up on clinching the division title with only three games to play. For the Gamecocks, it'd be their first season sweep of the Wildcats since 1996-97.
The importance of the game caused Horn to slightly break character. He's said all season that he doesn't pay attention to standings and NCAA tournament projections, both of which the Gamecocks prominently figure in. But on Tuesday, he said he is keeping an eye on what can happen beyond Kentucky, because a Kentucky-level program is what he wants at USC.
"It's just that when I came here, we came here to build a program," he said, reiterating the comments he said on Monday during the SEC coaches teleconference. "Doing that is a process. You take care of what you can take care of and control what you can control, so that one day, over a period of time, you hope that you're Kentucky."
Horn knows about the standings but is not making that his sole point of emphasis in game-planning. That would be counter-productive to what he's trying to accomplish.
Putting a winning attitude in his players is. That leads, obviously, to more wins. More wins makes USC one of those teams like the Wildcats that can perhaps be counted on to receive some votes for conference champ every year, instead of the fourth, fifth or sixth place that is usually predicted for the Gamecocks in every preseason.
"We're not there yet," Horn said. "We're getting to play for it right now, which is great, which is ahead of schedule. We're not focusing on standings, we don't spend a ton of time talking about what we have to do to get to those standings, we keep talking about how we have to grind it out."
If Florida loses to LSU, USC and Kentucky will throw down for sole possession of first place. The Wildcats know if they lose on Wednesday, giving USC the head-to-head tiebreaker and falling a game behind in the standings, they'll be in a really tough situation.
"They played really well all year long and we've been a little bit inconsistent," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said on Monday. "It's been really fun to watch, except when you have to play against them."
Horn and the Gamecocks know they'll get UK's best shot, not that they didn't in a 78-77 win at Rupp Arena on Jan. 31. All-conference contenders Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson combined for 48 points in that game and are doubtless ready for more.
But this is the kind of place Horn wanted his program to be in. Now it's here.
"Those kids in Lexington, they don't have any championships, but they know what they're about because that's all that program has ever done," he said. "That's how you build a championship-level program. Ultimately, that's what we want to do and that's more than just being in position one time to be playing for first place in late February."
NOTE: The SEC revealed its selections for this year's group of Chick-Fil-A SEC Basketball Legends, to be honored at the SEC tournament. USC's pick was Grady Wallace.
A consensus All-American in 1957, Wallace led the country with 31.3 points per game. He averaged 28 points for his career and had four of the top six scoring games in school history.
His No. 42 was the first to be retired at USC.