Darrin Horn could have taken it easy, lining up a run of cupcakes so another team without a lot of returning scoring could coast through the early season, pick up a few wins in the SEC and perhaps get to a postseason tournament.
"It's obviously a very aggressively challenging schedule for this team, but one that fits with our philosophy of continuing to build and grow a program, and stay the course with what we want to do here," South Carolina's fourth-year coach said on Monday, when he announced his non-conference schedule for the coming season. "That means playing a nationally competitive schedule. It fits into our philosophy that we keep the right company and play the kind of games we want to be a part in."
The 14-game slate features 10 home games, a four-game stint in a tournament, five games against teams that made the NCAA tournament in 2011 and two games against teams likely to be in the preseason Top 5. With at least four guaranteed games against SEC opponents Kentucky and Vanderbilt, each of which should receive heavy consideration for the Top 10, and the rest of the SEC, the Gamecocks' 2011-12 schedule should be fine when it comes to RPI and strength-of-schedule rankings.
Of course, that only holds so much weight. Without the wins to go with them, RPI and the other factors for the NCAA tournament are meaningless. Considering what Horn lost in terms of scoring and production from a 14-16 team, there was a fleeting thought on the outside that he could tone down the schedule and give his scant roster (the Gamecocks number 11 players, counting Bruce Ellington, who won't be available until early December at the earliest).
"You can't beat those teams if you don't play them," Horn said. "A lot of people and colleagues in the business say I'm crazy, I've lost my mind, with my schedule. It's going to give us an opportunity to test ourselves very early."
For the second straight season, USC heads to the road for its second game. The Gamecocks went to Michigan State after opening with Elon last season; this year they will open with Western Carolina and then go to Elon.
It's the second game of a two-for-one deal, where the Phoenix will come back to Columbia next year. Although only the second game of the year can hardly ever be called a must-win, this one may be - Horn is 0-3 on the road against the Southern Conference during his USC tenure, a sticking point for many disgruntled fans.
USC then returns home to begin its stint in the four-game Las Vegas Invitational. Like last year, Horn was looking for a marquee game or tournament for his team so it could have national exposure (Michigan State on ESPN was the big matchup he asked for last year) and the Vegas tournament came calling.
It's a unique tournament, in that two games of it will be played in Columbia before the Gamecocks head to Las Vegas for the final two. Tennessee State (featuring former assistant coaches John Cooper and Rick Duckett plus former player Sheldon Everett) will visit Colonial Life Arena to start, followed by Mississippi Valley State, and then comes the big matchup.
The Gamecocks will reunite with North Carolina, a heavy favorite to be the top-ranked team in the country in the preseason, for the first time since 1997. Former rivals in the Southern and Atlantic Coast Conferences, USC and UNC will play for the 79th time in their history.
After that comes a matchup with either Southern Cal or UNLV, each an NCAA tournament team last year, which leads into another TV matchup, hosting Providence in USC's installment of the SEC-Big East Challenge. Then the Gamecocks head to the Upstate for their annual rivalry game with Clemson, the Tigers an NCAA tournament team last season but also a team that lost to USC for the first time in seven years.
The rest of the schedule is all at home, but featuring two notable teams. Ohio State, a very probable preseason Top 5 team featuring National Player of the Year candidate Jared Sullinger, pays back USC's visit to Columbus, Ohio, last year and Wofford, coming off two straight trips to the NCAA tournament, also comes to CLA.
Another tough schedule for a team that is, for all intents and purposes, rebuilding for the second straight season. But nobody ever said success came easy.
"The real strength of your schedule is when you play quality teams," Horn said.
NOTE: The Providence game, added by the SEC to the schedule, forced Western Kentucky off the planned slate. Horn had a clause in his contract while at Western Kentucky saying that whatever school he went to had to schedule the Hilltoppers for four games within the next five years. USC didn't play WKU in Horn's first year, but has gone 2-0 against the Hilltoppers since. They will be on next year's schedule.
2011-12 SOUTH CAROLINA BASKETBALL
(SEC schedule to be released later)
Nov. 3 KENTUCKY WESLEYAN (Exh.)
Nov. 11 WESTERN CAROLINA
Nov. 15 at Elon
Nov. 20 TENNESSEE STATE (Las Vegas Invitational)
Nov. 22 MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE (Las Vegas Invitational)
Nov. 25 vs. North Carolina (at Las Vegas, Las Vegas Invitational)
Nov. 26 vs. Southern Cal/UNLV (at Las Vegas, Las Vegas Invitational)
Dec. 1 PROVIDENCE (SEC-Big East Challenge)
Dec. 4 at Clemson
Dec. 13 PRESBYTERIAN
Dec. 17 OHIO STATE
Dec. 21 SOUTHEASTERN LOUISIANA
Dec. 28 WOFFORD
Dec. 31 USC UPSTATE
Jan. 3 S.C. STATE
Home games in CAPS
If you have any questions about this feature or wish to discuss it, please visit The Insiders Forum: http://southcarolina.rivals.com/forum.asp?fid=1824
Click Here to view this Link. Follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/GamecockCentralClick Here to view this Link.