COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Darrin Horn hopes his regular season is a lot less drama-filled than his offseason.
Horn and the Gamecocks dealt with the transfer of expected starter Murphy Holloway, star point guard Bruce Ellington choosing to play football and the departures of guards Ramon Galloway and Stephen Spinella.
Add in the loss of assistant Orlando Early to North Carolina State and it looked like a rush to leave a sinking ship after the Gamecocks went 14-16 and lost nine of their last 10 games.
Horn acknowledged the adversity, but said it was part of the process of building a program — and he's ready to move forward with that this season.
"Obviously, we had a challenging spring without question, took some hits and had some adversity," Horn said. "It's part of the process of building a program. I don't think there's any question that we've grown."
Horn hopes to see that on the court, even if others are skeptical. No one's sure when Ellington, the Gamecocks top scorer as a freshman last season, will be back from Williams-Brice Stadium, especially with the increased role he's playing as one of the positives in Steve Spurrier's offense. Horn has five newcomers to break in on the 13-man roster, several who'll have to contribute quickly if South Carolina hopes to succeed.
The Gamecocks were recently picked to finish 12th in the 12-team Southeastern Conference.
"We're looking forward to moving forward and focusing on this year's team," Horn said.
That could be hard to do for anyone besides Horn, in his fourth season after moving from Western Kentucky.
Ellington was billed a year ago this time as the centerpiece of Horn's rebuilding project, the dynamic point guard and leader who made everyone better. Ellington at times lived up to that billing and led the team with a 12.8 point a game average. But he faded down the stretch because of injuries. His announcement go out for football — Ellington was a state championship winning quarterback at Berkeley High — gave air to a wildfire of fan disappointment about basketball's direction and whether Horn was up the job of turning things around.
Horn has the support of athletic director Eric Hyman, although the coach says everyone at the school understands improvement is essential.
Horn believes he has more pieces to make that step forward.
The new faces for the Gamecocks include 6-foot-8 Anthony Gill, a versatile player who can play inside or out. Guard Damien Leonard was one of South Carolina's top high school players last winter and will dramatically improve the Gamecocks shooting, which last year ranked dead last in the SEC.
"We've got to shoot the ball better. That's pretty obvious," Horn said. "You could've watched your first basketball game and still known that about our team."
Still, there are plenty of reasons for hope. The Gamecocks looked more under control when backup Eric Smith was in at the point for Ellington. Six-foot-9 sophomore Damontre Harris looked good at power forward for stretches last season and could be a force the Gamecocks haven't had underneath since Mike Holmes three years ago.
"I think we're definitely getting better," said Malik Cooke, the Gamecocks only senior.
The new players have meshed well with the returnees, Cooke said, and the result could be better than many expect.
Gill said there's a pride in wearing a South Carolina uniform that he and his teammates want to show fans and opponents this season. "We're definitely going to go hard each and every day when we're on the court," Gill said.
The way Horn looks at it, if he can build some momentum and chemistry in the early season, having Ellington back for the SEC season will only be a boost.
Ellington spent plenty of time with his basketball teammates during the offseason and still says he's he'll be back to hoops soon enough.
Horn sent his point guard a joking text earlier this month after Ellington's first college touchdown on a 61-yard run against Kentucky, "Took you long enough."
"He's still within our team chemistry," forward Lakeem Jackson said. "I hope when he comes back it's smooth sailing."
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