January 27, 2009

Defending home court is USC's goal

Most of it's simple math.

An SEC team plays 16 league games. Half are at home. Win that half, and you're no worse than 8-8 in the conference.

South Carolina's aiming a little bit higher.

"Definitely got to defend the home floor," guard Devan Downey said on Monday. "That's a mindset going into each home game. We've just got to keep on doing what we do. Win at home, steal a few on the road."

The first part's worked fine so far.

The Gamecocks are 3-0 in SEC play at Colonial Life Arena this season, part of a 12-1 overall home record. A chance to be 4-0 (and 13-1) comes on Wednesday, when Vanderbilt arrives in Columbia.

At 14-4 (3-2 SEC), none of the Gamecocks are talking about what lies ahead, except for the game with the Commodores. Numbers and projections mean bupkis right now.

"The danger is what you just brought up," coach Darrin Horn said. "Everybody wants to talk about things like that. We're one game over .500 in league play and we could very easily be much less than that."

Horn wasn't bad-mouthing his team's shortcomings; he was pointing out the obvious. The Gamecocks have played hard in every game (except perhaps its first road SEC game at LSU) but intensity doesn't always win ballgames.

USC beat Auburn and Ole Miss handily and lost to LSU and Tennessee handily, although the UT loss went down to the wire after a furious comeback. Then there was the Florida game last week, which was hard-fought and fun to watch, but could have gone either way.

It went USC's way on a play too perfect to dream about. The Gamecocks handled the emotional high of it by regrouping to beat Ole Miss in the next game, bringing up Vanderbilt.

Horn said he's encouraged by the raucous atmosphere, especially from the student section, at Colonial Life Arena in the past two games but isn't taking anything for granted. He's hoping the support continues on Wednesday, a sentiment echoed by forward Austin Steed.

"We win all our games at home, that gives us a chance to do well in the SEC as well," Steed said. "Just taking care of home is a big part of keeping everybody focused and keeping the student body as loud as they (are) now."

The devil's advocate looks at USC's success at home this season and begins to predict. A perfect SEC record at home puts the Gamecocks at no worse than 19-10 at the end of the regular season. Following Downey's advice to steal a few on the road, USC gets into that 20-win territory that will pique the interest of the NCAA tournament selection committee.

The remaining home schedule features Vanderbilt (1-4), Georgia (0-4), Arkansas (0-4), Kentucky (5-0) and Tennessee (3-1). Looking at that slate, especially the first three, and it's easy to see where the excitement comes in. Perhaps this will be the first time since 1997-98 that USC can finish above .500 in the league.

Yet, the Gamecocks don't talk about it. The only clue toward maybe beginning to think about it came from Downey, when he was informed that USC was the only team in the league to win at home over the weekend.

"That's all (Horn) talks about," Downey said through a small smile. "When you look at it, you got 16 league games, eight of them at home. You win all your games at home, that's eight wins.

"But we're looking to be better than that."



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