Out of Bounds: Horn had his chance, now he has to go

Keith Farner

It’s been debated and discussed throughout the Hill and Warren County since early December. Longtime fans and first-year students have agreed. And it’s something that hasn’t happened at Western in three years.

It’s time to fire a coach. First-year men’s basketball coach Darrin Horn needs to go.

He had a fine team, one worthy of making the program’s fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. He had senior leadership and an infusion of talent. He had longtime coach Paul Sanderford – the guy who steered the Lady Toppers to the Final Four in the early 1990s – on the sideline next to him. But what he didn’t have was a fourth consecutive Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship. And the reason for that missing link to the Big Dance was defense.

Horn’s team could score, there’s no doubt about that – they finished second in the Sun Belt in scoring. Whether it was senior Nigel Dixon shattering the backboard glass or senior Mike Wells swishing a long-range 3-pointer, the Hilltoppers had no problem highlighting the scoreboard.

But their defense resembled Swiss cheese.

And the opponent didn’t matter. Western let players drive through the lane like it was a revolving door. The only change was which Western player collected the ball after it tickled the twine.

Defense was a problem most of the season. From December to March, Western never struggled staying in games, but it couldn’t narrow the deficit or close out a team because its defense leaked like a sieve.

The Hilltoppers finished second in the Sun Belt in scoring at 76.3 points per game. But their defense was about as bad as the offense was good. Only North Texas allowed more points (73) per game than Western (71). What’s more, the Toppers 3-point field-goal defense was rock bottom.

And the worst part was Horn didn’t fix that known weakness.

In the post-game press conference after Horn’s team lost 110-102 to Louisiana-Lafayette Jan. 29, he wasn’t ready to admit his team’s defense was weak.

“I’ll have to watch the film to see just how bad it may – or may not – have been,” Horn said.

When a team scores that many points and shoots 68 percent from the field, the defense is bad and no film is needed.

In its final game of the season against Middle Tennessee State, Western allowed the Blue Raiders to shoot 45 percent from the field and 53 percent from the 3-point line, which came from a lineup that missed leading scorer Mike Dean.

“Other than Mike Wells, we didn’t have a player on our team that had played in a game like this, other than Todor Pandov, maybe, and that was years ago. The other guys played sparingly,” Horn told reporters.

Dixon played in multiple Atlantic Coast Conference Tournaments while at Florida State. Other players such as Anthony Winchester, Danny Rumph and Antonio Haynes have all played in high-pressure postseason basketball games.

What makes Horn’s comment carry even less weight is that the game was at home. That Middle Tennessee loss came after the Toppers finished 6-1 at home against conference opponents this season. And it was the third time Western had played the Blue Raiders this season, and second at home.

The experience excuse is even more preposterous since Middle had only one player with as much experience as Wells, Western’s most experienced player.

Horn’s supporters might say his predecessor Dennis Felton went 24-34 in his first two seasons. But Felton had about half the talent Horn had and Horn went 15-13.

Horn’s team consisted of Wells, the 2004 Sun Belt Player of the Year, and Dixon, who made the all-Sun Belt first-team. Horn also had Haynes, who used his sparkplug-like energy to ignite many Western runs. Haynes averaged 11.9 points, four assists and three rebounds per game.

And Haynes made many Topper faithfuls forget about former Western player Patrick Sparks, who transferred to Kentucky. The other significant difference from last year was David Boyden, who graduated and became an assistant for Felton at Georgia.

But departures happen every year and it’s part of the coach’s job to prepare the team to fill those voids.

However, the problem shouldn’t start and end with Horn. The problem started a year ago when Athletic Director Wood Selig tabbed Horn over former Western coach Ralph Willard, former Western assistant Pete Hermann and Texas associate head coach Frank Haith. Willard took the Toppers to the Sweet 16 in 1993 and has an overall coaching record of 220-170 in 13 seasons with three schools. Hermann was the players’ choice after Felton left and after he wasn’t hired, he rejoined Felton at UGA.

Before being named head coach at Miami on Monday, Haith had coached at Texas for three years. And Texas was only one of five schools to reach the Sweet 16 each of the past three seasons.

If Selig and Western’s administration had picked Haith, it would have improved Western’s current standing with minority coaches.

At the time of Horn’s hiring, Western had 48 coaches. But only five of those were minorities.

And although Horn was hired mainly because of his recruiting ability, Haith had the No. 1 recruiting class this year with three McDonald’s all-Americans and has been responsible for recruiting six McDonald’s all-Americans in his career.

Give Horn five games into next season and if he doesn’t have a winning record, he needs to start mailing his resume again.

Keith Farner is a sports columnist at the Herald. Reach him at [email protected]