Guards look to improve this season

Much of what South Carolina is able to achieve this season will depend on guard play. With Bruce Ellington missing practically the entire non-conference schedule, it will be up to Eric Smith, Brian Richardson, and Damien Leonard to step up their games to help out LaShay Page on the perimeter.

To say that South Carolina has lacked in guard play the last two seasons is an understatement. Outside of Bruce Ellington and Ramon Galloway, no guard has averaged seven points or more the last two seasons. Considering Galloway left following the 2010-11 season and Ellington will not join the team until January, someone has to step up at the guard position this season.

Anybody that knows anything about basketball at any level knows that it all starts with the point guard. Even if a team has some of the best post players in the country, if they do not have anybody that can get them the ball it does not matter how good they are. Ellington has been the starting point guard for much of the last two seasons, with the exception of games played during football season last year and shortly after while Ellington got his feet under him. Ellington did play in several games prior to the bowl game last season, but that does not seem like an option this season. Head coach Frank Martin wants Ellington focusing on football and that alone until after the bowl game.

"I'm Bruce's biggest fan to catch footballs and return kickoffs," Martin recently said. "We'll figure out what his role on this team will be whenever the football team wins that last game they play."

Barring a swoon in the last three games of the season, the football team is likely looking at no worse than a New Year's Day bowl game, which would make the South Carolina State game on January fifth the first game on the basketball court for Ellington. That is the thirteenth game of the season and the final non-conference game on the schedule.

Much like last season, Eric Smith is the favorite to run the point guard and will likely get the start when Carolina takes the court for the first regular season game of the Frank Martin era Sunday afternoon against UW-Milwaukee. Smith got the start in the exhibition contest against Kentucky Wesleyan and responded with a decent game. He scored 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting, but was 0-for-4 from behind the arc and turned the ball over three times with just two assists.

"If he does what I ask him to do, he'll be successful and he'll play," Martin said. "If he doesn't he won't be successful and he won't play. It's as simple as that. Point guard is the equivalent to a quarterback. If he and the coach aren't on the same page on both ends of the floor it's hard for the team to succeed. I don't like coaching to lose, I like coaching to win. Eric was really good for seven or eight practices. He kind of took a hiatus there, and now he's been good for the last few days. When he does what he's supposed to, he's the most natural fit on our team to be our point guard. We're also preparing other guys."

Smith will need to pick up the pace from his first two seasons on campus where he averaged just 2.4 points in 13 minutes per game for 28 games his freshman season, but did pick it up some in his second season, averaging 4.1 points per game in 14 minutes per game in 28 contests. Scoring from the point is not as key of a role in Martin's style of offense as distributing the ball is. Smith has 75 assists and 61 turnovers in two seasons, which isn't going to get the job done with Martin. From the outside, it appears the pressure will be on early and often for Smith to take care of the ball or he may be watching from the bench.

"I don't really try and put much pressure on myself," Smith said. "I just try to continue doing what I've been doing and listen to the coaches. I think everything else will take care of itself."

Martin said senior transfer LaShay Page could see some action there despite being limited recently with a hamstring injury, and Brenton Williams is another guy that will see time at point guard early in the season.

Martin's system likes to get the ball down into the post and let his bigs do the work and score some easy buckets, but that takes having some legitimate threats to shoot from the outside to keep the opposing guards from dropping down and playing help defense. Carolina has signed a sharpshooter in each of the previous two classes, but both are struggling to find their grove in the college game. Brian Richardson enters his junior season after surpassing the 2,000-point mark in high school, showing vast improvements in each of his seasons. He broke his high school record in points that was held by Anthony Atkinson, a current member of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Since arriving in Columbia, however, Richardson's production has declined each of his first two seasons. He averaged just under six points per game in 30 games his freshman season while shooting a respectable 34% from behind the arc. Last season he saw action in just 25 games with his point production dropping to three points per game and struggled from behind the arc at just 23%.

"I've worked really hard," Richardson said. "I've been getting a lot of repetitions in and a lot of shots after practice. I try to get a lot of game-like shots whenever I can so that when the game comes I will be ready to shoot those shots."

Richardson struggled mightily in the exhibition contest, hitting just 2-of-10 shots coming off the bench and missed all four of his attempts behind the arc. He finished with just six points and four turnovers in 31 minutes.

Last season former coach Darrin Horn brought in his most prized recruit and one of the biggest recruits in recent years when Damien Leonard signed with Carolina. Leonard was a four-star recruit out of high school and ranked as Scouts 51st player in the nation. Horn made a big move late in the process to land Leonard, who received interest from the likes of Clemson, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Kansas, UConn, and Indiana. The Greenville native's biggest attributes was his length for the position and ability to shoot from anywhere on the court.

As is the case with many freshmen, the 2011-12 season was a learning year for Leonard. The talented freshman saw action in all 31 games, starting 20 of them. Anthony Gill. Damontre Harris, and Malik Cooke – all of which are no longer at Carolina – are the only players that started more games and Ellington is the only other returning player that averaged more than 20 minutes per game last season. Leonard averaged seven points per game, not bad for a freshman, but the expectations were much higher. Leonard shot 31% from behind the arc, not terrible numbers, but also not good enough for a kid that was expected to come in and shoot lights out.

"Last year I didn't know what to expect, but having one year under my belt I know what to expect and what I have to work on," Leonard said.

"I've been working on playing more aggressive and working on my weaknesses all offseason and also working on my shot. Shooting is my strength so I never quit working on it."

That shot, which looked just as pure and beautiful as can be in high school, looked hurried and rushed. Leonard says he has worked all offseason at catching in position to shoot and shooting all in one smooth motion. Early on in fall workouts Leonard caught the attention of Martin.

"He's probably had his best two workouts he's had the last two workouts," Martin said prior to the beginning of practice. "Where that goes I don't know. It's encouraging when you see guys making progress. I don't want guys to be perfect and I don't want guys who figure it out today, I want guys to grow today from where they were yesterday. He's obviously done something because he's made some progress."

Leonard was unavailable for the exhibition contest while he recovered from surgery to repair a broken nose when he caught the elbow of Michael Carrera back on October 23rd.

Outside of Columbia the expectations are not very high. South Carolina was picked by practically everyone that covers SEC basketball to finish at the bottom of the league. The expectations within the program are higher, knowing that an NCAA Tournament appearance is likely too far out of reach, but a strong non-conference record could keep Carolina above the .500 mark and earn them a berth in the NIT. In order to have any possibility of success, these three players must step up their game and help Ellington and Page carry the load from the perimeter this season.

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