How do you replace a Devan Downey? That is exactly what South Carolina coach Darrin Horn and his coaching staff are looking at when they open up the 2010-11 season with an exhibition against Kentucky Wesleyan on November 4th. Eight days later the Gamecocks open up the regular season, hosting Elon.
Downey averaged 22.5 points per game last season and had 85 steals. Other than his ability to make defenders look foolish, Downey will mostly be remembered for his ability to knock down clutch shots with the game on the line.
"I think when it's all said and done that's a strength that is crucial in certain points of games," Horn said in his preseason press conference Thursday afternoon. "And there's no question that Devan was as good as there is at that."
Now that Downey has graduated, someone else must step up and be that go-to player. Horn doesn't know if there is one particular player that can be that clutch shooter, but as a team he believes all of them can get the job done collectively.
"We've got a lot of guys in their own way that are capable of doing that," Horn says. "I don't know if I can single anyone out right now - I don't know if we have one like him as an individual talent, but again in some ways the danger of collectively knowing that there's three or four dudes that can (beat you) is something that is exciting."
Losing a go-to player like Downey is bad enough, but when he's also your point guard it makes him even harder to replace. That role will likely fall on the shoulders of freshmen sensation Bruce Ellington. Ellington, a South Carolina native, was a two-sport star at Berkeley High that is already garnering attention.
"Bruce is one of those rare young people," Horn said. "He's got a certain quality about him as a person, but especially as a player. People are better when they're playing with him. Not just because of how he plays, but he brings a certain confidence and stability to the guys around him that makes them feel like they can play at a higher level too. He's tremendous at sharing the ball and getting people involved and he has the athleticism to also get the ball wherever he wants to go with it. My favorite quality about him is all you have to do to get him to do something is tell him he can't do it. He's a special athlete. There's no question about it."
Horn believes that if there ever was a ‘good time' to lose a Devan Downey it's now when you can replace him with a Bruce Ellington.
"It's huge," Horn said. "It's not just losing a player like Devan, it's losing a terrific point guard. That is the most crucial position on the floor and when you've got one that you know - athletically and basketball-wise - can handle what comes their way it makes a big difference for your team and a big difference as a coach."
Fellow freshman Eric Smith, a 5'11 Mullins native, will also see some time at point guard, though he's not as ready right now to contribute like Ellington.
"(He's) physically ready in terms of strength," Horn said. "He's strong and fast, but his stamina needs to improve."
Brian Richardson is the third of the trio of freshmen guards coming in. Richardson, a 6'4 guard from Wilson, NC, is only 164 pounds. He will certainly need to bulk up some before he can be counted on as a big contributor.
"Brian Richardson, from a basketball standpoint, is definitely ready to contribute. It worries me when we have a guy that weighs less than me is not a good thing, but he's a heck of a lot better player than I was."
One guard that the Gamecocks will be without to open up the season is sophomore Ramon Galloway. Galloway, who averaged eight points per game in 2009-10 in 21.5 minutes per game, injured his foot in a non-basketball injury. That won't slow down what Horn wants his team to accomplish early on in the season.
"We'll continue moving forward," Horn said. "One of the reasons you recruit talent and recruit depth is that you can throw another guy in and keep moving. I think it's a setback for him for sure and I think early on it leaves us without a guy on the perimeter that has SEC experience - played in some big games and was pretty good down the stretch last year. In terms of us moving forward and doing what we want to do and playing the way we want to play is not going to affect that it all."
In the post, senior Sam Muldrow is expected to have a great season. Muldrow will be counted on to be a leader, but one that leads by example.
"I don't think Sam is going to lead the young guys," Horn said. "I don't think that is Sam's personality at all. Sam is a guy that brings it every day and he's a good teammate that is well liked, but he's not a rally-the-troops or leader kind of guy."
Muldrow had a coming-out season last season, but was somewhat inconsistent. Muldrow averaged 10 points and six rebounds per game, but there were times where he was non-existent. More times than not that led to a loss, and things won't be much different this season in that respect.
"I do think for us to be our best we need to our best Sam Muldrow, but I thought that was the case last year," Horn said. "We knew Devan could be terrific every night, but we were really much better and in more games and won games when Sam was really good. I don't think that means a certain number, but when he consistently performs and he's a presence in the game with his defense and finishing around the basket I think it made us a better basketball team."
Unlike last season, Muldrow should have even more help down low. Lakeem Jackson started all but one game last season and averaged seven points per game and six rebounds. With a year under his belt and showing tremendous improvement over the course of the season, Jackson should be primed to have a productive season.
Johndre Jefferson returns after becoming a more productive player late in the season. Jefferson earned himself four starts in the final five games of the season. While he wasn't productive in statistics, Jefferson gave the Gamecocks a lot of effort and energy and he played with tremendous intensity.
This season will also be the debut season of Malik Cooke in Columbia. Cooke, who sat out last season due to his transfer from Nevada, will be expected to contribute early. Even though he was not allowed to play last season, Cooke was able to practice and learn Coach Horn's system. He will have two seasons of eligibility.
"He's not the fastest and he's not the strongest and he's not the tallest, but put some time on the clock and tell him there's going to be a winner and a loser and I wouldn't trade that cat anybody," Horn said. "He brings a certain toughness and competitiveness that is going to help."
Horn welcomed a trio of freshmen post players as well, headlined by Damontre Harris and R.J. Slawson. Harris, a 6'9, 215-pound center, brings the athleticism and shot-blocking that will remind many of former Gamecock Brandon Wallace.
"Damontre, physically in term of giftedness and athleticism, is ready to contribute right away," Horn said. "He's not the physical specimen that can handle the workload, but I think that he can help."
R.J. Slawson is physically a duplicate of Harris minus about 20 pounds. The 6'8, 196-pound center from Charleston, SC is just as athletic as Harris on the defensive side and can stretch the defense when he has the ball.
"R.J. Slawson playing at the four can step out and really shoot the basketball for example about versatility," Horn said. "Physically, he's going to continue to get better."
Many think Horn took a chance extending an offer to Georgetown's Carlton Geathers.At 6'10, 256, Geathers can certainly be a force inside, but lacks experience. Horn has been surprised with what Geathers has accomplished so far.
"Big Carlton has shown some things," Horn said. "He's a guy that I think is going to keep getting better and better. He's been a real pleasant surprise."
Relying on so many young players, it's going to be hard to get a grasp on what this team can accomplish. While this freshman class is considered to be one of the most talented in school history, they are still young.
"I think that's the exciting thing is that we know how we will play in general, but to put that together for it to be at its best is really going to be determined through hours of practice and through some game competition and seeing how guys respond." Horn said.
Even when practice begins Friday afternoon, it will still be hard for Horn to see what he has. There's a big difference between playing in front of teammates and coaches is a lot different from playing in front of thousands of fans watching and the cameras focused on them.
"I've got a phrase we use called ‘3:00 shooter,'" Horn said. "I don't need guys that can make shots at 3:00, I need them to make it at 7:00 when the lights are on. All of these things we probably won't know for a few months, maybe even heading into SEC play. For us that's exciting. It's a better problem to have as a coach to feel like you have some talent and depth and guys that can do some things as opposed to knowing exactly what you have and not feel like you have enough. So we'll take the challenge that we have over the other."
The Gamecocks likely won't have a guy that can score 20 points a game like Downey, but that may actually play into the Gamecocks' favor.
"We don't have a guy that I know he's getting us 20 every night which is a luxury," Horn said. "Sometimes that's even more dangerous in terms of a team for preparing for you and being able to defend you than just having to shut down that one guy. I think our versatility is going to help us in that way collectively, and I think it's also going to help us defensively. We're going to be able to do some stuff because our big guys are quick and athletic, and our guys that maybe aren't quite as big are still very long and athletic."
One of the keys to a Darrin Horn team that likes to get out and run is having depth to be able to sub in and out. That is something the Gamecocks didn't have last season, but this year could be different.
"We don't have a (specific) number," Horn said. "I think sometimes when you play the way we play people think ‘I've got 10 so I'm going to find a way to play 10.' I'm going to play as many guys as it takes to help us win. It could be eight, it could be nine, it could be 10 or 11. I think that number will be determined as we move forward. The more the better for the way we play."
Who Coach Horn will throw out there on opening night is still a mystery. You can probably expect to see Sam Muldrow and Lakeem Jackson starting. Muldrow started every game in the 2009-10 season and Jackson only missed one start on senior night. You would imagine Ellington would get the nod at point guard. With Galloway out, the Gamecocks could go a little bit bigger with Cooke, Harris, or Jefferson getting the other two spots. There's still nearly a month before Horn has to make that decision.
"We haven't practiced," Horn said. "We had fall practice getting out there a couple hours a week to do some skill stuff, but to say that these five guys have completely distinguished themselves I'm nowhere near ready to say that."
The Gamecocks will be playing in the ultra-competitive SEC East. Florida will be much improved this season, Kentucky will still be Kentucky, Tennessee will still be competitive despite all the distractions, Vanderbilt is always a thorn in Carolina's side, and Georgia got better throughout the season. Is there an argument that the SEC East may be the best division in the best conference this season?
"Yes, but we can argue that every year," Horn said with a laugh. "It's the SEC and the East has been terrific and I think this year well be no exception. There's not that Kentucky team that, on paper, is clearly head and shoulders above everybody else, but there's a lot of good teams with a lot of talent - Florida and Georgia return two or three guys that perform well. As a competitor, I think that's what you want to be a part of and we tell our guys that as long as we can play well in our division we can compete with anyone in the country."
With a schedule that consists of trips to Michigan State, Ohio State, Clemson, and Western Kentucky, along with a visit from Boston College and Wofford - whom both beat the Gamecocks on the road last season - the Gamecocks will be challenged early and often. With such a young team, that bodes well for conference play but there will likely be early-season struggles.
"As a coach, growing pains is more than winning or losing," Horn said. "It's just getting them to do what you want and understand what's expected. So that will be a continual process, but that's all part of our perspective of not just building a team but building a program."
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