Renaldo Balkman brings the 18,200 fans inside Madison Square Garden to their feet with yet another hustle play. Long ponytail bound dreadlocks flopping as he pounds his chest to the crowd, his high octane brand of hustle has been a pleasant surprise this season.
Confused Gamecock fans are proud, but depressed at the same time. Their problem lies with the colors of his uniform. It's not garnet and black, rather the blue and orange of the New York Knicks. He was considered one of the main pieces for this team – the 2006-07 Gamecocks. He was the hustling, crowd awakening demon of a player every successful basketball program needs. Together with Tre Kelley and Brandon Wallace, this would be the team to get past its N.I.T championship glory days and finally get South Carolina back to "the Dance."
Though many doubted him, Coach Dave Odom knew Balkman could play at the next level. He never expected it so soon though.
It's easy to look at the Gamecocks ugly season and point fingers at the head coach. After all, this is how sports in America work. If there's a problem in any major sport we automatically point to either the coach or the quarterback. The phenomenon hasn't avoided Columbia, South Carolina, it's engulfed it. With thousands of fingers pointed towards Coach Odom while firing up the proverbial "hot seat," Gamecock Nation beckons for a change.
But is that change also the answer? Or better yet, is it the correct answer? In six years at South Carolina, Coach Odom has won two N.I.T championships and appeared in another. He's placed two players in the NBA and won 20 or more games four times. He's brought in some of Columbia's most beloved players as well. Carlos Powell will always be remembered for his incomprehensible work ethic. The aforementioned Balkman will always be associated with some of the most emphatic dunks to ever grace the program. Current NBA player Tarrance Kinsey hit one of USC's most memorable shots in the last twenty years. His N.I.T. championship winning buzzer beater is right up there with Antonio Grant gunning down the Bearcats in the old Coliseum.
But has he run his course?
Though the gallant Odom has been a model of ethics and moral, Gamecock fans devour the thought: Is this it? Is this as far as he takes us?
Popular belief says the National Invitational Tournament serves as a spring board to bigger and better horizons. Constantly compared to the Memphis Tigers surge to national prominence a season after defeating these Gamecocks in the NIT final, the program seems to have sputtered.
Former Gamecock basketball player and head coach, George Felton, now the Director of Collegiate Player Personnel for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs admires the work of Odom over the years, "I think he's done a hell of a job. Say what you will about the N.I.T, but he's done some things no other coach has ever done there."
Is South Carolina simply an innocent victim of geographic recruiting hell located next door to North Carolina? Will this program be forever relegated to marginal success? Felton answered swiftly, "Listen, first of all, it's not just who you are recruiting against. It's not the North Carolina's and the Duke's. Up until only a year or so ago, you were also recruiting against the NBA. There are so many things that go into recruiting. It's impossible to pin point one thing."
Coaches are, in fact, up against more than just the neighbor. They recruit against grades and classroom work; against opportunity and weather. The problems presented by recruiting, like Coach Felton says, are an inexact science. Every situation is different and every player is different.
Felton continued to praise Odom's work at South Carolina. "My goal when I was at Carolina was to get in-state kids that could play ball and graduate. For the most part, we were pretty successful in doing that. That was a totally different time though. In the Metro Conference, the schedule was not nearly as rough. Coach Odom has to face Florida and Kentucky. It's not impossible to face two of the top three teams in the country within a week when you are playing in the SEC."
When asked if South Carolina invited a self-imposed disadvantage by accepting the Southeastern Conference invitation, he laughed, "No. No way. Look at the changes. They have everything under one roof now. Back in my day it was basketball in the Metro while football was Independent. Now it's under one roof. It makes recruiting a little more appealing for the student athletes."
The popular theory throughout college basketball circles is one of doom and gloom for the South Carolina Gamecocks. Many believe winning in the SEC might be impossible. To this, Felton vehemently disagreed, "Coach Odom lost (Balkman) before his four years were up. He's had some good years too. It takes time to build a program, but it can be done. It can definitely be done."
This theory, one which continues to fall on Renaldo Balkman's shoulders holds some credence. Had Balkman stayed, it goes without saying that this Gamecock team would be better. The job of a coach and his staff is to keep the revolving door revolving - quality players graduate and get replaced with quality players. For the most part, Coach Odom had that revolving door spinning.
Unexpectedly knocked off its axis due to one quality player leaving early (a clear sign of a young program), that spinning cycle may pick up speed again rather quickly. With possibly South Carolina's most impressive class coming in for the 2007-08 season and some integral injections of youth and talent in between (Archie and Grey), the Gamecocks could be right there knocking on the NCAA's door soon.
A Comparison of Peers
Where does Coach Odom stand in comparison to other SEC coaches? Leaving the traditional powers out of the equation for a moment the numbers aren't all that bad:
When winning percentage gets calculated into the equation the news is bad, good and indifferent, quite frankly. Though not the best in the conference, the Coach Odom run Gamecock program is not the worst either. His program like most, is struggling to survive amongst giants. As a matter of fact, aside from Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State, LSU and Alabama, Odom's tenure has the highest winning percentage among SEC teams. That's quite a list.
Aside from Florida, the defending National Champions, and tradition rich Kentucky, Odom success bears average SEC fruits. He's won 20+ games four times in the last six years. Believe it or not, only Mississippi State has duplicated the feat. Alabama should do it as well as they have 19 wins thus far, but this is an impressive statistic.
Other statistics show flaws, but none single Odom out as a weak link, rather they entrench him in a mix of talented coaches:
Road winning percentage, though ugly, has him very close to the middle of the pack. Aside from ACC teams, who has to play the likes of Florida and Kentucky twice, then add in an Alabama or Mississippi State, with out of conference games against a Kansas or a Pittsburgh from recent years.
Coach Odom has three trips to the NIT finals, winning two and gone to an NCAA tournament. Though, the program lost in-state talents Devan Downey and Mike Jones to national powerhouses, look who's headed back to the program in 2007-08. It's as though they realize Odom was right all along.
More Comparisons to Peers
If it weren't for 2004-05 and 2005-06, the LSU program would be 26-36 in conference since 2001-02. Alabama without those same two years would be 29-33. Without the 2005-06 season, Tennessee stands at 38-41 in conference play.
How many South Carolina coaches put two players in the NBA in the same year? How many South Carolina coaches have produced first round draft picks? How many South Carolina coaches have a National title of any kind under their belt – let alone a repeat performance? How many South Carolina coaches fielded a team that beat the eventual National Champions twice in the very year they won their title?
Again, keeping Kentucky and Florida out of the equation, how many Southeastern Conference coaches have sustained a 20 win team for more than four years in the last six? The answer is simple: None.
Calling On the Cavalry
The 2007-08 class stands to be one of the most impressive in the history of USC basketball. Completely revamping the program, it could go down as the class to change the future.
Mike Jones - 6'8", 210 SF, PF – Athletic ball-handler has been called the Monster of the Mid-Range.
Devan Downey - 5'10" #5 rated PG in his Senior Year - Big East All-Rookie team honors after averaging 11.9 points and 4.3 assists per game in 2005-06
Sam Muldrow – 4 star – 6'9" 195, #19 C in the class, Muldrow is a defensive presence with a tremendous upside.
Michael Holmes – 4 star - 6'7", 215, #20 PF in the class, Holmes has been called a physical specimen. He needs to improve his shooting touch, but he's an enforcer.
Buck Fredrick – 4 star - 6'1", 210, He can shoot, he can drive – sound familiar?
Are there legitimate reasons to consider a change? Sure there are. On the contrary though, are there just as many reasons to ride it out with a coach whose resume includes Tim Duncan? Yes, there are.
As one of the more beloved head coaches in the history of South Carolina said, "I think he's done a hell of a job. Say what you will about the N.I.T, he's done some things no other coach has ever done there."
An Interesting Breakdown of all SEC Schools During the Odom Era:
*not including Florida and Kentucky
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