By Charles Bennett,
Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier
April 7, 2003 COLUMBIA The cover of South Carolina's basketball media guide for last season featured the new 17,600-seat Carolina Center, labeling it the crown jewel of the Southeastern United States, an ambitious claim, even for what is undeniably a first-class facility. Even more ambitious is the task confronting South Carolina coach Dave Odom, the man charged with building a basketball team that can measure up to the quality of the facility. The jury is still out on whether Odom, or anyone else for that matter, can get it done in Columbia.
The Gamecocks took a step backward this season, stumbling to a 12-16 record, including 5-11 in the SEC, in Odom's second year. There were factors beyond the coach's control, most significantly injuries to key players, but Odom was disappointed the Gamecocks didn't build on their run to the NIT title game in 2002.
After each and every year and after each and every game, I feel personal responsibility for the performance of our team, Odom said. In that this year was very similar to all other years I have spent as a coach, the difference is that most years I feel good about the results. I think the year before I felt good. This year, I don't feel good about the results, but I feel good about our program, and I think that is where the explanation needs to be.
The bottom line for Odom and his staff is recruiting players good enough to win in the SEC. At Wake Forest, the coach developed a reputation for finding diamonds in the rough, quality players overlooked by the regional heavyweights. So far at USC, Odom hasn't found another Tim Duncan, and his first two recruiting classes were a mixed bag, featuring a combination of quick-fix jucos and project freshmen.
Looking at the talent Odom has assembled, it's hard to project dramatic improvement in year three of his rebuilding project. Power forward Rolando Howell, a player inherited from the Eddie Fogler regime, is the lone player who was considered a blue-chip recruit, and Howell has yet to live up to his potential entering his senior season.
Even though the Gamecocks were the worst-shooting team from three-point range in the SEC, the post shapes up as their most glaring weakness. They got whipped on the boards more often than not last season, and with Howell and reserve John Chappell the only returning big men, that area may get worse before it gets better. The incoming class does bring Paulius Joneliunas, a 6-10, 258-pound center, but how much and how soon he can contribute is a significant question.
The fall signees were in-state forward Brandon Wallace, D.C. area point guard Tre Kelly and well-traveled small forward Renaldo Balkman. All three have solid credentials, although so far Wallace is the only one who has qualified academically.
The remainder of USC's returning players also are a mixed bag. Point guard Jarod Gerald has quickness and superb ball-handling skills, but he also possesses one of the ugliest shots in college basketball. Carlos Powell, a 6-7 junior forward, plays harder than anyone on the team, but he's not quite a power forward and not quite a small forward. The same holds true for senior Michael Boynton, a guard who's not quite a point and not quite a shooter. Swingmen Tarance Kinsey and Marcus Morrison played limited roles as freshmen but did show flashes.
Odom is hoping to combat a lack of talent with an intense work ethic.
I have every confidence in the returning players giving the proper commitment, Odom said. Each one of those players will have an opportunity to contribute to our team next year. I don't see anyone leaving at this point.
Our offseason program is going to be stringent, and I am going to ask them to work in a way that I feel is of championship quality. I am going to ask them to sacrifice a lot of their individual wants and desires. Time is going to be of the essence. We are going to maximize the allowable NCAA hours that are possible. We are doing that not as punishment for a losing season, but because I know that is what championship teams do.
Speaking of championships is bold for a program whose claims to fame are one ACC title and one SEC title. The lack of basketball tradition at South Carolina always will make it hard for Odom, or any coach, to recruit top-notch players to Columbia.
Getting out of the ACC after winning the tournament title in 1971 remains the biggest blunder in the history of South Carolina athletics, and while Fogler won an SEC title in 1997, that team was a first-round bust in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed. The Gamecocks never were able to gain any recruiting momentum from their SEC title year, and they slipped back into mediocrity.
The lack of tradition and the resultant lack of quality personnel don't leave much reason to expect dramatic improvement next season. It also raises the question of how long Odom will have to turn things around. Athletic director Mike McGee has a policy of not rolling over contracts after losing seasons.
However, Odom is not likely to be on the hot seat just yet. He has four years remaining on his contract, and with the new arena still in the red, McGee would be loathe to eat more than one or two years of a deal. McGee also has a reputation of being a bit more patient with coaches he hired himself.
There is no reason why this program should not be in postseason play every year when our system, building a winning foundation, is in place, Odom said. What are the things it takes: a great league, a great arena, great players, and great fans and supporters. We have all those things, and I see no reason why we can't do that. I believed that when I came, and I feel that now.
Odom probably has at least two more years to turn things around and put South Carolina basketball on a winning, as well as a paying, basis. USC averaged 12,941 fans per home game in 2002-03, not a bad turnstile count given the quality of the product on the floor. Still, the larger arena lacks the intimacy of the old Carolina Coliseum, and the fans haven't responded with the kind of enthusiasm needed to create a decided home-court advantage.
On that score, Odom hasn't exactly endeared himself to the faithful. After beating Ole Miss in the SEC opener, Odom lashed out at the fans for what he perceived as an apathetic response. Odom later backed up a bit on those remarks, but many fans have long memories. However, they quickly will forget the perceived snub if Odom can produce a winner.
He remains convinced he can, despite seemingly long odds.
I believe with all my heart that this university and this basketball program has no reason to not be among the very best in our league, Odom said. We have nothing that would prohibit us from doing that except ourselves. With that said, that status is not reached quickly or easily. There are great sacrifices to be paid along the way, but that is a realistic goal.