May 14,2002 COLUMBIA Throughout his first year as South Carolina's basketball coach, Dave Odom made it clear that his next recruiting priority was a long-range shooter.
It was hardly a revelation. South Carolina was among the Southeastern Conference's weakest offensive teams during the past season, and the Gamecocks' only serious three-point threat was senior Jamel Bradley. None of Odom's four 2001 recruits offered any scoring help from the perimeter, nor did they show much potential to help there in the future.
That made a junior college player, Tim Pickett, the most significant of the four men originally signed in Odom's second USC recruiting class. Three years out of high school, the 6-4, 200-pound Pickett figured to have the maturity to provide an immediate impact, and he came with juco credentials that suggested he was someone who could sink three-pointers in a crowd and in the clutch.
Much depended on Pickett. Maybe too much.
Six months from the opening game, Pickett isn't eligible by Southeastern Conference standards, and meeting the SEC standard prior to the season appears extremely unlikely.
Pickett, a product of Daytona Beach, Fla., was an all-conference performer as a freshman at Daytona Beach Community College in 1999-2000, when he averaged 16.7 points a game. He then encountered some academic difficulties and sat out the 2000-01 basketball season at Daytona Beach, while still enrolled as a student. His situation grew complex in 2001-02, when he played at Indian River (Fla.) Community College and was chosen MVP of a team that won 25 games. He averaged 21 points and knocked down 133 three-pointers, converting 37 percent from beyond the arc.
Unfortunately, Pickett's decision to play at Indian River made it almost impossible for him to play for an SEC team at the start of the 2002-03 season. Conference rules require a player to attend the junior college where he received his degree for at least three semesters (not including summer school) prior to transfer. It's not a new rule, and it's one other schools have dealt with many times when dealing with football and basketball prospects.
"Someone (at USC) dropped the ball," a source close to Pickett said. "Nobody knows whose fault it is, and the rule is a little bit confusing, but that's part of the process. That's what the rule book is for, that's what those administrators are for. Someone should have caught this a long time ago, but they didn't, and now Tim's in a bind."
South Carolina athletic director Mike McGee eventually asked the SEC for a special waiver that would allow Pickett to sidestep the rule. But getting approval from SEC brethren, some of whom might have recruited Pickett if they had considered him potentially eligible in 2002-03, seems highly unlikely. If that appeal isn't granted at the spring meeting in late May, McGee plans to ask SEC athletic directors to change the rule. By then, of course, it will be too late for Pickett.
"We ran into the same problem a few years ago, and we ended up losing the kid to a Big 12 school even though he wanted to come here," an SEC assistant told the Sports Journal. "Nobody on our staff understood the rule, to be honest, but one of our compliance people caught it, so we had time to look in other directions. These things can happen when the basketball staff and the compliance people aren't on the same page. It's a tough lesson to learn, especially for the kid in this case, because it's not his fault."
No Answer For Glaring Weakness?
Odom thus faces the embarrassing position of stepping into the 2002-03 season without a remedy for what was easily identified long ago as the team's most glaring weakness.
The situation is additionally embarrassing because, unlike the case of a non-qualifying scholarship recipient, this problem was completely foreseeable. The fact that Pickett was in his first year at Indian River should have caught someone's attention at McGee's office, as well as Odom's, long before NCAA signing day. It is a mistake that, unless fixed with the special waiver, will haunt the Gamecocks for at least the first part of the 2002-03 season and possibly longer.
If USC can convince Pickett to attend another semester at Indian River, where he would not be eligible to play more basketball, he then could transfer to USC and play in the second semester. That seems to be the best-case (December 2002 arrival) scenario, assuming the SEC waiver is not granted.
Odom's fear is that Pickett will complete his academic work in the summer term, as expected, but USC won't be able to offer him a grant. That would free him to sign with a school in any other Division I conference. If Pickett goes in that direction, it would leave South Carolina without a three-point shooter.
Pickett's problem explains in part why USC was so willing to get into a numbers problem. After handing out four scholarships to another disappointing class last spring, the Gamecocks were up to the NCAA's maximum of 13 during the past season. Two of those were freed up by the graduations of Bradley and Aaron Lucas, but when three players were given scholarships last month, USC had 11 grant-holders on campus and three more on the way.
The extra scholarship, as anticipated, eventually came from rising junior guard Greg Taylor. An in-state product, he suffered mononucleosis as a freshman and battled ankle injuries as a sophomore, playing sparingly in both seasons. Taylor, a nice kid who seemed to genuinely like Odom, called the situation "out of his hands" in published reports but stopped short of saying he was run off. That's not exactly Odom's style, if it happened that way, but perhaps poor recruiting results for two straight years pushed his hand.
Two Straight Spring Scrambles
Perhaps that's the biggest concern with USC basketball right now. Last year's mediocre performance on the recruiting trail could be explained away by the unavoidable timing of the coaching change. There was no such excuse this time. One common sign of a struggling program is the sight of its coaches scrambling for jucos and other last-minute spring possibilities, and this marks two years in row for such a scenario under Odom.
About 90 percent of the best prospects sign during the fall period, and USC simply failed to attract anyone from that elite group. That happened to Odom regularly when he was at Wake Forest, where he purposely chose to avoid head-to-head recruiting matchups against the traditional powers, but he thought that would change now that he's representing a major state university in a top-flight conference. It probably should change, but at this point it definitely hasn't changed.
The Gamecocks' early additions this year were Pickett and unheralded Fork Union Military Academy point guard Jarod Gerald, who put up big numbers at Mullins (S.C.) High two years ago but is generally considered a borderline SEC recruit. The spring additions, as usual, were a mixed bag.
Florida swingman Tarence Kinsey he told reporters it's "Tarence," but USC's official release said "Terance," so your guess is as good as ours had a big senior season and picked the Gamecocks in March over offers from Boston College and Massachusetts. Arkansas, Florida, Georgia Tech, South Florida, Temple and Tulane also showed late interest. Also known as a hard worker, Kinsey was a 6-2 guard for much of his prep career before sprouting to 6-6, so he has better than average perimeter skills for a player his size.
The final two signees, landed in late April and early May, were glaring proof that the Gamecocks held no hope of winning the Pickett appeal. Florida swingman Marcus Morrison, headed to West Virginia before new coach Dan Dakich's odd reversal, picked USC over South Florida and Tulane. Kansas juco product Kerbrell Brown, a 6-6, 220-pound combo forward who signed with Oregon State last fall, picked USC over New Mexico. Neither player was pursued at a particularly high level.
The signing of Brown may end up representing another roll of the NCAA dice. The general rule for a prospect who signs a letter of intent is that he must sit out two full seasons if he wants to switch. If the signing institution releases the player, as OSU did with Brown, the prospect still must sit for one season unless he wins a (longshot) NCAA appeal. In this case, however, Oregon State found a loophole; by rejecting his application for admission, the school rendered his signed letter null and void, enabling him to play elsewhere right away.
It may be the perfect solution. The new OSU staff didn't want Brown anyway. Brown didn't want to sit out. USC wanted a player who would be eligible from the start. Everybody wins unless the NCAA decides the whole thing was just a masked attempt to avoid its letter of intent rules. Then the Gamecocks have another problem.
More Pressure On Veteran Guards
Without Pickett, the Gamecocks will rely even more on three veteran guards Chuck Eidson, Michael Boynton and Chris Warren as well as incoming Gerald. All will get the chance to produce more from the perimeter, primarily because South Carolina opponents will be devoting most of their attention next season to frontcourt stars Rolando Howell and Tony Kitchings.
Eidson, the 6-7 rising senior, could provide the answers. Strong defensive work and good passing skills make him a lineup fixture; if he can develop a three-point shot, Odom's job will become much easier. He could simply move Eidson to the wing and let Boynton and Gerald share the point guard role. But that solution would put much pressure on Eidson as a scorer, a role he doesn't relish.
Boynton has shown the ability to shoot adequately when he plays on the wing. Among the returning players, he is most likely to be able to sink an open shot from beyond the arc. If he emerges, that would enable Eidson to share playing time with the 6-1 Gerald at the point an ideal formula, since it would allow the freshman to learn much from the team-oriented senior, in a less-pressurized setting.
Warren is another possible solution. Recruited last year as immediate help on the wing, he often showed poor shooting form and poor shot selection from the perimeter. He shot just 34 percent from the field but hit a respectable 32 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. It would take major summer improvement, however, for Warren to be a go-to performer.
Lesser possibilities: 6-6 incoming freshman Kinsey, who was Florida's 4A player of the year last season after averaging about 25 points and 10 rebounds a game, and 6-8 sophomore Issa Konare. Kinsey is a high flyer with pretty good skills, but he's not a three-point specialist and he needs more strength to compete in the SEC. (PrepStars.com scouts love Kinsey's long-term potential but don't believe published reports that he hits 40 percent from long range). Konare, the Senegal native, apparently has convinced coaches that he's a perimeter threat, even though he didn't show much in 17 games as a freshman.
In a cloud of uncertainty, this much is pretty clear: As the Sports Journal suggested at the time, Odom probably made a mistake in dispersing four scholarships last spring, three of them to frontcourt players. And he might have made a larger one, along with the USC compliance department, by counting on Pickett as the shooting star of this year's class.