COLUMBIA — Much has changed about South Carolina basketball in the past year.
The Gamecocks have a new coach, Frank Martin, formerly of Kansas State. They have four new players, half as many as they bring back from a disastrous 10-21 season, their third straight losing record.
But at least one thing – point guard uncertainty – remains the same as they prepare to open the season Sunday afternoon at home against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
For the second straight season, junior point guard Bruce Ellington will miss the start of the season while playing wide receiver for USC’s football team. Martin doesn’t expect him to begin formal basketball workouts until after a bowl game. Even when Ellington returns, nothing is guaranteed for the former Berkeley High star, Martin said, because he must learn Martin’s up-tempo, pressure-oriented defense, a major change from last year’s 2-3 matchup zone.
“We’ll figure out what his role on our team will be whenever that football team wins that last game that they play in,” Martin said. “I’ve got no idea.”
Last season, wing player Lakeem Jackson, now a senior, played out of position and started at the point for the first three games. Then-coach Darrin Horn turned to Eric Smith, who started the next 13 games. For nine of those final 10, he split time with Ellington, who then started the season’s final 15 games. Ellington finished with 74 assists and 54 turnovers; Smith 33 and 36.
Martin considers Smith, a junior, to be his best point guard option right now, but is also auditioning junior Brenton Williams and senior LaShay Page, a one-year transfer from Southern Mississippi who is already USC’s most vocal leader.
“You want to see a miserable coach?” Martin said. “Find me a team that doesn’t have a point guard.”
He thinks Smith is “the most natural fit” for the job on the current roster. But he needs Smith to show more consistency than he did during preseason practices, when he “took a three- or four-day hiatus” from playing well. When Smith is consistent, “he’s our most talented point guard,” Martin said. When he isn’t, “I’m comfortable playing other people there also,” Martin said.
Martin wanted to get Page more practice time at point guard, but Page was limited with a hamstring injury. He should be available Sunday. Even if Page plays shooting guard alongside Smith, Martin wants Page to have a point guard’s mentality.
“I believe in playing the game with the two closest things to a point guard as you can at all times,” Martin said. “We’ve got to get it to that. I think we’ve got some candidates that can do that. You look at our teams in the past, that’s what we’ve pretty much have had.”
As Smith tries to move past his rocky-at-times sophomore season, he said he is working on being “the most confident person on the court.” There are more tangible tasks, too, especially grasping the intensity required of Martin’s defense, a far more aggressive approach than the 2-3 zone.
“It’s challenging mentally and physically, because it’s really like night and day compared to how we played last year,” Smith said. “It’s a little bit tougher physically because you’re pressuring the ball more and you have to get after people. I like it, though.”
Ellington will return eventually, and he and Page figure to be USC’s two most productive players. But for now, Smith is focusing only on his chance to occupy the point guard spot.
“I’m not really trying to think about that,” Smith said of Ellington’s return. “I’m just trying to go out there and work hard every day and everything else with take care of itself.”