ORANGEBURG - The object of curiosity for this mid-January game between Division II teams is the big player who wears No. 2. It takes less than a minute after tipoff to realize why.
Mike Jones darts up the key and makes a one-handed steal. Dribbling downcourt, he cuts to the basket and makes a layup while falling away.
Later, the Claflin University star repeats the move, except this time he stops and makes a 3-pointer. Towering over other "post" players for Fort Valley State, Jones grabs rebounds with ease and dunks them home. Jones and his team roll to a lopsided victory.
This is an up-tempo, high-scoring game, and it occurs: Jones could play in coach Darrin Horn's system at South Carolina. He would look good in a Gamecocks uniform.
For a few months three years ago, Jones did wear the garnet and black. More recently, so did Mike Holmes and Chad Gray, who will be teammates next season at Coastal Carolina.
The connection is easy to make: three instate recruits, all highly touted out of high school, who could have been on this year's USC team. Three players who could have fortified a squad that had lost its second- and third-best players by the sixth game of the season.
But all three were dismissed from the program and are winding down their collegiate careers elsewhere.
The Gamecocks, struggling with the loss of Holmes and the injury to Dominique Archie, are 15-15 entering this week's SEC tournament. Remaining team members are left to wonder what could have been.
"I definitely think they would've made the (NCAA) tournament," said Dion Bethea, who runs the AAU Carolina Ravens, where he coached Holmes, Jones and Gamecocks star Devan Downey. "They would've been a contender for the SEC championship."
BACK ON TRACK
Mike Jones started his career playing in front of more than 20,000 fans for one of the best teams in college basketball. He could have been playing this season in an 18,000-seat arena in his hometown.
Instead, here he is now, a man among boys playing in front of a few hundred fans at Division II Claflin, his fourth college stop.
"It's different," Jones said. "But at the same time, it's a good experience."
Coming out of Lower Richland High in 2006, Jones was a consensus top-50 national recruit. His lead recruiter at Syracuse, Rob Murphy, said at the time that the 6-foot-7 small forward was a future NBA player.
Jones played sparingly at Syracuse, appearing in 11 games as a freshman before deciding over the Christmas break he wanted to return home to South Carolina.
But Jones had conditions placed on him off the court that he did not meet. He was dismissed from USC after one semester. His nomadic existence continued as he spent two years at Indian Hills Junior College in Kansas, where Jones said he had a falling out with his coach.
Still, Jones said he has no regrets.
"Everything I did, everything that happened in the past made me a better person," he said. "I don't worry about it."
Sitting out a year before joining Claflin this season made him love basketball again. Claflin finished 16-9, good for fourth place in the SIAC. Jones finished as the league's fifth-leading scorer (16.2) and fourth-leading rebounder (7.8).
Jones still harbors dreams of playing pro basketball. And he wants people in Columbia to see him again - and remember him not as the player who washed out at three schools, but as someone who is back on the right path.
"A lot of people thought I was done. But I'm not even doing it for those people," Jones said. "It's all about self now. I'm trying to get myself straight, get my life back right."
A FRESH START
Holmes has been watching games from the Coastal Carolina bench the past few months. That was more than he did his last few weeks at USC, where he sustained an eye injury in late November and was dismissed from the team for repeated violations of team rules on Jan. 1.
A short time later, he transferred to Coastal.
"I know a lot of people are down on me," Holmes said. "So I'm just here to do the best I can, and hopefully things will work out for me. But as it is right now, things are working out pretty good."
Like Jones, his former teammate on the AAU Ravens, Holmes was a heralded instate recruit out of Bishopville's Lee Central High. Unlike Jones, Holmes chose USC out of high school, and he was the linchpin to the Gamecocks' 2007 recruiting class.
He started 47 games as a Gamecock and was the team's second-leading rebounder and third-leading scorer before he was injured.
But Holmes had difficulties off the court. He got in a fight with teammate Zam Fredrick before the SEC tournament last season, and he later fought with an unidentified teammate a week before his dismissal.
Holmes took his dismissal in stride, declining to criticize Horn. He remains in contact with some of his former USC teammates.
"I just wish I could've stayed there longer," Holmes said. "I wanted to end my career there, but it didn't happen that way."
Does Holmes share Jones' belief that everything happens for a reason?
"That's what I'm hoping for," he said with a laugh. "But right now it doesn't feel like it was (a) good (thing)."
Gray carved out a nice role for himself in his first year at Coastal. He earned first-team All-Big South honors this season despite coming off the bench, averaging 14.1 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.
The 6-7 forward from Kingstree was the Chanticleers' leading scorer in Saturday's loss to Winthrop in the league title game, which ended their NCAA tournament hopes. But they are guaranteed an NIT invite.
Gray's two years at South Carolina were rocky even before he arrived. He was initially denied admission by USC because of concerns he had attended a so-called diploma mill. After a stint at Midlands Tech, he was admitted in time to suit up for the second semester of his freshman year.
But he never became a factor on the court and was dogged by work-ethic issues. Former USC coach Dave Odom once complained that Gray didn't protest his lack of playing time.
A month after Horn took over, he released Gray for multiple violations of team rules. That wording at the time upset Gray, who was unavailable for this story.
But Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said he has had no issues with Gray - while hinting he still wants more from him.
"I think his future is going to be on the line with how he does this offseason," Ellis said. "I don't know him from the past, but from what I've heard, (his work ethic is) vastly improved."
GRAND PLANS MELT AWAY
There have been instate success stories for USC: Downey, Fredrick and center Sam Muldrow are recent examples.
"We always took the approach to recruit local talent first and foremost," said Ken Potosnak, who recruited the players to USC and now is an assistant at Auburn. "Both Mikes and Chad provided the program instate players with top-level ability. Their talent level was needed to compete and win in probably the toughest division in college basketball."
The problems that Jones, Holmes and Gray encountered were not unforeseen. But they were worth the chance, according to Potosnak.
"Yes, there are always risks in recruiting, especially involving top-100-type players," he said. "Trying to sign a risk-free, well-rounded student-athlete who also can win at the highest level is difficult. The majority of top players come with some type of risk."
After a USC game in 2007, having just announced his transfer from Syracuse, Jones sat in the stands with Holmes, at the time a high school senior who attended nearly every home game. Gray also was hanging out with the group, and Bethea marveled at what the future could hold. With Downey and Fredrick preparing to join the team after sitting out a year following transfers, it was hard not to be excited.
"We were all thinking about the (NCAA) tournament," Bethea said. "Not so much of winning the national championship. We were all optimistic about those guys, basically sitting on ice. Getting back to the years when they had BJ (McKie) and those guys."
But it all would end up staying on ice, a once-promising future dashed. Now everyone - the program under a new coach, and the castoff players - is trying to move on.
"I don't try to say 'what if?' " Jones said. "What happened ... it happened."
Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.