AIKEN, SC — WHEN USC AIKEN officials went searching for a basketball coach in 2005, they liked a lot about Vince Alexander, then a 41-year-old coach at Mansfield University.
What they mostly saw in Alexander was an ability to make the most of slim resources. Mansfield offered two scholarships during his six seasons at the Division II school in Pennsylvania.
Imagine, USC Aiken officials believed, what Alexander could do with eight scholarships. What they imagined is becoming reality as, eight years later, Alexander has USC Aiken in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division II mens tournament.
The 20th-ranked Pacers face No. 7 Drury (Mo.) on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky. Two wins in Louisville and USC Aiken will find itself in the national championship game on April 7 in Atlanta.
This is no overnight sensation for Alexander and USC Aiken. The 25 wins this season against seven losses give USC Aiken at least 20 wins in five of the past six seasons. The program likes to boast that it has won more games (135) over the past six seasons than any other, at any level, in South Carolina.
Like many Division II programs, USC Aikens blueprint for success combines a mix of four-year players out of high school and transfers from Division I schools who mostly are seeking playing time.
The transfers have found a new home in Aiken from the likes of Ball State, Arkansas State, Gardner-Webb, Mercer, Winthrop, USC Upstate and The Citadel. Paul Larsen, a 6-foot-6 forward, could not get the minutes he wanted at Mercer and now averages 13 points and 27 minutes per game. The same was true of Santoine Butler, a 6-8 forward, who left Gardner-Webb and averages 12 points in 28 minutes.
You come here and you can stand out, Alexander says. Youve got a smaller pool, so you can be a big fish in a smaller pond.
Then there are the high school players, most of whom were overlooked by Division I programs. Ronald Zimmerman, a 6-foot guard from Spring Valley High, was not on Alexanders recruiting radar three years ago until a coaching friend called to say, Take a look at this kid, he can really shoot it.
Alexander watched Zimmerman put on a 3-point shooting exhibition one day at USC Aiken and offered a scholarship on the spot. Zimmerman, who says the range on his jump shot extends to the volleyball line some 35 feet from the basket on USC Aikens home court, leads all of Division II with four 3-pointers made per game.
Its long range, mid-range, any range to be honest, Zimmerman says of his shot, which he takes with the confidence of a sniper. Any shot I take, I believe its going in.
Zimmermans 128 baskets from behind the arc this season are a program record. He leads the club in scoring with 15 points per game.
He often is on the receiving end of passes from senior point guard Remon Nelson, who is one of two players from the Columbus, Ohio, pipeline Alexander has constructed to USC Aiken. One of those players was Javonte Clanton, who was killed in a single-car accident in 2009 hours after USC Aikens first appearance in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16.
Nelson stands 5-9, so he was not highly sought after coming out of high school in Ohio. After a year of prep school, Nelson kept hearing from Clanton that he should visit USC Aiken.
We would play together during the summer, Nelson says of Clanton. I came down here on a visit and he talked me into coming.
Four years later, Nelson averages 14 points per game. He leads USC Aiken with six assists to go with nearly two steals per game. Mostly, the Peach Belt Conference Player of the Year spearheads USC Aikens full-court pressure defense and fast-paced offense, which averages 88 points per game.
Every time USC Aiken puts the pause button on the furious action during a game, or even during practice, team members collectively bump fists. The closed fist is the teams sign of unity, with each finger in the hand representing the programs five principles of trust, leadership, courage, collective responsibility and communication.
Those principles and team unity have USC Aiken three wins from a national championship.