RonMorris

Morris: USC Upstate’s Torrey Craig is a diamond in the rough

rmorris@ thestate.comDecember 19, 2013 

USC Upstate's Torrey Craig has gained the notice of NBA scouts.

PHOTO COURTESY OF USC UPSTATE

— INSIDE

TORREY CRAIG hardly stood out. It probably came as a surprise to most who watched Sunday’s USC Upstate game against UNC Asheville at the Hodge Center that the final statistics sheet showed the 6-foot-6 forward led his team with 19 points and nine rebounds.

The game probably best defined Craig’s basketball career. Since his days at tiny Great Falls High and through four years of outstanding play at below-the-radar USC Upstate, Craig has largely gone unnoticed.

Except to NBA scouts.

Craig will take his smooth-as-satin game to the Colonial Life Arena court Thursday against South Carolina with three representatives of NBA teams there to watch him play. He offers what NBA teams like: A shooting guard in a small forward’s body.

“He’s done everything you want a young man to do,” says Eddie Payne, USC Upstate’s veteran coach. “He’s been a very good player. He’s been consistent in scoring and rebounding. The biggest thing that separates him is the way he shoots the ball. He’s long and he can shoot it from deep.”

Craig and USC Upstate compete in the Atlantic Sun Conference, which means they get little attention outside the league’s borders. Florida Gulf Coast gained the conference a modicum of credibility a season ago when it advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.

Meanwhile, Craig is showing that an occasional high-level player emerges from within the league. He was the Atlantic Sun player of the year in 2012 as a sophomore, led the league in scoring as a junior and is well on his way to being player of the year this season.

Chances are good Craig will become the first Atlantic Sun player to finish his career ranked in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and 3-point field goals made. If nothing else, Craig has been a model of consistency with yearly scoring averages of 14.4, 16.4, 17.2 and 18.2, and rebounding averages of 7.2, 7.7, 6.9 and 7.1.

As the career of one of the most decorated players in program and conference history winds down, the question lingers about how such a talented athlete was overlooked by every major college program in the country, including those within the state.

“We tried very hard to convince college coaches that he was a player,” says John Smith, who in 45 seasons as coach at Great Falls has amassed nearly 1,000 victories. “Sometimes recruiting is not an exact science.”

Smith was convinced Craig could play anywhere. The coach considered Craig the second-best player to pass through Great Falls under his tutelage, just behind Danny Strong, who played at N.C. State and eventually in professional ball overseas.

Yet Smith also understood why the high-level programs steered clear of Craig. The foremost factor working against Craig was the level of competition in which he played in high school. Further, at 6-6 and 190 pounds, Craig was primarily a post player at Great Falls and that part of his game did not translate well to the college level. Finally, Craig also played football for three years at Great Falls and turned his full attention to basketball only for his senior season.

“People have asked me repeatedly, did playing at a small school like Great Falls hurt him in terms of recruitment?” Smith says. “Well, did it hurt Raymond Felton at (Class A) Latta when he went to North Carolina? No. They’ll find you. It doesn’t matter where you play, it’s how good you are.”

Craig was outstanding as a post player, even though he did not put up gaudy scoring or rebounding statistics primarily because he adhered well to Smith’s team-oriented system. He also played one year of summer AAU ball, before his senior season.

Smith got Craig onto a talented summer-league squad to showcase his perimeter skills as either a small forward or shooting guard. Unfortunately, a couple of post players dropped from the team and Craig again was forced to play mostly with his back to the basket.

Charleston Southern, Charlotte, Presbyterian, S.C. State and Winthrop showed interest in Craig and he committed early to Charleston Southern. Then, a couple of USC Upstate assistant coaches began to like what they saw of Craig during the player’s senior season. They persuaded Payne to take a look.

Payne first saw Craig play on senior night at Great Falls.

“My feeling was this guy here is a higher-level player,” Payne says. “I was kind of skeptical about whether we could get him. ... Why (the larger schools) didn’t take him or see him or notice him, it’s hard for me to say.

“I just know what I saw and what I liked about him. One of the things was his ability to shoot the ball, and the other was his length. It was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned.”

Payne watched Craig play again in the 2010 state championship game at Colonial Life Arena. Great Falls lost that game despite 34 points and 14 rebounds from Craig.

Payne knew Craig’s background in basketball was rooted in strong fundamental play under Smith. What Payne also learned was that Craig was a thoughtful and humble young man who carried a 3.7 grade-point average in high school.

Craig had earned the support of what seemed like the entire Great Falls community. High school coaches and friends found ways to transport Craig around the Southeast for games during his one AAU season. About 30 residents, all sporting pictures of Craig on T-shirts, traveled to Myrtle Beach to watch him play in the 2010 North Carolina-South Carolina all-star game.

When it came time for Payne’s “in-home” visit with Craig, Great Falls coaches, friends, family and supporters met with the USC Upstate coach at the school gymnasium. Craig believed he was headed to a similar small-school environment at USC Upstate. Payne realized he had discovered a “diamond in the rough.”

That dual loyalty worked in USC Upstate’s favor two years later, after Craig’s player-of-the-year season, when what Payne calls the “seedier” side of college basketball played out with Craig. Major college programs began contacting him through friends about the prospect of transferring.

“I wasn’t interested because I was committed here,” Craig says. “I knew this was going to be my school for four years. No matter how big the school was, I wasn’t going to change my mind. I had made a commitment to my coaches and my teammates, and we’re all in this together.”

Craig has gone about polishing his game over last season and this one. NBA scouts know he can shoot, and he carries 34 percent marksmanship from 3-point range. They would like to see continued improvement in his defensive game, and more attempts to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket.

To be drafted by an NBA team, Craig also likely will have to show well at summer tryout camps. Like this afternoon at Colonial Life Arena, Craig will have the loyal support of the Great Falls and USC Upstate basketball communities.

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