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April 1, 2010

Morris: Program's pioneer spirit must chart a new path

KELSEY BONE DROPPED a bomb on the South Carolina athletics department Wednesday when she decided to leave the women's basketball program.

KELSEY BONE DROPPED a bomb on the South Carolina athletics department Wednesday when she decided to leave the women's basketball program.

Before you dismiss her transfer as insignificant because she is not a he and does not play football, men's basketball or baseball, consider the reaction a year ago when Bone announced she was headed to Columbia.

Her decision was celebrated as one made by a program-changer ... not just the women's basketball program, but the entire athletics program. She was considered by some to be the top women's basketball recruit in the nation. In no other major sport had USC ever landed the top high school player in the country, until Bone.

It was stunning news that a player from Houston, who could have played for any traditional power in the country, instead chose to be part of a budding program that she could lead to national prominence.

Bone's decision was celebrated by Dawn Staley and her staff, by other USC coaches, and by the USC athletics administration. Bone's signing verified to the athletics department that it could get done at USC. Her signing signaled that USC had what it takes to recruit and sign the nation's best athletes.

Bone's move was bold, for it takes a special kind of athlete and person to step into uncharted waters. By attending USC, she was telling the women's basketball world she was a pioneer. To help smooth the move, Bone's mother and younger brother moved to Columbia.

The marriage appeared to be made in heaven.

It helped that Bone seemed to revel in the spotlight. She also seemed to recognize her position as a possible savior for the program. She took to USC fans, and they took to her. She was as forthright as she was delightful in interview sessions.

Bone did not disappoint on the court. She stands 6-foot-5, and she made her presence known by leading the SEC in rebounding with nine per game. She was second in the league with eight double-doubles, and eighth in scoring with 14 points per game.

Beyond the numbers, Bone appeared to make progress with her game by leaps and bounds. Tentative early in the season, she became more forceful around the basket by season's end. Her footwork improved. She learned to pass more effectively out of double-teams.

Watching Bone and USC play this season meant keeping one eye on the present and the other to the future. With Bone anchoring the middle of the team's offense and defense, the not-too-distant horizon could be seen. NCAA tournaments and Final Fours were within sight.

Unfortunately for USC, it is likely Bone did not see the same future.

Staley dropped several hints to that effect during Wednesday's hastily called media gathering.

"It's a blow," Staley said of Bone's decision to leave. "Of course, it's a blow because I think she decided to do something different last year about this time. I thought she had a pretty decent season for us and made a big impact for our program, and we were looking for her to do bigger things in the future. But she thought otherwise."

Staley was not so subtle in a later comment.

"She made progress during the season, just as all of our players did," Staley said. "Sometimes, when you don't win as many games as you would like and you don't go to the NCAA tournament or NIT, sometimes you start thinking about that as a coach, as a player. I'm quite sure that played a role in it, but I don't know how significant."

Despite all the strides USC made this season, improving from a 10-18 record to 14-15, and more noticeably from 2-12 in the SEC to 7-9, the Gamecocks still fell flat in the first round of the SEC tournament and did not qualify for a postseason tournament.

We can only guess why Bone changed her mind about USC, and why she is headed elsewhere. She is not talking, for now. But the educated guess is that Bone watched the NCAA tournament over the weekend and liked what she saw.

Do not forget that Bone is a teenager, and like all 19-year-olds she is still impressionable. The likelihood is that Bone watched teams playing in the NCAA tournament and realized that she could be part of that. She can transfer to a Texas or Oklahoma, or any other school that can promise her she will play in the postseason every year. She might even play on a national championship team.

There is no promise of that at USC. The only promise here was that Bone could be the first to lead USC to a Final Four. She could be the first to turn Staley's program into a national power.

In the end, maybe Bone decided she was not the trailblazer she first thought she was. There is nothing wrong with that. It just hurts when a school's entire athletics department gets a bomb like that dropped on it.

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