It may be the most anticipated season in a decade for the USC basketball team. But with Alabama A&M as the first opponent, and a big football game the following day, the hype may take a while to ramp up.
USC still has a number of issues to sort out, some minor and some major. Here are five questions facing the Gamecocks as the season tips off:
HOW GREAT CAN DOWNEY BE?
The star point guard took a supporting role in last week's exhibition, but don't expect that to happen often.
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Devan Downey has a chance to cement himself as one of the best players in school history and make a run at the All-America team. It's the next step for someone who has already been a two-time, first-team All-SEC pick.
Opposing defenses will be geared even more toward stopping Downey until his supporting cast gives them a reason to re-think double teams. The Gamecocks also will probably face a lot of zone, which sometimes has proven effective in stopping Downey's drives to the basket.
Still, it's not Downey's scoring - 20 points per game the past two seasons - that has to go up for his national profile to be raised. Or even his assists and steals. Its the number of wins USC has.
WILL USC MAKE THE BIG DANCE?
USC entered last season with the NCAA tournament as a somewhat far-off goal. After a near-miss, this year's team starts off projected by most experts to get into the 65-team field. An improved nonconference schedule and a better SEC will help.
The formula for making it will be a moving target as the season goes on. But here's a good outline:
- Win two of three scheduled nonconference games against high-major teams: Clemson, Baylor and Boston College. (The Charleston Classic also has potential games against South Florida and Miami.)
- Avoid stumbles against the lesser opponents - with LaSalle and Richmond being potential pitfalls.
- Finish at least .500 in the SEC. Winning 10 games last year wasn't good enough, but this year's SEC is much better.
WHO WILL PLAY WHERE ON THE WINGS?
The departure of Zam Fredrick opened up a starting spot. Freshman Lakeem Jackson filled in during last week's exhibition game, but don't look too much into that yet.
Senior Brandis Raley-Ross earned nearly as much playing time last week as Jackson despite coming off the bench. Raley-Ross has more of an outside shot, as does 6-foot-7 Evka Baniulis, who is questionable for tonight's game with a hamstring injury.
Jackson, a burly 6-foot-5, is not the shooter that Fredrick was and is listed as a forward. When he is in the lineup alongside forwards Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes, it creates an offense heavy on moving the ball around and post chances.
Look for the Gamecocks to continue to experiment with combinations at the two wing spots: Guard Ramon Galloway, when not backing up Downey at the point, also will get looks.
HOW MUCH POST OFFENSE WILL THERE BE?
Sam Muldrow's team-leading 17 points in the exhibition win was just one game, but it also was a sign that the team's big men are going to be more involved this season.
Part of that is a simple matter of experience: Muldrow, Holmes and reserve Austin Steed are juniors, and Archie is a senior. The coaching staff feels more comfortable running set plays for them on the block.
The versatile Archie may be ready to assert himself offensively. Muldrow won't always hit 3s, but he will have more of a free hand. And Holmes has never been afraid to try mid-range jumpers.
Johndre Jefferson, a junior college transfer, is there more for his defense, but he can score close to the basket.
IS THE TEAM READY FOR THE UPCOMING STRETCH?
Starting tonight, the Gamecocks will play five games in nine days: Georgia Southern visits on Monday, then Charleston Classic starts Thursday with three games over four days.
The depth will be tested, but that could be a bonus. Bench players such as Jefferson, freshman Stephen Spinella, Steed and guard Robert Wilder will get playing time.
"It's probably one of those things that you don't know," Jackson said. "But I feel that we prepared really well."