Back at Heathwood Hall after missing the last two game days due to SEC Media Days. Four games today in the abbreviated month of the Pro-Am, and that will carry into three games each on Tuesday and Thursday before the playoffs begin in a week.
Some strong performances on Sunday. Michael Carrera dropped 31 points, including a huge 3-pointer late in the game as his team came back to beat a team led by Devan Downey. Carrera played center and got dunked on on two straight early possessions, and he said he took it personally. That’s what caused the point explosion.
Downey scored 27 points and was helped by 18 from TeMarcus Blanton, who didn’t miss a set shot. Really smooth jumper from that young man. If he can do that in a game, South Carolina can add another option to what’s expected to be a guard-based offense. Reggie Theus was also on the team and had six points.
Downey’s squad was up by six with less than a minute to go, but Carrera’s team scored a bucket and then got a turnover. Carrera threw a 3 through the net, his fourth of the game in seven attempts, to cut the lead to one.
Downey was inbounding the ball and decided to throw it length of the floor. He threw it straight into the rafters of Heathwood’s gym for a turnover. That allowed Carrera’s team to call timeout, set up a play and inbound from its bench. Brian Steele got the ball just inside the left arc and drained a jumper for the go-ahead points, and Team Downey missed a layup at the other end. Carrera hauled in the rebound to clinch it.
I’ll have a story on this later, but Carrera blamed his struggling season last year on his mentality. While he admitted it was very tough learning to play the three when he’d spent his entire life at four, he also said he could have handled trying to learn it a lot better than he did. He thinks he’ll be back at the four this year (USC certainly needs the height on the block) but will play wherever he’s asked.
Carrera said that the uptick of 3-point shooting from USC’s big men is coach’s orders. Frank Martin wants the bigs to shoot from outside more since it spaces the floor out. USC is going to be pretty thin in the post this year so if the bigs can show that they can shoot 3-pointers, it will stretch the defense and open space so they can get more room to operate inside. Mindaugas Kacinas launched seven 3s on Sunday and made three and Laimonas Chatkevicius made one of his two attempts.
Justin McKie had an incredible game, barely able to miss, as he and Team Honda (also featuring Austin Constable) improved to 4-0 and surely locked in a playoff berth (only the top four teams get in). McKie scored 31 points on 12-of-16 shooting, including seven 3s out of nine attempts. If he can do just a portion of that during the season, he’ll be a valuable commodity.
McKie told other reporters last week that he wasn’t ready for the college game last year, and it certainly showed as he barely sniffed the floor. Behind the legacy and the high-school accolades was a guy who just wasn’t prepared for the rigors of major Division I basketball. He looks stronger, quicker and more focused now, and if he can show that he can play defense – a must of playing for Martin – he’ll find himself on the floor. Then he can unleash his shooting.
Marcus Stroman scored 10 points, most in the waning minutes, as his team earned a three-point win. He may struggle for minutes this year since he’s a point guard and will be behind Ty Johnson and Duane Notice, but he will play. Martin loves the pup’s savvy directing the offense, the way he sees the entire floor at once and can anticipate space opening. He had five assists and several more would-have-been assists had his big men not had a chronic case of missing layups. There will be times when he’ll play like a freshman and get yanked, and Martin will be in his ear. But there will be many other times where the future of the position will be displayed.
Caught up with Downey, who is still deciding where he’ll play overseas this year. He played last year in Qatar and took his team to the finals, but they lost the championship game. He lives in Columbia and has a three-year-old daughter, Aubrey, and keeps in shape by working out at USC. All of the current players know him and respect him; Johnson was talking with Downey after Downey’s game while Notice was getting some quick advice before he played. As usual, any day I got to see Devan Downey play was a good day.
Downey’s welcome back at USC anytime, and I’m hoping to see him in the spring if they can work out the scheduling with his pro career. What I’m hoping is that USC will retire his number 2; if there’s anyone who deserves it, it’s him. There’s been no definite movement on this, but I’m quite sure Martin would be all aboard for it. That would really pack fans into a home game and plus, he knows Downey from his Cincinnati days.
By March, Downey will have been out of USC for the required five years. The rest of the retirement policy’s criteria is also met – he has graduated, he holds a career record (steals) and he was a first-team All-SEC member for three years. The only other Gamecock to do that was BJ McKie.
The number wasn’t worn last year and thus far, it won’t be worn this year. It’d be nice to see No. 2 hanging up there with McKie, Alex English, John Roche, Grady Wallace and Kevin Joyce. Martin said a year ago that he’d fight for it, since he connects USC’s past with its future. But they would have to work it out with Downey’s pro career so he could attend; it’s not like he would be ineligible at any point after this.
Next day of Pro-Am is Tuesday. Three games, beginning at 6 p.m.