Frank Martin made it clear that when Ty Johnson was eligible to play, he wouldn’t take over the point guard role as many assumed.
Like all of Martin’s players, minutes at South Carolina will be earned in practice. The contributions of freshmen Duane Notice and Jaylen Shaw, learning on the go as they attempted to navigate the rigors of point guard, wouldn’t go unnoticed.
But Johnson was bringing it in practice every day, even as a backup and knowing he wasn’t going to play until mid-December. That also didn’t go unnoticed.
So when Martin got word from the NCAA that Johnson could play in the Gamecocks’ season-opener, he didn’t hesitate.
Of course, the practical joker made sure Johnson found out in due time.
“I like reeling people in,” Martin said after Johnson started USC’s season-opening win against Longwood and wound up leading the Gamecocks with 18 points. “I told him, ‘Ty, you can’t lose your focus, you’ve got to do your job and you’ve got to make those young guys do better. Ty, it’s very important, because tomorrow, when you’re out there ’”
“He goes, ‘What do you mean?’ I say, ‘You’re cleared, you’re in,’ he just started screaming on the phone.”
The NCAA’s decision and the work of USC’s compliance office — Martin credited Chris Rogers and his staff, and said that Johnson asked for the phone numbers of each staffer so he could personally thank them — gave the Gamecocks a boost in their early season schedule. While all the rust isn’t off Johnson yet, he showed that it won’t be long due to his performance against the Lancers.
He was 6-of-9 from the floor and 6-of-7 from the line, scoring 18 points and grabbing two rebounds. He doubled his assists with four turnovers, but he blocked a shot and had a steal.
His complete game will return in time. Johnson hadn’t played since nine minutes of an exhibition game at Villanova last year before the Longwood game.
But the Gamecocks are glad to have him on the floor getting his game back, instead of sitting for a handful of non-conference games that could have a tremendous bearing on what USC does in the postseason.
Knowing that Johnson and Bruce Ellington weren’t going to be available for a while, USC tried to schedule as easy as possible. But the Big 12/SEC Challenge was set in stone, and the rivalry game with Clemson was moved from its usual December date to mid-November. It looked very much like Martin was going to have to depend on a freshman point guard for games at Clemson, at Oklahoma State and Tuesday’s match at Baylor.
Shaw and Notice had done well in the summer and the individual drills, but they still would have one game’s experience going into a hostile game in Waco, Texas. Johnson’s return gives USC a ready-made leader, veteran and someone who is used to big games. He won’t back down from 10,000 green-clad fans jeering at him to make a mistake.
“Coaches and teammates, they’ve been positive with me while I was sitting out, but I took practice every day as a game,” Johnson said. “I tried to push the tempo, I tried to lead these guys on and off the court. I just tried to be the most aggressive person I could be.”
It’s a tough matchup no matter who’s on the court Tuesday. The Bears had two Elite Eight appearances from 2010-12 but slipped to the NIT last season. Baylor won that tournament and returns seven letter-winners, including height and bulk in the post that USC’s youngsters will have to try and work around.
Johnson will try to direct traffic, score and do whatever he needs to do.
“Once he kind of settled down and started feeling the game better, I think you saw how he can really, really help us,” Martin said.
He gets another chance Tuesday.
GAMECOCKS VS. BEARS