As USC Upstate basketball coach Eddie Payne soaked up the atmosphere during the Great Falls boys basketball senior night in February 2010, he must have smiled to himself. Payne was there to watch then-Red Devils star Torrey Craig, and the experience that night left no doubt that Craig would be one of the players the Upstate program would rely on in the coming years as it transitioned to full Division I status.
I was very impressed with him, Payne said, and I was impressed with the whole community, the way they supported the team: the managers, the statisticians, the cheerleaders, the senior basketball players. It was a very much an exhibit of community, and I really had a good feeling about the whole thing because of me seeing it that night.
Payne will see a glimpse of that spirit Wednesday night when he brings his Upstate Spartans (1-0) to Rock Hill, to face Winthrop (1-0). Its a homecoming of sorts for Craig.
I know theres some people coming out. Im not sure I have an accurate number right now but it should be around 50 to 60, Craig, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound senior said Monday.
Upstate enters the contest fresh off the programs first win over an ACC foe, after knocking off Virginia Tech 64-63 in Blacksburg, Va., on Saturday. The win is a high-water mark for the program; Craig, a senior, has been one of the load-bearing stilts during Upstates rise the past four years. Payne gave a simple appraisal of his senior, saying hes one of the schools best ever.
Hes going to break some records and hell be very high in some statistical categories, said Payne. Torrey is a good student, hes a good person, and hes been a terrific ambassador for our institution.
Thats been the case since the moment Craig arrived in Spartanburg, in the fall of 2010. It took him four games to win a starting job as a freshman and he went on to average 14.4 points and 7.2 rebounds, winning the conferences freshman of the year award.
He got better still and was named player of the year the following season after scoring 16.4 points and grabbing 7.7 boards per contest. The Spartans won 16 more games than in 2010-11 to finish 21-13 and earn a spot in the College Insider.com Postseason Tournament.
Through it all there was no chest-thumping or lung-bursting screams from Craig to attract attention. Theres no need to do that when you come from a town like Great Falls, with a population just under 2,000; everyone already knows who you are anyway.
Instead, Craigs confidence was quiet. It manifested on the court during his outstanding first two seasons.
I wasnt surprised because I knew what I could do all along, he said. I had tremendous confidence in myself coming in and I knew that all I had to do was put in work and play hard, and it would pay off for me.
Venerable Great Falls coach John Smith knew that would be the case. Bigger schools recruited Craig, but never offered. Winthrop sniffed around but didnt extend a scholarship due to a logjam of perimeter players, while some schools may have been concerned about Craig playing at the Class A level, or his lack of exposure on the AAU circuit. But Smith knew his star player had the willingness to work and the desire to be great, qualities that transcend school classification. Smith told all of the college coaches that if you want him to work out at 5 in the morning, hell be there.
Last season as a college junior, the spotlight honed in on Craig, but he still led the conference in scoring for a second straight season. He got better in other areas too.
Coming in, I didnt really play defense like that in high school, Craig said. But college, youre forced to play defense. So I had to learn how to play defense on a Division I level. I figure Ive gotten better at that.
Payne said Craig is a shooting threat anywhere on the floor inside of half court, but that hes never in a hurry on offense, a rare trait for such a potent scorer.
I think a number of factors have gone into his evolution as a player, said Payne. The community of Great Falls and the coaching of John Smith and his staff have instilled in him an understanding and an appreciation of team play. Hes never been just all about himself, and thats an important ingredient for any player to have.
Perhaps Craigs biggest development during his college career is his ability to impact a game in ways aside from scoring. Craig, who said he plans to declare for the NBA draft next spring, only hit 5 of 20 shots from the field against the Hokies on Saturday, but Upstate got a team-high 17 points from guard Ty Greene to offset its stars shooting struggles.
Craig grabbed eight rebounds and blocked three shots, while doling out a team-best three assists.
He did things to help us win when he was not shooting the ball well, said Payne. From my standpoint, I think that bodes well for us, when we win and he doesnt shoot the ball well.
Its an ominous sign for opponents. The Virginia Tech win was also just another bit of confirmation that Craig made the right choice in 2010, opting for the Upstate program, where he could make a lasting impact.
That was my whole intention of coming to Upstate was to help change the program and help get it in the right direction, he said. To be able to accomplish that is, its honoring.
Wednesday night will be Craigs first time playing in Rock Hill, since the Northwestern holiday tournament in 2009, which the Red Devils won. It might feel like a Great Falls home game in portions of the Coliseum.
Its going to be the first time that a group of people like that have been to one game because its so close to home, Craig said. It should be a lot of fun.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T