COLUMBIA -- Chad Gray thought last year was tough. He figured joining his team late, quickly getting hurt and barely being a factor for a losing team was about as rough as it could get.
Now he has to wonder. A year later, the sophomore still hardly plays for the South Carolina men's basketball team. Only this time, Gray is both eligible and healthy.
This is quite a comedown for a player who last year "everyone was crying for," according to Gamecocks coach Dave Odom. When he was admitted a semester late to USC, then struggled with a turf toe injury, it was considered a big blow to the team. Getting a full year out of Gray, a 6-foot-7 athletic forward, was to be a big lift.
Instead, Gray can't crack what has only been a seven-man rotation. He has not played in four of the past five games, his only appearance during that stretch coming in a tuneup against Campbell. Against the likes of N.C. State, George Mason, Clemson and Providence, he has recorded a DNP, coach's decision.
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"I still say if we'd had him at the beginning (of last season) he'd be further along now," Odom said. "But it's disappointing as heck that we've got him eligible, we've had him the whole summer and fall, and we're not getting the benefit of that time with him."
So why not? The coaches say Gray has not worked hard enough in practice, and when he did play early in the season, including eight minutes against Southern California, he struggled. Gray missed defensive assignments, and his only 11 points this of the season came against South Carolina State and The Citadel.
Gray admits to the defensive lapses. He also says he has been working harder in practice. But he also thinks the coaches are misreading him: What might seem like a lack of desire is just his general low-key demeanor.
"My personality, I think that's what it is," Gray said. "I can't change who I am. I'm kind of laid-back, and that's what I think, pretty much, is making the coaches think I'm not working hard as other players."
On occasion, Gray sometimes wonders if he needs to do something drastic.
"Yeah, sometimes I do think I've gotta go punch somebody in the head or something just to prove I'm passionate about it," Gray said. "Because I guess they want everybody to be jumping all over the place, diving. I mean I do dive for loose balls and stuff. But I'm just laid-back."
Asked about Gray's comments, Odom said he wants to see that outward emotion. In fact, the coach was disappointed that Gray has not been to see him about his loss of playing time. It makes it seem to Odom that Gray isn't bothered.
When he was taken out of games as a player in college, Odom said he would sit next to the coach and stare at him until he was put back in.
"Chad gets comfortable and finds a place on the end of the bench somewhere," Odom said. "I want to see a little more fire. I want to see a little more outpouring of emotion."
No one ever questioned Gray's desire to be a Gamecock. The Kingstree native was initially denied entry to USC over concerns that he had attended a prep school being investigated by the NCAA as a diploma mill. Rather than go somewhere else, Gray sat out the fall 2006 semester, re-signed with the Gamecocks and was admitted for the second semester.
He played in 14 games last season, hobbled by the turf toe injury that nearly led to a redshirt. The hope was Gray would make a natural leap this year, but Odom said he hasn't seen the growth in Gray's game coaches had they hoped.
"He's a wonderful kid, he really is. You talk to him he's 'yes-sir, no-sir,' " Odom said. "But I've seen players like that over the years. It takes them sometimes a year or so to really understand and appreciate how important basketball is."
Odom said Gray first has to prove so in practice.
"At this point we can't afford the game activity," Odom said. "There's just too much at stake right now."