COLUMBIA -- At 5-foot-9, it's rare when Devan Downey's not the smallest player on the court. It's just as rare, though, when USC's star junior hasn't bested opponents with his speed and skill.
Downey, a former Chester star, is perhaps the biggest reason a Gamecock club expected to struggle is challenging for a Southeastern Conference title.
"But you know at the end of the night if you come to the games, the fans tell me, 'You're small, but you're the best player on the court,'" Downey said.
He's helping USC become one of the best teams in the SEC.
At 17-5, they've already surpassed their victory totals of the past two seasons. At 6-3 in the league, the Gamecocks are positioned to finish with their highest SEC total since going 11-5 in 1997-98.
Downey's at the head of it all, a dynamic blur who has eased off his numbers from a season ago, yet still leaves jaws agape with his play.
"We had nobody that wanted any part of him," Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie said after Downey's 3-pointer sunk the Wildcats at Rupp Arena, 78-77, two weeks ago.
Last week, Florida forward Chandler Parsons could not believe Downey's late-game heroics against the Gators. Downey had three 3-pointers and a driving layup in the last minute to turn a runaway into a 97-93 thriller.
"That's just crazy," Parsons said. "We were playing great defense on him."
Downey smiles and shrugs his shoulders. He's been the shortest player on nearly every team he's been part of. He determined a decade ago that what he couldn't do with size, he would accomplish with hustle, hard work and a continual attitude to improve.
"He's been that way since he was 13," said DeAndre Scott, Downey's coach at Chester High.
Downey's career took a while to take flight, despite excelling at almost every step.
He earned the state's "Mr. Basketball" award in high school, averaging nearly 37 points and five steals a game as a senior. He joined Cincinnati and coach Bob Huggins after high school. But Huggins left Cincinnati before Downey's freshman season.
Downey led the Bearcats in assists and made the Big East's all-rookie team. However, after interim coach Andy Kennedy, Huggins assistant who Downey enjoyed playing for, was not retained, the guard began to look elsewhere.
He settled on a return home and joined Dave Odom at USC. After sitting out his transfer year, Downey went full speed to take charge of a team in need of a leader. Perhaps Downey went a little too fast.
He set the SEC's single-season record with 103 steals and led the Gamecocks with 18.4 points a game. The Gamecocks, though, never clicked as a team and finished 14-18. With Odom's midseason resignation, Downey was set to deal with his fourth college coach in as many years when Darrin Horn took the Gamecocks job.
Horn knows he could have found a surly, moody junior who might give lip service to a new staff's ways. Instead, Horn says Downey has been a cooperative leader willing to sacrifice for the good of all.
"One thing about me as a player I've learned, it's not always about me," Downey said.
His scoring is up from a year ago at 20 points a game. But he'll need huge efforts down the stretch to match his steal and assist totals from 2008. Downey doesn't care because the Gamecocks have improved where it matters most -- winning.
Horn has instructed Downey to have more impact using his speed and elusiveness. These days, Downey won't go after a steal if it means leaving his man open for an easy bucket. He's more likely to pass the ball to an open teammate this season instead of using an energy-sapping spin move in the lane.
Horn doesn't see any reason why Downey won't excel at the next level. The former Western Kentucky coach heard the same knocks on former Hilltopper star Courtney Lee, now a rookie for the Orlando Magic. Downey has a similar desire to fit in and do what's asked, Horn says, something NBA personnel experts covet on their bench.
Downey laughs when asked about the NBA and jumping early. The only thing on his mind is this season and possibly helping USC earn its first NCAA tournament berth since 2004. His critics? Just turn on the film and watch a few minutes of Downey's game.
"I guarantee you nobody's talking about my height," he said.