Freshman Holmes turns season around at right time

South Carolina's Mike Holmes has turned his season around. Now the Gamecocks have to hope it's enough as they enter the SEC tournament.
South Carolina's Mike Holmes has turned his season around. Now the Gamecocks have to hope it's enough as they enter the SEC tournament.

At the end of Monday's practice, Mike Holmes decided to show off a little. So the 6-foot-7, 240-pound freshman squared up and started doing back flips.

Feeling challenged, teammate Devan Downey followed suit, followed by forward Chad Gray. Watching it all, USC coach Dave Odom was worried the players would get hurt "tumbling all over the court like cheerleaders."

But as he looked at Holmes, it also cheered Odom. His high-profile freshman, at times introverted and temperamental, was finally relaxing.

"He's just so much more at home now as a person and as a player," Odom said.

The playing part has been noticed by opposing coaches. On Tuesday, Holmes was one of 10 players named to the SEC all-freshman team, alongside players such as Kentucky's Patrick Patterson and Florida's Nick Calathes. Given where Holmes stood a month ago, it is a big accomplishment.

He was once in Odom's doghouse, relegated to few minutes in SEC games and sitting out all of a 27-point victory against Radford. Holmes, who never worried about playing time while dominating at Lee Central High, was being sent a message.

Once it got through, Holmes worked his way back into the rotation and the starting lineup. He has three double-doubles in the past six games, and, in the past three games (all starts), he has averaged 16.3 points.

Holmes has had three seasons. During the first nine games, he averaged 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

In the middle of the season, he averaged 3.7 points and 2.2 points, not including two games in which he did not play.

During the past seven games, his averages were up to 13 points and 9.1 rebounds. Entering this week's SEC tournament, he has become the inside presence the Gamecocks (13-17) have lacked.

So what happened? Holmes said he learned to have more control of his game.

"Basically, what I've got to do is take my time," Holmes said. "Before, I was trying to rush. But once I take my time, it went pretty good for me."

He also agreed that the shock of being benched helped. Holmes entered school with a mixed reputation for coachability, so having to earn back playing time served as a wake-up call.

Teammate Zam Fredrick has seen the changes.

"He's able to take constructive criticism better than he did earlier in the year," Fredrick said. "We always had his back, but now he sees that we really care about him. He's gone back to the things that he knows how to do, and he's listening to what the coaches are telling him. Once you listen to the coaches, and you see that it works, it builds that confidence for you."

Odom compared Holmes to recent Gamecocks forward Renaldo Balkman, now with the NBA's New York Knicks. In both cases, Odom said he has seen "personal growth," since they entered school.

"Mike came in with kind of a star-crossed career, background, student-wise, personality-wise, player-wise. Our university gave him a chance. He's right in the middle of the fight right now, fight as in the battle to get to where we want him to be," Odom said. "I couldn't be more proud of Mike right now, I just could not. He really is comfortable in what he is doing and who he is."