College Sports

Odom focused on his team, not job security

COLUMBIA -- Dave Odom paused, not a long pause, but a pause as he considered the question.

"Do you have an opinion on being labeled 'on the hot seat?'"

"No," South Carolina's seventh-year basketball coach answered.

That's no, he doesn't have an opinion. Yes, he knows about some of the criticism he's facing that says this is a crucial year for the Gamecocks and his future.

"It's not something I think about every day or any day," he said. "I can't be worried about that when I've got to be concerned about our basketball team.

"I'm much more concerned about our team than I am myself."

Odom previewed the upcoming season Thursday before breaking for a short meeting with his players. The Gamecocks begin practice today, but Thursday was about introducing his new players, outlining a rough plan for how he hopes to play the season and talking very briefly about last season.

The question had to be asked, considering the storm clouds began gathering last year after a tough stretch. USC was blown out in four straight games during the first 10 days of January, losing to Kansas (by 16 points), Georgia (24), Florida (34) and Kentucky (38).

Three of those teams were in the Top 25 and two were in the Top 10. Still, three of the losses were at home and when the Gamecocks finished 14-16, including an SEC-worst 4-12, fans and media began discussing Odom's potential future.

With less than a month to go before the Nov. 9 season-opener, Odom pointed out the four-game stretch came immediately after the team's best player, Tre Kelley, suffered a knee sprain. He said there was no question the Kentucky and Florida games got away and his NCAA tournament record at USC (one appearance in six years) was unacceptable to him.

But when asked if making the NCAAs this year was the most important part of keeping his job, Odom said it was only one of the criteria. He said the most important thing he saw last year was his team stuck together and didn't split as the four blowouts led to a miserable conference season.

"You're asking me to get involved in something that will be decided at the end of the year, if there is a decision to make, before we've ever had an official practice or an official game," Odom said. "Every time we talk, I'm not going to talk about that."

With that out of the way, Odom returned to previewing his team. With seven newcomers on hand for the 100th year of Gamecock basketball, Odom said if everything comes together, USC has the talent to make it to the NCAAs.

"This team should be a much better basketball team than last year," he said. "There's a lot of ways to make it to the NCAA tournament -- I think this team has that ability to find one of them."

Odom was rewarded with a two-year contract extension on the promise of his recruiting class, which is finally ready to hit the hardwood. Chester native Devan Downey, Zam Fredrick and Branden Conrad have their mandatory one-year absences out of the way after transferring and freshmen Mike Holmes, Sam Muldrow, Austin Steed and Trevor Deloach are good to go.

Everyone on the roster (with the possible exception of Deloach, who may redshirt) has to chip in right away. USC only returns one starter -- swingman Dominique Archie -- and lost the bulk of its scoring and rebounding.

But Odom is positive the team has the talent to compete and win. He pointed out it's an inexperienced group at first glance, but Downey, Fredrick and Conrad have plenty of experience, although it's been a year since they've shown it.

"I ain't no transfer no more," said Downey, the former Chester High School star who played his freshman year at Cincinnati. "I'm part of the family. I'm just trying to get out there and get on the court."

And if everything works out the way Odom thinks it should, there will be no reason to keep asking him if he thinks his job's in jeopardy. There's still a month to go, time for Odom to finalize to his young squad what it's going to take to win this year.

"I told our team this morning, in closing, that only when their pain for losing matches my pain for losing, will we turn this team, and this program, in the direction to reach the status that it deserves," Odom said. "Can we play in the postseason? Yes, I expect us to."