College Sports

Downey's return could make the differnce for USC

Devan Downey, left, guards South Carolina's Tré Kelley during in the 2006 NIT. Downey is replacing Kelley in the Gamecocks' lineup this season.
Devan Downey, left, guards South Carolina's Tré Kelley during in the 2006 NIT. Downey is replacing Kelley in the Gamecocks' lineup this season.

COLUMBIA -- Every game he was forced to sit on the bench, wearing a shirt and tie instead of a jersey, was pure torture.

Devan Downey had no problem with the rule requiring him to sit out a season after transferring to South Carolina from Cincinnati. But as the Gamecocks lost game after game, sliding into the depths of the SEC, the thorn in Downey's side kept digging.

"The only time I maybe got a little sad and like, 'What did I get myself into?' was game day, when the team's out there struggling and you really can't do nothing to help," Downey said. "'I could have did this, I could have helped them.'"

A year's worth of frustration ends Friday, when Downey can finally return to the court. The ever-present grin and the confident attitude never left, joining Downey on his odyssey from a superstar at Chester High School to a freshman phenom at Cincinnati.

And now to the Gamecocks, a team desperately needing a spark and a reason to feel good again after a disastrous 2006-07 season.

"When I made my decision, (everybody) was calling my phone, 'I'm happy you're back, I can't wait till you get on the court.' Everybody was just so excited," Downey said through a blinding grin.

"I'm back."

The journey

He was so good in high school it almost seemed unfair, this undersized jitterbug zipping around everybody on the court for a lay-up or firing away from just past half-court. The points and awards piled up almost as fast as the college offers, until Downey ended the suspense a year early by announcing he'd picked Cincinnati.

Scarcely a half-hour away from USC, Downey naturally considered the Gamecocks but saw a better opportunity with the Bearcats.

"South Carolina had Tré (Kelley), who was a junior, where Cincinnati had a senior point guard who I knew I could go up there and take out, which I did," Downey said. "It was not a bad decision. I'm not going to never say, 'I should have did that.'"

But almost as soon as he reported to campus, the transition began. Cincinnati fired coach Bob Huggins, who'd been a big part of Downey's decision.

He played the season and earned a spot on the Big East All-Rookie team, was the Bearcats' third-leading scorer (12.3) and became a linchpin of the future. But when the year ended -- coincidentally, to USC in the NIT -- Downey made his choice.

Cincinnati had already said it would part ways with interim coach Andy Kennedy, who Downey was also close to, and hire another full-time coach. Kennedy split for Ole Miss and Downey considered joining him, also looking at Kansas State (where Huggins was hired), Wake Forest and Florida.

But USC coach Dave Odom had an offer for him. Kelley was about to graduate and with a mandatory year to sit, the point guard job would be Downey's in 2007-08, provided he could earn it.

There was no doubt he could earn it. After looking around, Downey called his family in Chester and told them he was coming home.

"I just feel like it's better to have my people, my family and friends from Chester around," Downey said. "I hear people saying they're going to get season tickets, and it's great."

On the bench

He couldn't play so he spent last year doing what he could. Assigned to guard Kelley in practice, Downey hounded the senior all day, every day.

"There must have been a fight or tussle, like, eight times a week," chuckled senior Dwayne Day.

Something must have worked. Kelley exploded from a solid point guard into a dominant scorer, making first-team All-SEC and almost single-handedly spurring the Gamecocks to 14 wins.

"I knew I couldn't play in the game; in practice was my time to make my team better," Downey said. "I pushed him to the point where he told me the games felt easy."

Now that Downey's the point guard, the team is trying to find somebody to mimic last season's performance. The problem is nobody can keep up.

"If you lose a point guard the caliber of Tré Kelley, you want Devan Downey to take his place," Odom said. "We have him."

The rest

Downey headlined a group of three transfers who sat out last year and are ready this season. Branden Conrad (Navy) and Zam Fredrick (Georgia Tech) are in town and should play extensively.

"You look at Zam Fredrick, he can run the point and play the off-guard, which bodes well for us," Odom said. "I believe Branden Conrad will be one of the keys on our team. How many minutes he'll play, I do not know."

Then there's the rest of the lauded rookie class, Odom's best since he came to USC seven years ago.

Guard Trevor Deloach, forward Mike Holmes, forward Sam Muldrow and forward Austin Steed come in toting impressive credentials. Deloach, who will struggle to see minutes at guard, is a strong redshirt candidate, but the other three should play often.

With scarce experience to depend on, Odom has used an accelerated learning curve on his flock of newbies. Only Dominique Archie returns as an every-game starter, with Day, Chad Gray, Brandis Raley-Ross, Evka Baniulis and Mitchell Carter around him.

Archie, Downey and Fredrick are definite starters as the season dawns and Day, the team's lone senior who's fought injuries and flagging production his entire career, is also penciled in. The fifth starter in the early season appears to be Baniulis, a long-range shooter who provided valuable minutes last season, until the freshmen become ready.

At the very least, the Gamecocks have depth. Last year saw Odom playing who he could find out of basically a 10-man team.

"We have more bodies and are deeper in every position," Archie said. "That's what we didn't have last year. We probably had only eight guys who could step on the court and play; this year we have 15."

The celebration

In the 100th year of Gamecock basketball, Odom has planned an alumni game, a banquet for former players and the recognition of a Gamecock great during every home game. He's hoping his current product won't be a dimmer on the bright light.

"Very disappointed that I didn't experience a family atmosphere from former players," Odom said, describing his seven-year stay. "That's something I feel that all successful programs experience."

Odom's efforts to get players re-involved with the program seem to have paid off. John Roche, perhaps the greatest player to ever wear a USC uniform, returned to Columbia for the first time last year and is on board to do it again. Enthusiasm for the centennial is high and figures to be a constant undercurrent for the season.

Hopefully, the newest edition of the Gamecocks will give the old ones something else to cheer about.

"We got to concentrate on basketball," Odom said. "We must play much better, much more confidently, at home. Can we play in the postseason? Yes, and I expect us to."

How to do it

A key -- maybe the key -- to accomplishing an NCAA tournament berth is Downey. Obviously he won't be the entire team, as Kelley had to be last year, because the guys around him have to get a chance to perform.

If they can do it, USC can begin its defense-transition game plan and perhaps things will turn around, in a restocking SEC. If not, and Downey is forced to become The Man he was in high school ...

Perhaps things will turn around, anyway.

"I am going to be that guy," Downey declared. "When you're down, I will pick you up. I want to show my teammates I believe in them and care for them.

"I don't feel like it's pressure because my father always told me, 'Talent's going to show.' I'm just going to go out there and just be me. Whatever I got to do for the South Carolina Gamecocks to win, that's what I'm going to do."

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