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April 25, 2007

New faces have Gamecocks thinking big

South Carolina must replace the Southeastern Conference's second-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder from a team that posted the worst record in the league last season.

That hasn't stopped the Gamecocks from boldly discussing their 2007-08 postseason ambitions. The Gamecocks believe they have enough additions to overcome their subtractions.

South Carolina is counting on the arrival of five transfers to fortify a team that ranked at the bottom of the SEC in scoring margin and rebound margin last year. The optimism surrounding these newcomers helped South Carolina fans deal with a season in which the Gamecocks finished 14-16 after winning back-to-back NIT titles.

They won't be nearly as patient if South Carolina delivers a repeat performance.

"We can win the SEC tournament," said junior guard Zam Fredrick II, who spent two seasons at Georgia Tech. "We're going to try to make the NCAA Tournament. I see that for us if we continue to work hard and continue to get better each day."

Fredrick, former Cincinnati guard Devan Downey and former Syracuse forward Mike Jones headline a list of transfers that also includes junior guard Branden Conrad (Navy) and sophomore forward Ryan McDonough (Wheaton College).

South Carolina coach Dave Odom said he didn't plan on adding so many transfers, but the trio of Fredrick, Downey and Jones possessed an irresistible combination of South Carolina roots and big-time college basketball experience.

"You put them against the very best high school players we could have gotten coming out, and to me it was a no-brainer," Odom said. "You take those who have Division-I experience, who have good grades and who have a vested interest in the state of South Carolina and the university."

Downey, Fredrick and Jones all went to high school in South Carolina before heading elsewhere for college. Once they decided to transfer, all three figured that staying close to home would help them make a smooth transition.

"You've got people here you know, people you went to high school with," Downey said. "And when things get a little rough, I just need to drive 45 minutes to be with my family and just relax."

South Carolina's hopes of reaching the postseason could hinge on how well Downey and Fredrick replace Tre Kelley, who ranked second in the SEC in points (18.9) and third in assists (5.1) as a senior.

Downey strongly considered attending South Carolina after high school, but the presence of Kelley made him think he'd have a better chance of earning early playing time at Cincinnati.

New Additions
South Carolina's 2007-08 roster includes five players who began their college careers elsewhere. Here's a look at the five transfers on the Gamecocks' roster:
Name Yr. Pos. From
Branden Conrad Jr. G Navy
Devan Downey So. G Cincinnati
Zam Fredrick II Jr. G Georgia Tech
Mike Jones So. F Syracuse
Ryan McDonough So. F Wheaton College

The move initially paid off, as Downey made the Big East all-rookie team after averaging 12.3 points and a team-high 4.1 assists while playing for Andy Kennedy as a freshman. When Kennedy left for Ole Miss, Downey followed his former coach out the door.

"To be honest, if Coach Kennedy had kept the job I would have stayed," Downey said. "(South Carolina) was close to home. I called the school and talked to some coaches. They told me I'd be welcomed back with open arms. I saw the direction the program was going in, and I felt with my abilities I could be a part of bringing them to the next level."

Fredrick is the son of former South Carolina star Zam Fredrick, who led the nation in scoring in 1980-81 and is a member of the school's hall of fame. Instead of continuing the family tradition at South Carolina, Fredrick initially selected Georgia Tech with the intent of getting a rising program over the top.

Little did he know the Yellow Jackets would go on to reach the NCAA final immediately after he signed - but before he arrived on campus.

"I probably wouldn't have gone there if (I'd known) they'd be in the championship game," Fredrick said. "I wanted to get them over the hump. I had no idea they'd make it that far."

After arriving at Georgia Tech, Fredrick grew disenchanted with his role. Although he averaged 10.6 points per game and made 18 starts his sophomore year, Fredrick wanted to go someplace where he could make a bigger contribution.

"I came out of high school as a prime-time player and an instant-impact type of dude," said Fredrick, who set the South Carolina career high school scoring record with 3,481 points. "I couldn't take (being) the third, fourth or fifth option."

Fredrick and Downey immediately should inherit featured roles at South Carolina.

Now that Kelley has finished his senior year, Downey figures to step in right away as the Gamecocks' starting point guard. Downey probably won't score as much as Kelley, but the 5-foot-9 sophomore plays at such a breakneck pace that he should allow South Carolina to establish a faster tempo on offense.

"It's going to be a big void for us," Odom said of Kelley's departure. "But when you look around the country and try to find a guard who can replace that void, I don't know how you can do better than Devan Downey."

Fredrick should earn immediate playing time at shooting guard while boosting an offense that ranked at the bottom of the SEC last year with 64.7 points per game.

"He's a coach's son, so he knows the game well," Odom said. "I think he's a natural off guard, but he can play the point some. He's a multitalented player who might feel more comfortable at the wing, but he can play the point in relief of Downey if we need him there."

Jones should bring similar versatility to a frontcourt that must replace Brandon Wallace, who ranked third in the SEC with 9.4 rebounds per game last year.

"Mike is a really talented all-court kind of player," Odom said. "He's probably more comfortable facing the basket than he is with his back to the basket. He's a good athlete who passes the ball and handles the ball well."

These South Carolina transfers believe they can make an instant impact.

As Fredrick discussed his plans for next season, you'd have thought he had joined a team coming off a conference title instead of a last-place finish.

"With the transfers we've got coming in, a lot of people are talking and saying we're going to be good," Fredrick said. "We've got to get it done. Whatever we have to do, we've got to get it done. There's a lot of hype, and we've got to live up to it."

They're certainly on the right track.

Odom marveled over how the transfers asserted leadership roles as soon as the 2006-07 season ended. They have arrived first for the 6 a.m. workouts. They have offered encouragement to their younger teammates. And they've embraced Odom's emphasis on offseason weight training to bulk up a team that was outrebounded by 4.2 boards per game.

"They had good attitudes during the year, but they didn't have quite as much ownership with last year's team because they weren't playing," Odom said. "That's normal. As soon as the season ended, they exhibited some real ownership with next year's team."

Even though these transfers didn't play last season, the Gamecocks' disappointing record gave them plenty of incentive.

Fredrick said he wasn't used to being on a team that didn't play in front of packed crowds. Each loss made him feel worse that he couldn't get on the court and help his teammates in some way.

"Brandon Wallace and I played on the same AAU team and are really close," Fredrick said. "After some of the games we lost, I'd look at him and just say, 'Dude, there's nothing I can do.' It hurt me to see someone I cared about feeling so frustrated and needing help when I couldn't do anything for him."

That one year away from the floor hurt these players almost as much as South Carolina's three-year NCAA Tournament absence has bothered its fans.

South Carolina's transfers now are counting the days until they can end both droughts. They're eager to prove they're worth the wait.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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