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April 19, 2012

Cloninger: Happiness, where are you?



"And you said, 'Don't you want to be like that man?'
'Oh no, no, no!'"
_____________________________________ SISTER HAZEL

There is always attrition when a new coach is hired, and South Carolina's situation is no different.

It's just that in the Gamecocks' case, the attrition is going to be what's talked about over the hope created by the new coach.

USC lost two of the biggest pieces being counted on for at least significant improvement, if not middling success, over the past three weeks when Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris requested and received permission to contact other schools about potentially transferring. Don't be fooled by the language in the official statements - while yes, technically each player could each choose to return to USC, the fact that they are willingly re-opening their recruitment, up to five official visits and being treated like the prettiest girl at the dance, shows that one foot, and probably head, both shoulders and the back knee, are already out the door.

It leaves the Gamecocks in quite a situation. Without those two, USC is missing three of its top four scorers from last year (Malik Cooke), with the third, Bruce Ellington, missing half of next season so he can play football. While the forecast for next year was rather bleak anyway, new coach Frank Martin stood to at least have a solid base to build on - Gill, Harris, Ellington, Damien Leonard and Brenton Williams were starting blocks, young talent that could get a lot better.

Martin's first foundation is full of more holes than Bobby Petrino's credibility. He has no go-to scorer, no major post player, no guy he can turn to and say, "You have to be the leader/shooter/producer, because nobody else can do it." He has a collection of spare parts and no engine. While he may find a diamond in the rough in these last precious days of the signing period, Martin's main task is to find bodies to fill the roster - anything he can find from the junior-college ranks or from the dregs of the high schools will be better than the alternative.

That being, hanging a sign up at the Strom on Oct. 15 saying, "Any male student interested in playing basketball this year, report to the gym at 3 p.m."

He wasn't promised a rose garden, and he surely didn't get one. While the camaraderie and chemistry of last year's team was wonderful, the talent wasn't - and now a huge piece of that togetherness, Cooke, is gone, and the two players with the most potential will be wearing different uniforms next year.

I have no doubt that Martin will find players and develop them to the best of their ability. The man's track record proves that. But he still has to find those players, and pickins is awful slim these days.

As for Gill and Harris, those questioning their commitment and backbone for leaving USC should, to be kind, shut up. They're young, they often judge how happy they are on how other folks tell them how happy they are, and they are products of the system.

Which these days, is that recruits don't sign with a school or a program. They sign with a coach.

The school and program, especially if not a program like Kentucky or Kansas that is on TV every week or can throw the tradition tag around and actually be correct, are useful tools on official visits. But that can only be used one time per recruit. It's the coach that makes the biggest impact on a young basketball player, because the coach is in the gym talking to them as high-school sophomores, in the house talking with Mom and Dad, out in the yard playing H-O-R-S-E with the kid and shooting them late-night text messages, asking how school went that day. Coaches in this game, more than any other, become father figures to players - with such a small roster, every player on that team knows that he can go to ol' coach if he has a problem. If 100 football players did that, the coach wouldn't have time to draw the first "X" on his game plan.

Gill and Harris were tight with Darrin Horn. Gill verbally committed to Horn early and held off offers from a lot more successful programs because he liked what Horn told him. Harris was the same, forming a bond with Horn and former assistant Neill Berry that had him turning down a two-time national champion in Florida and the hottest young coach in the country, Shaka Smart, at VCU.

Martin's track record with kids speaks for itself, but the kids don't see that. They see the coach they signed with, in effect their dad away from home, not there. Happiness is what they're chasing, and like all of us, they deserve a chance to grab it.

Yes, it hurts USC and what Martin's trying to do. While I believe the Gamecocks will play tremendously hard next year, I don't think there will be many wins. That may have played a part in Martin signing a six-year deal, instead of the standard five.

But USC has been down this road before. When Eddie Fogler took over in 1993-94, after the Bobby Cremins fiasco, he had four scholarship players. That first year featured nine wins. That improved to 10, 19 and then 24, including 15 in the SEC for the school's first SEC regular-season championship.

Yes, Fogler had the benefit of a McDonald's All-American (career leading scorer BJ McKie) in his backyard, the talents of a transfer (Larry Davis) and a superb off-the-radar point guard (Melvin Watson). Martin won't have any of that in his first year, but neither did Fogler.

What he hopes to have, after the rash of attrition, is kids that are happy to be at USC and happy to play for him. With the eight scholarship players left, and Ellington as a walk-on, he seems to have that, for at least the moment.

Happiness has never been proven to win basketball games, but it surely can't hurt the effort.

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