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June 17, 2013

Fully healthy, Carrera returns to the court

Rumors that Michael Carrera was taking it easy this summer were greatly exaggerated. As soon as he was cleared to return to action, he didn't baby-step his way back into it - he did his usual, breaking back onto the court with the same bullish enthusiasm that he displayed his entire freshman year.

Battling a stress fracture in his hip that had him playing hurt for most of the year, Carrera was shut down immediately after the curtain fell on South Carolina's 2012-13 season. He was told not to run, jump, anything resembling his usual relentless style on the court, because rest was the only thing that could heal the injury.

As much as he disliked not playing, Carrera followed orders, went home to his native Venezuela for a while and then returned to Columbia. There, he got the news he'd been waiting on.

"I got a little rest back home, where I could eat good food," he joked, again breaking out the wide every-tooth-displayed grin that he also became known for last season. "I got back and got an MRI, and the MRI went great. I feel so much better. I feel great right now and ready to play."

He certainly showed it. On Sunday, when he had his first game of the summer-league S.C. Pro Am, he scored 31 points.

It was a new side of Carrera during the game. He was all over the floor, making things happen, and showing off his perimeter shooting. Perhaps by design (no sense getting hurt in an exhibition game) he didn't barrel into the lane for putbacks, although he did challenge several players in the lane for loose balls.

Naturally, he sported a sizable scratch on his right arm afterward, one that still oozed a drop of blood and one that he had pulled a Band-Aid off of during the game, while controlling the ball with his other hand. He did stay away from a lot of potential contact on his recently healed hip but still made his presence felt.

"I got rest, but I feel great now," he said.

A player who exploded onto the scene last year with 17 points and 15 rebounds in the season-opener, USC quickly got a primer on Carrera's ability. He would play hard every second, supplying energy and enthusiasm as well as being one of the best rebounders in recent memory, but might take himself out of games. Coach Frank Martin loved the pup's passion, but the passion had to be controlled; it was a crash course for Carrera, as he sat for three games after the opener due to a concussion suffered in practice.

He learned to control himself, as three fouls in the first half wasn't going to do him or the Gamecocks any good. The hip injury then limited what he could do as he fought to be the same player he was, while basically playing on one leg.

That's in the past. Carrera, even though he had an excuse due to the injury, felt worse than anyone when USC stumbled to the finish line. Once he was better and saw the new crop of talent that Martin has brought to Columbia, he got back on the court and also assumed the mantle of one of the team's leaders.

"I don't have any personal goals, I just want the new freshmen to learn the program and get together under coach Frank," he said. "We just want to win. We want to win an SEC championship. We want to go to the NCAA tournament. I just want the new guys, new people, to have their minds right and get us back to winning."

The Pro Am will help that goal. Five of the seven freshmen, plus newcomer Tyrone Johnson, are also playing this summer, and senior Brenton Williams is also on a team. Carrera has already seen what some of the freshmen can do in workouts and pickup games, now he's seeing them further their games while he furthers his.

"They're good players. I love them," Carrera said. "They all have a good personality. I think we're going to be a really good team next year. They have heart."

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