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January 4, 2014

Instant analysis: Ellington decision

Not only won't Bruce Ellington's decision to pursue a career in professional football hurt the USC men's basketball team this season, it might actually be a blessing in disguise.

This may seem heretical to say for a player on whom so many expectations have been hung since he initially chose basketball over football coming out of high school and from whom so much has been delivered.

Last season, he was desperately needed in a backcourt that without him inarguably was the worst in the Southeastern Conference and arguably the worst in school history.

What no one will argue is that Ellington has been a spectacular Gamecock, providing leadership, athletic excellence, determination and character from the moment he stepped on on campus until now. He has given everything he possibly has and more to not just one sport but two, and has been instrumental to the success of both.

Now, it's time for Bruce to be a little selfish, and the man deserves it. Already he has given this year's basketball team the lift it needed, the example it required when he showed up at practice and demonstrated to the seven freshmen on the squad precisely how to practice, how to behave, how to, for lack of a fancier word, be.

Now, it's time for those seven freshmen and the eighth new face, Villanova junior transfer Ty Johnson, to put Ellington's lessons into practice and deliver. Johnson has had the advantage of a year of practice with Ellington and watching him play from the bench all last season as he sat out due to the NCAA's transfer rules. He should need no further tutelage. For the other freshmen, Ellington's time with the team this year, his work ethic and response to coach Frank Martin's coaching, came at a time when it was desperately needed and stands as his gift to the 2013-14 team.

Had he played, while Martin would have appreciated his leadership in practice and on the court, those minutes would have retarded the progress of the other guards around whom the future of this program is being built and potentially overshadowed the one other senior for whom this could be a breakout season - Brenton Williams.

With no Ellington to lean on - or hide behind, it sometimes seemed like on the court - Williams is the man from an experience standpoint and a pure scoring standpoint. While star freshman Sindarius Thornwell appears primed to have a fantastic career, he's not yet had the kind of game Williams had last year against Mississippi State in league play when he scored 36.

With Ellington training for a shot at the NFL, more shots will come Thornwell, Johnson, Williams, Duane Notice and Jaylen Shaw's way, and that only will accelerate the development of a program under Martin that appears to have turned the corner since it celebrated Christmas in Hawaii.

In large part, the success the Gamecocks have had as winners of four straight is the direct result of the lessons Ellington selflessly provided by showing up, practicing and playing just two days after the football team's win over Clemson. In fact, that gift to Martin, that example Martin can now point to the rest of the way, will stand as Ellington's legacy to this year's team, his final contribution to the basketball program's success as it transitions from the previous coaching staff Ellington originally signed to play with to the one poised to take it places that staff could not.

Now, the Gamecocks (7-6) head into their conference opener against Florida on Wednesday with confidence and experience of having already been made better by Bruce Ellington, which is something he's done time and again. That he gave of himself to the basketball team one more time this season before focusing on his NFL future is something not to be lamented but celebrated along with his remarkable dual career, one no one in school history has ever achieved to his degree before or likely will for a long time to come.

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