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July 19, 2014

Steele unlikely leader

When Brian Steele takes the court, he plays like a man possessed.

As a walk-on, he has to.

He sprints. He hustles. He caroms. He careens.

He scrounges possessions for any opportunity, jamming opponents wildly and throwing his body - and sometimes the ball - in every direction to achieve a result.

To the untrained eye, Steele's is the life of an undersized, under-skilled non-scholarship team member hustling for action any way he can, a role player trying to maximize his experience. It's a common enough story - nearly every D-1 program has one.

What is anything but common, however, is the respect Steele, a junior, has earned from the best players on the team.

"He goes hard. He pushes everybody," said sophomore guard Sindarius Thornwell, a member of the All-SEC Freshman team who as a four-star recruit was rated the nation's 43rd-best player, making him the highest-rated player head coach Frank Martin has recruited since taking the job on March 27, 2012.

"He's like that guy that gets everybody going when everybody is down. He works hard no matter what, no matter how he's feeling.

"He's a leader. Even though he's a walk-on, we don't look at him like a walk-on. He approaches everything with a game mentality. We respect that."

Earning the respect of teammates and coaches has been all Steele has wanted to do since walking on and pursuing his own hoop dreams after a career at Greenville's Wade Hampton High School where he led the Generals to a state title as a junior and as a senior averaged 17 points and 8 rebounds a game.

Despite getting his USC career off on the wrong foot - he missed the first seven games of his freshman season due to a suspension - Steele worked his way back to play in seven games, starting four, the highlight being a win over Mississippi State in which he started his second straight game and scored six points with two assists.

As a sophomore, Steele's playing time and performance increased in nearly every category. While he didn't make a start, he played in 22 games and nearly three times as many minutes (218 to 79) as the year before. Also up were his points (58 from 16), rebounds (24 from 15) and, not insignificantly, memories.

Against Arkansas in the upset of the SEC Tournament, Steele had five points, including a key three-pointer that stopped a first half Arkansas run in its tracks, in 17 brisk minutes of play that inspired his teammates.

"He prepared for that moment," Thornwell said of Steele's play against Arkansas. "Everything he did in that game, we saw him do in practice.

"It wasn't a surprise that he helped us, it was more that we were excited for him to do it in a game."

For Steele, the games in Atlanta were key not just for himself but for the program.

"That SEC Tournament was awesome for us," Steele said. "We all really came together; it was a lot of fun.

"It was great (against Arkansas) because my family was there. It was also great playing in the Georgia Dome; I'd never really been in an environment like that. Winning was awesome, especially winning in March, and the way we won, as a team, was great."

Steele said his development from walk-on to contributor has been the result of hard work, hard work and more hard work.

"My job is to play as hard as I can every day, to be a guy who everyone can count on for effort, if not anything else," Steele said with a chuckle.

That work is paying off this summer at the S.C. Pro-Am. In two games, he's averaging 13.5 points and eight rebounds with a high of 20 points in his first outing while playing alongside USC teammate Michael Carrera.

"The Pro-Am is great getting to see the talent in this state," Steele said. "It's good to see what it takes to play professionally. There are some really talented guys in this league, and it really gives you a bar, a standard, to measure yourself against."

For all Steele's earnestness, he maintains a sense of humor about himself that's refreshing. When asked what the coaches wanted him to work on this summer, he smiled before answering.

"Not shooting airballs," Steele said. "They want me to work on a little bit of everything."

Steele then went on to name nearly every attribute a basketball player can improve on as part of what the coaches want to see him develop.

"They want me to fine-tune my shooting so I can make more shots next year," he said. "They want me to do a lot of defensive work, better foot speed, better hips, better lower body, better ball-handling, better everything, really, but mostly better shooting and defense."

Though he doesn't show it often during games - Steele was 10-for-27 (.370) from three-point range in 2013-14 - he's known as a marksman in practice. Getting that to translate over to games is his goal for 2014-15.

"That's the plan," he said. "I really hope I make a lot of shots this year. I feel like I've spent too many hours in the gym not to make shots.

"I'm kind of banking on my time in the gym."

Steele said the team's success down the stretch - winning four of its last six games, including a signature win on eventual national runner-up Kentucky - put an exclamation mark on what had been a long season.

"I think at the beginning of the year there's always that optimism going into the season," Steele said. "It never really fades, but things get real really quickly, and you realize what the team's going to become.

"I don't think we ever really lost the faith, but as we got farther down the road we got things together and started believing we could win. That helps at the end of games when you're not just playing, you're playing to win and you're believing you will win."

Steele's goals for 2014-15 are simple.

"I want to play as much as possible, but it really comes down to contributing positive things on the floor, making winning plays," Steele said. "Whatever that is - loose balls or making jump shots or making the extra pass - I just want to help the team win.

A final - and more personal - goal for Steele is the one every walk-on in America dreams of but so few get to achieve: performing well enough to earn a treasured scholarship.

"I'd love a scholarship, absolutely," Steele said. "But no matter what, it's a great situation here.

"I'd never leave because I'm not on scholarship. Coach Martin, the whole staff, they're awesome. It doesn't get any better than this. I'm living the dream, so I can't complain."

At the end of the day you can call Steele a lot of things -- scrapper, battler, competitor, overachiever -- just don't leave one thing off.

Leader.



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