Speculation is swirling about coach Darrin Horn's future at South Carolina, but there will be one definite name back for the Gamecocks next season - point guard Bruce Ellington.
For the entire season, this time.
A source close to the football team confirmed to GamecockCentral.com on Monday that Ellington has decided to stick with basketball only for next season. The decision immediately injects a shot of confidence into a beleaguered basketball team that spent the 2011-12 season searching for any kind of offensive stability and production.
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Ellington, the team's leading scorer as an SEC all-freshman selection two years ago, began to find his scoring touch in the last handful of games once he returned after playing football. The Gamecocks, though, severely missed him throughout the non-conference portion of the season, working through Lakeem Jackson and then Eric Smith at the point while trying to find any consistent attack.
With Ellington back running the point, it restores some confidence that if nothing else, Ellington can drive to the rim or pop a 3-pointer. With Damontre Harris beginning to find his offensive game, Anthony Gill a potential star and Damien Leonard finding his lost shooting touch as the season progressed, USC can at least have the tools to be cohesive in 2012-13.
Ellington attended several basketball workouts that he didn't have to attend while he was playing football, but his body was shaped for football and it took him a long while to re-adjust to the pressures of playing basketball. Sporting a tattoo of a basketball in a rim on his shoulder with the slogan, "Married to the Game," though, Ellington has apparently decided that his love for basketball was just too much to turn down.
Calls to Ellington and to his mother, Gwen, were not immediately returned on Monday afternoon. Gwen Ellington told GamecockCentral.com at the SEC tournament that her son hadn't made up her mind, and Bruce Ellington said that his decision would come after he had talked with her.
"I still haven't made my decision yet," Ellington said after South Carolina's 63-57 season-ending loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament. "I've got to talk it over with the coaches and my mother. I haven't talked to anybody about that. I'm just going to take it as it comes, really."
Ellington also said that if there were to be a coaching change, it wouldn't affect his decision. While rumors continue to mount about Horn's status, there has been no definitive decision regarding his future.
"No, sir, it wouldn't affect my choice," Ellington said.
Ellington released a statement through USC late Monday.
"Basketball's always been my first love," the statement read. "After giving it a lot of thought, this is the decision I've made. If you want to be great at something, you have to commit to it full-time. I appreciate coach (Steve) Spurrier for giving me an opportunity to play football at South Carolina. It was a great experience, but right now I want to focus on basketball. I also want to thank all the fans for their support throughout my time in Columbia."
Ellington will presumably go back on scholarship for basketball and not participate in spring football practice, which begins on Tuesday. The Gamecocks currently have two open scholarships even with Ellington re-joining the list, as departing senior Malik Cooke's scholarship will be taken by recruit Tyrone Haughton.
Ellington was signed as Horn's cornerstone of the program he is trying to construct, after he inherited Devan Downey for his first two years. A flashy and explosive guard from Berkeley High School, Ellington came to USC along with his cousin, forward R.J. Slawson.
Ellington was immediately handed the ball and told to go to work, and averaged 12.8 points in 2010-11, but a mid-season calf bruise slowed his production and shooting percentages down. Speculation began to mount that he was thinking of returning to football, especially after players such as tailback Marcus Lattimore cheerfully admitted after the fact that they were talking Ellington into coming out for the football team.
A week after he told GamecockCentral.com that he would not play football, Ellington changed his mind and told coach Steve Spurrier that he would like to suit up. Unable to go through spring ball last year, Ellington switched to a football scholarship in the fall and was part of the Gamecocks' 11-2 season, the best win total in school history. While Ellington's status as a "Wildcat" quarterback and slot receiver didn't provide much of an impact, he did manage to carve himself a piece of the season with two touchdowns - a 61-yard blast-off in a rout of Kentucky and a 49-yard catch from Connor Shaw as he helped beat his cousin, Andre Ellington, and archrival Clemson.
Ellington reported to Capital One Bowl practice in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 29 just hours after scoring 17 points in a win over Wofford in Columbia. He looked drained from the plane ride, but said that he was able to handle fatigue and participated in an 11 a.m. practice.
Ellington said then that he was thinking of just playing one sport in 2012-13, but didn't clarify which one. While admitting that he loved to play football and that there was a place for him on the squad - Ellington won a state championship as a senior and was a finalist for the South Carolina Mr. Football award, won by Lattimore that season - he also said that he was exhausted from the double life.
On Monday, he returned to a single-sport life, and also returned full-time to the SEC basketball season, which will expand to 18 games next year. Still a threat despite not playing basketball for the first month, Ellington's ability was characterized by LSU coach Trent Johnson, who offered a nugget when discussing the six points and seven rebounds that Ellington had in a loss to the Tigers.
"I wish he'd go on to the NFL," Johnson sighed.
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