MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (19-10, 6-8 SEC)
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (10-18, 2-12)
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia
TV: SEC Network
Tickets: Available at the box office
Mississippi State's probable starters: G Dee Bost 6-2 Sr. (15.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg); G Brian Bryant 6-3 Sr. (6.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg); G Jalen Steele 6-3 So. (8.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg); F Arnett Moultrie 6-11 Jr. (16.0 ppg, 10.7 rpg); F Renardo Sidney 6-10 Jr. (10.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg)
South Carolina's probable starters: G Bruce Ellington 5-9 So. (10.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg); G Damien Leonard 6-4 Fr. (6.5 ppg, 1.2 rpg); F Anthony Gill 6-8 Fr. (7.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg); F Malik Cooke 6-6 Sr. (12.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg); C Damontre Harris 6-9 So. (6.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina finishes its home season. Without a miraculous run through the SEC tournament, the Gamecocks will next take the Colonial Life Arena floor in November. They can only advance to the postseason by winning the SEC tournament. … USC is trying to avoid the fourth 20-loss season in program history and the lowest SEC win total. One win over the next two games ties the Gamecocks for a 3-13 SEC record, the previous worst. … Mississippi State leads the series 15-8. USC coach Darrin Horn has yet to beat MSU in his four-year tenure at USC. … The Bulldogs have lost five straight and seen a certain NCAA tournament bid fall onto the bubble. Moultrie also created a stir this week by publicly sniping at his teammates' work ethic and his belief that MSU probably won't correct this skid. … Cooke and senior manager Philip Deter will be recognized before the game.
Next game: South Carolina tips off at Georgia at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday in its regular-season finale.
VIDEO: Darrin Horn
VIDEO: Malik Cooke
Malik Cooke came to South Carolina because his family needed him.
He will depart as the nucleus of another family.
"We wanted to come together and be a tight-knit group," the Gamecocks' only senior said this week, as he prepared for his final home game and likely over the next two weeks, his final collegiate game. "Got to stick together through the good and the bad times, and that's what we've done."
Cooke is honest about it. This year, and really his USC career, have not gone the way he thought they would when he transferred from Nevada before the 2009-10 season. Sitting out that year as part of the NCAA's stipulation, Cooke saw the Gamecocks needing a big man after Dominique Archie was lost for the year with a knee injury in November and Mike Holmes was dismissed by Jan. 1. Once he finally got on the court, he saw what was supposed to be a rebuilding year in 2010-11 turn into two straight rebuilding years, with this one worse record-wise than the last.
Heading into tonight's game hosting Mississippi State, the Gamecocks are 10-18, 2-12 SEC. They know that barring a miraculous run through the SEC tournament, requiring four wins in four days to nab the league's automatic pass to the NCAA tournament, they're not going anywhere for the postseason. They also know that they are entering dangerous territory - three straight losses ties the school record for most losses in a season (21) and gives them the program's all-time worst SEC record (the current worst is 3-13).
No, it hasn't been nearly what Cooke expected, after being a solid role player with the Wolf Pack for two years and not making the NCAA tournament, but at least making the postseason with two appearances in the College Basketball Invitational. But he doesn't regret anything about his USC experience.
He came to USC because his father, Richard Jones, was battling sarcoidosis in his native Charlotte. When his other family, the Gamecocks, needed somebody to gather the splintering pieces of themselves after a disastrous March, it was Cooke who took the role and became what Jones is to him - a father.
The "Old Man" nickname that the others sometimes call him usually brings a smile. It's the kind of ribbing that the head of the family should endure, because he knows there's love behind it.
"Malik Cooke really helped us all stay together," guard Bruce Ellington recently said. "He was the one who kept us all going in the summer."
"That was something that we talked about," coach Darrin Horn said. "I think he wanted to do that, but it was definitely something we talked about early on. I told him, 'We don't have anyone else who has been through all that you have been through. They can't ever see that wavering in you.' In a season that's been disappointing and frustrating, he has maintained consistency in that."
The losses have been tough to swallow, USC's attendance plummeting as fast as the support. Cries for a change are beginning to become more vocal as the Gamecocks aren't improving in the most visible statistic - wins.
But they have drastically improved in another area. Horn has previously said that last year, when the losses began occurring and there was no way to correct the slide, that some players began mailing it in and checking out. That foreshadowed the black eye of March, when Stephen Spinella and Ramon Galloway each left, counted-on big man Murphy Holloway abruptly departed USC to return where he came from and Ellington decided to play football, removing himself from the basketball team for the early season.
Just like that, Horn was back to square one with his attempts to rebuild and strengthen the program. He changed his style, but he also needed a player to restore the shattered chemistry of the locker room.
Cooke was it. As the only senior and one of only two upperclassmen, Horn asked him to be the rallying point for a babyfaced team. The request wasn't necessary - Cooke had already begun.
"People were down," Cooke said. "We didn't really know what was going on, we didn't know what to look for, what to think. Everybody was just really trying to feel their way through the situation.
"I just tried to tell the guys that we're going to be all right. We definitely tried to send out messages. Just staying positive, keeping a good outlook."
In the summer, when coaches aren't allowed to watch their players practice, it was Cooke organizing the pickup games and making sure everybody had a ride to the gym. It was Cooke who invited the team over to play video games or sprung the idea of a night out at the movies or the bowling alley. That he did all of it while not being able to practice himself - he was laid up for a significant period after dislocating his right ankle - was a testament to how badly Cooke wanted to restore the good feelings.
The Gamecocks embraced that chemistry and have maintained it throughout the season. The record is bad, but USC has not mimicked last year's team by giving up, and that all flows from the leader.
"We're still really close and we still want to win games," Cooke said. "There's a lot of basketball left to be played. We've still got three games left. Hopefully we can turn that into more games. Everybody's kept a positive attitude. If somebody does get out of line, there's always somebody there to put them back in their place."
Cooke credited Horn with changing his style to reflect his youthful team, not letting sloppy play go without criticism but not attacking the point home. Horn credited Cooke with being that magnet for the loose pieces of metal seeking a center.
"There's no doubt, one of the real positives that we have seen this year is we had a group that has continued to stick together and be about the right things," Horn said. "He's been a big part of that."
Coming out of The Christ School (N.C.), Cooke wasn't recruited by USC and had only nibbles of interest from NC State. Choosing Nevada over Marshall, he played for two years under coach Mark Fox, who would soon join Cooke in the SEC when he took over at Georgia.
Jones was ill, fighting a disease that attacks the respiratory system. Cooke, extremely close with his family, immediately came back home.
His transfer year was spent going back and forth to Charlotte to see his father and his family. Jones' condition soon cleared and he was able to see his son play almost every home game and a few away games.
Cooke still gets home every chance he gets, counting 12 to 14 family members that he frequently sees in his hometown. But he also has his family here, the smaller group of just the men in the locker room.
"I wasn't as vocal as I was this year," he said. "(Horn) definitely told me he needed me to be more of a vocal leader this year. He just talked to me about that and talked to me a lot."
After the season, Cooke will try his hand at professional basketball. He has already graduated, earning a degree in sociology, and after basketball, he'd like to try his hand at coaching.
He's already learned how to keep a team focused and driven, even when the results aren't good. While there have been times when he's been so frustrated with the losses that he's had to go in a room by himself and brood, he's kept them to a minimum.
Family doesn't quit on each other. He could be disappointed or angry, but he still had to show up for his family the next day.
Cooke's dedication was reflected when asked what his favorite career moment was. There have been some great ones - he hit two free throws this year to finalize a win at Clemson and a glass-kissing floater against Alabama won that game - but Cooke didn't say those.
He said what he believed. There wasn't one specific moment, but a collection of moments. All the times that he and his team were together this year, on the court or off the court, those were his favorites.
"All my teammates," Cooke said. "From Nevada to South Carolina, being around all my teammates, all the people I've met. Those are the best moments."
Despite the record, despite the odds stacked against USC trying to salvage something out of this season, Cooke grinned. His eyes seemed to be traveling back to those moments even after a painful year.
It was the smile of a proud father.
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