South Carolina's already getting a dose of adversity in a season that's expected to have more of it.
Sophomore forward Damontre Harris will be out four weeks with a sprained right big toe, USC announced on Thursday. The injury will rob Harris of much-needed preparation and deprive him of beginning official team practice with the rest of the Gamecocks on Oct. 14.
By the straight calendar, four weeks from Thursday is Nov. 3, which is the day the Gamecocks "begin" the season with an exhibition against Kentucky Wesleyan. The regular season begins eight days after with a home game against Western Carolina.
Harris, who was also recovering from minor knee surgery in the offseason, was expected to be a major part of the Gamecocks' plans in the post this year. The 6-foot-9 sophomore, extremely raw as a freshman, had several bright moments last year that the coaches were hoping would translate into consistent play this season.
With him on the shelf for most if not all of official preseason team practice, the Gamecocks will have to tailor those plans. Senior Malik Cooke, who dislocated his ankle over the summer but has received full medical clearance, will be one option and junior Lakeem Jackson, a tenacious defender but spotty shooter, will be another.
The only other forwards on the roster are sophomore R.J. Slawson, a spindly shooter who can hit from outside but is not a banger in the paint; redshirt freshman Carlton Geathers, a project who will play this season but has yet to make his collegiate debut; walk-on Alex Irwin, recently added to the roster; and freshman Anthony Gill, a tremendous athlete and big body who could play inside and outside equally well in high school.
Jackson has also been cleared for the start of practice after a nagging foot injury hampered him throughout last season, but the Gamecocks, without Harris, will begin practice with an 11-man team. Irwin and Shane Phillips joined the squad after an open tryout for students, Geathers has yet to play in a game, Brenton Williams is a newcomer to USC but spent last year playing junior-college ball and Gill and Damien Leonard are true freshmen. Bruce Ellington, last year's leading scorer, is currently with the USC football team and has said that he will join the basketball team once football season is over, but that won't be until late November at the earliest.
Heading into his fourth year, coach Darrin Horn weathered a difficult offseason and knows that expectations for this year's team will probably be very low. He has also heard the rumblings from USC's fan base but has kept fighting; he signed Leonard, the top player in the state last season, and has had Cooke encouraging his teammates to stay tight through some of the splintered chemistry from last season.
"I think that will help me do a better job, going through last year with a team like that," Horn said over the summer. "I think if we made any mistakes, we stuck with some things and some guys, hoping to get production that we thought we could get, and it didn't happen.
"The guys that do return have been through that. They know what we went through, but they're committed to the same things that we are. They didn't come here thinking, 'I'm going to the team that's won 19 championships in a row.' I think that part, there's a little bit better understanding of it."
The Gamecocks have another tough non-conference schedule, taking on likely preseason No. 1 North Carolina in Las Vegas and hosting Ohio State, featuring perhaps a future No. 1 draft pick in Jared Sullinger and coming off a Sweet 16 berth last season. USC will also face the usual SEC slate, which will have two games each against a likely Top-10 team in Kentucky and perhaps a top-five team in Vanderbilt.
Practice begins on Oct. 14, and Horn and Cooke will be USC's representatives at the SEC's basketball media day, set for Oct. 27.
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