One step forward, two (broken) steps back.
South Carolina's 75-67 loss on the road at College Station, Texas was a setback both in the short-term and the long-term, one that could wind up costing the Gamecocks a lot more than a single game in the SEC standings.
When Ty Johnson broke his foot in a first-half collision with a referee, USC lost its most experienced point guard and leading scorer. After starting the first nine games, Johnson had been coming off the bench the past seven contests to make room for Brent Williams at shooting guard while freshman Duane Notice handled the point guard duties. Johnson's mature handling of the new role earned praise from head coach Frank Martin as recently as Tuesday.
"I'm sure if you ask Ty what he's rather do, he'd rather start, but he's accepted what we've asked of him and he's been pretty good at it," Martin said. "Ty had been playing real, real good basketball.
"We're (15) games into his career at South Carolina. Last year he never got reps in practice because he was always the other team's point guard, so he was never running our stuff he was always running other people's stuff. He's like a freshman right now. He's trying to embrace what we do, and he's done it real well. He's probably had 12, 13 real good games and a couple games I wish he hadn't played that way. But that's part of the deal. He's been good. He's trusting in our defensive philosophies a lot more than he did back in November, which is normal for every single guy that's in the first year of our system.
"I think he continues to get better. Ty's been good. He's rebounding the ball for us, his assist to turnover rate (is good), he takes care of the ball, he gets guys shots. He's really starting to understand our offense as to when to attack and when not."
Now, that understanding and development is put on hold as Johnson is out indefinitely. With most broken bones taking four to six weeks to heal, the most optimistic projection could have Johnson returning to the Gamecocks (7-9, 0-3) in late February/early March. With two of the final three SEC games at home against Kentucky and Florida before USC finishes the regular season at Mississippi State, those two games seem a reasonable goal. However, even if he does his minutes would be limited having missed more than a month of practice and conditioning.
Whether he comes back before the end of the SEC schedule, in time for the SEC Tournament or not at all, Johnson's loss is a significant blow to a team that has been showing serious signs of improvement as Williams' offensive game has resurfaced, Sindarius Thornwell's confidence is growing and Duane Notice's game is continuing to be the team's biggest surprise.
What also broke Wednesday night in Texas besides Johnson's foot was likely any hope of a postseason appearance this year barring an improbable run through the SEC Tournament. It also retards the development and chemistry that this young team is building game by game. That's the obvious downside. The upside, of course, is that Notice and Jaylen Shaw and even Justin McKie will see far more minutes that they would have with Johnson on the court. That can only be a positive for their development, and all the signs have been encouraging for Notice, who has scored in double figures in six of his last nine games, including 12 last night against the Aggies in 28 minutes of action. With Shaw having been a relatively consistent spark provider when he's been in the game and a lot of fan attention on McKie thanks to his famous father and a strong Irmo High School pedigree, there's a lot to keep an eye on as this team now adjusts to life without its leading scorer and most-experienced ball handler. Can the Gamecocks handle the pressing teams of the SEC? Can USC survive a game if Notice gets in foul trouble and Shaw becomes the only option at point? Do coaches move Sindarius Thornwell to the point, where he practiced some in the preseason? It's anyone's guess, just like it's anyone's guess how a team with seven freshman will handle adversity not just on the court but off it, too.
Time, as it always does, will tell, beginning Saturday at 4:30 p.m. at home in front of a crowd for Ole Miss that likely will be the season's largest and the greatest names of South Carolina's basketball past on hand for the 2014 Legends Weekend. How they respond in that environment could set the tone for how the team responds to the loss of Johnson the rest of the way.