They honed their skills like so many kids do, on a basketball hoop standing sentinel near their house. One was toughened up by games with his three older brothers, shaping him into a player whose hustle has always overshadowed his height. The other practiced for hours in solitude, drawn to a sport he could practice on his own while his Dad worked long hours as a college football assistant coach.
Together, good friends Lakeem Jackson and Shane Phillips will make their final walks onto the Colonial Life Arena floor Wednesday, when South Carolina (13-16, 3-13 SEC) hosts the Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-20, 3-13 SEC) on Senior Day.
They may not have envisioned a Senior Day like this, with the Gamecocks battling for the 13th seed in the SEC Tournament. Who would? But that's the thing about a basketball program. Yes, you're judged by your performance in 30 games. But there are also practices and offseason conditioning and weightlifting and study tables, a year-round commitment that leaves your imprint on a program as much as any box score. In that respect, Jackson, the captain, and Phillips, the walk-on who spent two years as a practice player for the South Carolina women's team, feel secure in what they've left behind.
"We worked hard every day, so we don't have any regrets about that," Jackson, a Charlotte, N.C., native, said.
"They've sacrificed. They've given of themselves to make themselves a better team, a better program. As coaches we respect that tremendously," head coach Frank Martin said.
But as they reflected on their careers Tuesday, Phillips stopped to give one last appeal.
"Get a big crowd in there. It'll be a big night for the Gamecocks," he said.
Other pre-tip reads before the Gamecocks and Bulldogs jump center at Colonial Life Arena (7:00 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network):
The Four Factors: Mississippi State comes in with renewed vigor, having just snapped a 13-game losing streak with a 73-67 win over Ole Miss. They also have the confidence of beating the Gamecocks 56-54 in Starkville to open conference play. What did we learn from that first meeting? Let's go beyond the box score. Pay attention to these four factors Wednesday:
1. 24 turnovers can't happen again. South Carolina was worked into knots by Mississippi State's 1-3-1 zone, which resulted in an SEC-high 24 turnovers. MSU's wing defenders "lifted" higher on the perimeter, denying easy escape-valve passes to Carolina's off-guards. Bruce Ellington committed nine turnovers, but Martin acknowledges that only two or three of them were self-inflicted. Most occurred because his teammates weren't spaced properly, or didn't "meet the pass" against MSU's pressure. Similar point-to-wing passing flared up in the second half against Texas A&M.
Mississippi State may only have three conference wins, but the Bulldogs will take their chances: their 7.9 steals per game ranks 5th in the SEC. As we've said often, a team that struggles to score - in Mississippi State's case, an SEC-low 59.7 points per game - doesn't need help. How South Carolina manages that pressure may determine the outcome of the rematch.
MSU guards Fred Thomas (left) and Jalen Steele (right) on a fast break following a South Carolina turnover.
2. Roquez Johnson is relentless: A tenacious offensive rebounder, the Bulldogs' 6'7" sophomore ranks among the SEC's leaders in Fouls Drawn/40 Minutes. It was a big reason why he connected on a career-high 8 free throws against Carolina. Johnson returned from a three-game suspension to score 10 timely points in the Bulldogs' upset over Ole Miss.
Freshman Michael Carrera, making his first appearance after missing two games with a hip injury, was limited to seven minutes in Starkville. Will his presence help neutralize Johnson, a similarly bouncy, attack-minded forward? The matchup seems tailor-made for Carrera: both he and Johnson have 7'2" wingspans.
3. Make MSU fall on its Sword. Freshman guard Craig "Chicken" Sword leads the SEC in Usage Rate (29.5%), or the percentage of a team's possessions that end with an individual making a shot; missing a shot that isn't rebounded by his teammates; or committing a turnover. Sword's head coach, Rick Ray, once said, "He just has so many more fast-twitch fibers than everyone else."
Including Sword, the SEC has four players that rank in the top 100 nationally in Usage Rate. Here's how they've fared against the Gamecocks:
Player FG's Points Assists TO
Kedren Johnson (VU) 0-6 3 4 4
B.J. Young (ARK) 3-12 7 4 2
Frankie Sullivan (AU) 5-13 17 5 1
Total: 8-31 FG (25.8%), 9.0 ppg, 4.3 apg, 2.3 TO/game
The numbers show that the SEC's high-usage players have had more luck as facilitators than creators. Bruce Ellington was the primary defender on all of them. Sword's 9.7 points per game may be near that average, but he's also tied for the MSU scoring lead. Can Ellington ballhawk Sword like he has the rest of the SEC's high-usage guards, and strip the Bulldogs of one of the lynchpins of their offense?
Mississippi State guard Craig Sword (right, defended by Michael Carrera). Sword, a 6'3" freshman, leads the SEC in Usage Rate.
4. Offensive rebounds are there for the taking. The Gamecocks have slipped in the statistic lately, but their 38.6% Offensive Rebounding Percentage still ranks 18th in the country. Mississippi State ranks 334th in the nation, allowing 37.2% of an opponent's misses to be offensive-rebounded.
South Carolina: Offensive rebounds on 38.6% of missed shots (18th NCAA)
Mississippi St.: Allows offensive rebounds on 37.2% of missed shots (334th NCAA)
South Carolina hit a sinkhole in the second half against Texas A&M, shooting 0-for-13 during a 14-0 Aggies run. Dry spells have cost the Gamecocks in several games this year. If they struggle to score, can they still manufacture points with a rugged effort on the glass?
Cruel: MSU junior Tyson Cunningham collected his first career "block" on Ellington's game-winning three-point attempt in Starkville. Quotation marks by design - Gamecock fans might argue that Cunningham was guilty of a foul.
Head Games: Texas A&M's "Reed Rowdies," like many college basketball student sections, wave giant cardboard heads of B-List celebrities and other famous figures. In recent year, one of the heads they've waved in recent years is of Frank Martin, his countenance in a state of - how do we put this nicely - raised agita. After Kansas State's last game there, when A&M was SEC-bound, several students autographed Martin's mug and presented it to him, signing it "to their favorite Big XII coach." Martin still has it in his son's room. He thought about bringing it to College Station, and ceremonially returning it to the Reed Rowdies.
Spotted at Texas A&M's Reed Arena: Frank Martin, in giant head form.
And Finally... Phillips' Dad, Oliver, was the defensive coordinator at Duke from 1979-82. The offensive coordinator of those Blue Devil teams? A young, dashing, confident play-caller named Steve Spurrier.
Our pre-game coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. See you at CLA. -AD-