Brian Steele's last basket at Colonial Life Arena came March 5, 2011. Then a junior at Wade Hampton High School in Greenville, S.C., Steele scored 30 points and grabbed 15 rebounds to lead the Generals to a 79-68 win over Darlington in the Boys Class 3A title game.
Two years and a day later, Steele got his next shot.
The freshman walk-on, making his second consecutive start Wednesday, scored six points and added two rebounds in the Gamecocks' 79-72 win over Mississippi State. In one week, the 6'5," 196-pound Steele has gone from a total of five minutes of playing time to becoming a valued member of Frank Martin's rotation.
Freshman walk-on Brian Steele (right) averaged 17.0 ppg and 8.0 rpg as a senior at Wade Hampton HS. (Photo courtesy: Anderson Independent-Mail)
"You're either an energy giver or an energy drainer," Martin said on "Carolina Calls." "That enthusiasm, that energy, that courage that he shows each and every day has paid off."
So how did Steele's transformation from walk-on to freshman SEC starter - all in the span of 10 months - take place? It began with a phone call and a weakness.
"I'm always a sucker for a really good shooter," associate head coach Brad Underwood said.
Late last Spring, Underwood took a call from a coaching friend, raving about a deadeye shooter he had been working out individually. Underwood was intrigued ("We got here and we were looking at everybody," he said).
He took down the name - Brian Steele - and started investigating.
"I actually saw a YouTube, or maybe a video on him. So I watched this. [I thought,] this kid makes everything. He's playing, and he's making the right passes," Underwood recalls.
Steele and his father visited the staff over the summer, where he reaffirmed his desire to walk on to the team. That passion did not go unnoticed.
"He was dying to be a part of the program. That's a big part of wanting to be a walk-on. You've got to have tremendous pride, which he does," Underwood said.
Still, when Underwood oversaw walk-on tryouts in September, he offered no guarantees. There was no "preferred walk-on" status, not even for someone who averaged 17.0 points per game and earned all-state honors his senior year.
It mattered little. Steele would separate himself quickly.
"We had an idea he was a pretty good player. He was spectacular in the tryout. It was a pretty easy decision," Underwood said.
As he showed Wednesday night, Brian Steele continues to make the most of his shots.
More pre-tip reads before the Gamecocks head to Memorial Gymnasium to face Vanderbilt (13-16, 7-10 SEC) in the regular season finale (1:30 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network):
The Four Factors: South Carolina's first game against Vanderbilt defied most of the natural laws of basketball. The Gamecocks shot 23.7% from the floor, their worst shooting percentage since 1998, yet still had three consecutive chances to take the lead with two minutes remaining. So what did we learn from that 58-51 loss January 19? Pay attention to these four factors:
1.) "Turn the floor." Vandy's guards do an excellent job of staying between the ball and the rim, and the taller Commodores repeatedly handcuffed the Gamecocks on dribble-drives. In halfcourt sets, Eric Smith, Bruce Ellington, Brenton Williams, and Brian Richardson all struggled to finish at the rim.
Carolina's coaches often holler for their players to "turn the floor" - swing the ball quickly, so a weak-side defender gets off-balance when he meets the pass. That opens up driving lanes, and can neutralize the size of taller backcourts. Underwood praised Carolina for its spacing and quick passing against Mississippi State's 1-3-1 zone. Can they "turn the floor" effectively, and duplicate that effort against the Commodores?
Eric Smith (right) drives against Vanderbilt January 19. The Gamecocks struggle to finish at the rim against the Commodores' tall guards.
2.) Vanderbilt's biggest strengths are its spacing and three-point shooting. Outside of Florida, no team has more players capable of stroking the three than the Commodores. With players like Kedren Johnson, Dai-Jon Parker, and Kyle Fuller good at getting to the rim, Vanderbilt can become a deadly "pick-and-pop" team in the halfcourt. The best way to squelch that? Defend the initial ball screen well, and close down one-on-one driving lanes so the kickout pass becomes unavailable.
Vanderbilt also runs a lot of action through its "5" man at the elbow. The Gamecocks want to "extend and deny," and force those passes to come three or four feet farther away on the floor. That could disrupt the timing and flow of Vanderbilt's spread-floor offense. For as good as Vanderbilt is defensively (a surprising 3rd in the SEC in Defensive Efficiency behind Florida and Alabama), they can be just an anemic offensively (last SEC, 59.5 ppg).
3.) Be prepared for long rebounds. Carolina grabbed a season-low 26% of its missed shots against Vanderbilt (12 of 45). Many of those missed opportunities came on long tap-outs or "50-50 balls." On the flip side, Vanderbilt ranks 2nd in the nation, scoring 38.9% of its points from three-point range. The Gamecocks need to renew their intensity on the boards, and beat Vandy's perimeter players to "chase-down" rebounds.
4.) Kedren Johnson will score. The Gamecocks just can't give him baskets. The Commodores' leading scorer (13.7 ppg) is a rangy, slashing guard who loves getting to the rim. In a 66-40 loss to Florida Wednesday, Johnson ran off a streak of 13 straight points.
The Gamecocks held him in check, limiting him to 0-for-6 shooting from the field. A repeat of that performance seems unlikely. Carolina simply needs to make Johnson earn his points - i.e., no easy layups or free throws.
Can We Press Fast Forward? In the last three games, South Carolina has shot 24.3% from the field in the first half against Vanderbilt.
First Half Shooting vs. Vandy
Year FGM-FGA Deficit
2013: 5-29 -5
2012: 9-23 0
2011: 5-26 -10
19-78 FG (24.3%)
Pop Off: In a post-practice shooting drill last year, Brenton Williams once made 31 straight three-pointers. A lights-out shooting night always lurked in the 5'11" junior guard. Wednesday night, Williams erupted for 38 points against Mississippi State, smashing his previous high of 22 points. He also blew past his season average of 10.0 points per game coming in.
Brenton Williams (left) scored 38 points against Mississippi State, the most by a Gamecock since Terry Dozier in 1987.
How unlikely was Williams' scoring explosion? By my research, he had the third-lowest scoring average of any player in the nation with 35 or more points in a game this season.
Player Opponent PPG Entering Points
Sam Prescott, Mt. St. Mary's Bryant 2/14 9.2 44
Elijah Johnson, Kansas Iowa State 2/25 9.1 39
Brenton Williams, S. Carolina Mississippi State 3/6 10.0 38
*-Stats courtesy statsheet.com, mountathletics.com, and kuathletics.com
Defense and sure passing have kept Williams from a more secure spot in the rotation. Martin has called Williams' practices "rock solid" over the last few weeks. It's paying off in the form of a strong closing stretch for the Kissimmee, Fla., junior.
Record Chasing: Williams has also made 17 straight free throws, raising his season average to .842. With a few more foul trips, he could have one of the highest single-season free-throw percentages in school history among players with 100 or more attempts.
Highest Season Free Throw Percentage (Min. 100)
1. Scotti Ward .868 (118-136)
2. Michael Foster .848 (95-112)
3. Mike Doyle .845 (93-110)
4. Brenton Williams .842 (80-95)
And Finally... Vanderbilt's tallest player, 6'11" center Josh Henderson, has a connection to South Carolina not even acknowledged by the Vandy media guide. Henderson is the great-nephew of Jim Slaughter, the Gamecocks' first basketball All-American in 1951. Slaughter averaged 22.8 points per game during his All-American season.
Our pre-game coverage begins at 1:00 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. See you in Nashville. -AD-