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July 27, 2011

Three newcomers want to change recent trends



The three each stood at their own round table, with different expressions of calm confidence and feet-shifting nervousness. It was July, three months before official practice began, and it was at Williams-Brice Stadium, where none of them will be playing.

Might as well get used to it.

South Carolina's three basketball newcomers had a meet-and-greet with the media on Tuesday as they took a break from their other summer activities -- getting used to the collegiate grind and getting into shape. Freshmen Anthony Gill and Damien Leonard along with sophomore Brenton Williams each spoke of how happy they were to be joining the Gamecocks' basketball team, and to be in their new homes.

It only took a second, or sometimes less than that, for the comfort to settle in.

"It only took me a little while to get adjusted," said Gill, the 6-foot-8 forward who flashed a wide grin at every question. "I was already right around the same area."

Gill, from Charlotte, and Leonard, from Greenville, each came to USC for the first summer session. They were joined for the Summer II session by Williams, a transfer from Santa Fe (Fla.) College who will have three years of eligibility remaining.

The three make up the recruiting class for the Gamecocks, who are seeking to rebound following a disappointing season and one of the roughest stretches in recent memory.

It was already a trying time when USC exited the SEC tournament after one game for the third straight year, concluding a 14-16 slate. The final record may have been expected with such a young team, but the way it got there -- losing nine of the final 10 games after beginning the SEC season 3-1 -- was a bitter pill.

Then came an overhaul of the roster, coach Darrin Horn dismissing Ramon Galloway (who transferred to LaSalle) and Stephen Spinella (who transferred to Monmouth) and then finding out that Murphy Holloway, curiously, wanted to transfer back to Ole Miss, where he had transferred to USC from for the 2010-11 season. When leading scorer Bruce Ellington left to play football (although he says he will return after the football season, and is listed on the team's current roster), sirens began to sound across the fan base.

What was going on?

"We got together and talked about it, how we weren't going to let that get us down," said Leonard, who re-affirmed his commitment to USC while the sky seemed to be falling and helped stabilize the ship. "We have great chemistry with each other."

Each of the three said that Malik Cooke, the team's lone senior, has been a driving force behind uniting the team for the coming season, attending every workout and pickup game despite recently dislocating his ankle and being unable to participate. The Gamecocks know they'll be expected to have another struggling year in the preseason predictions, but were already saying they wouldn't let it bother them.

"I'll go ahead and say it right now," Leonard said. "We're going to surprise a few people."

The three have been playing in pickup games as well as conditioning during the offseason, rising for workouts at 6 a.m. and adding muscle. It's been difficult for some -- Leonard said he never lifted weights in high school and the first month was brutally draining -- but Gill and Williams have gotten used to it and are getting into the flow.

"I was able to adjust pretty quickly," Williams said. "Ellington and Eric Smith are my roommates, so we play all the time. I can see myself and them getting better."

Leonard, one of the state's top prospects from J.L. Mann High School, should be a natural at the two-guard spot, one of the team's most glaring weaknesses last season. A natural shooter, he'll be given the ball right away and asked to produce points, and with his 6-5 frame, he can slide down to play the three and handle the ball if asked.

Gill will play power forward or small forward, teaming with Cooke and Damontre Harris as a post presence that can hopefully challenge opponent bulk and not be shoved around. Already at 232 pounds, Gill has been impressive thus far in the workouts, according to sources around the basketball team.

Williams, signed and delivered within a few short months, can play point guard or two-guard and will be a needed backup for Smith, who is expected to start at the point as Ellington plays football. Smith is a capable ball-handler but has to improve on his scoring -- Williams averaged nearly 12 points a game at Santa Fe and was a 39 percent shooter from the 3-point stripe.

There are still several months to go before the Gamecocks officially take the floor, but on Tuesday, everybody was eager to get started. Although none of the three were on the team when last season's fallout took place, each recognized it and said the team was completely past it and trying to get better.

"The chemistry is good," Gill said. "Malik has been so important to that, coming to the workouts, sending inspiring text messages, things like that. We know we might not be looked at to win a lot of games, but we'll use that as motivation.

"We're all planning to work as hard as we can."

VIDEO: Brenton Williams


VIDEO: Anthony Gill


VIDEO: Damien Leonard


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