Coach Payne optimistic about USC Upstate's season
Story originally published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, reprinted with permission
By Will Rothschild
Published: Sunday, November 6, 2011
Here are the cold hard facts for coach Eddie Payne's 10th USC Upstate team:
Only six of the 15 players on the roster have ever been on the court during a Division I college basketball game.
Only two seniors and two juniors are on the roster. None have ever been full-time starters, and the two juniors are transfers who have never played at this level.
Three freshmen and one sophomore from last year's team are no longer with the program.
That's not the usual recipe for producing preseason hope. And yet, there is good reason to believe the Spartans will be better — perhaps much, much better — than the team that went 5-25 (4-16 A-Sun) a year ago. If so, it would come as the Spartans enter their fifth season at the Division I level and finally become eligible to play in the conference tournament and compete for the automatic NCAA tournament bid that comes with winning it.
"We are more talented — we have more athleticism and more players who can help us win games at this level," said Payne. "What we have to do is shorten the learning process for these young kids. We have to keep telling them that there is no reason why they can't do certain things just because they are a freshman. That is not an excuse."
Payne's four true freshmen don't have to look far to find proof of what Payne is talking about. Craig — a skilled and springy 6-foot-6 forward from Rock Hill — gave Spartans fans reasons to think better times were coming during a freshman campaign in which he averaged 14.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. A good ball-handler who can attack and finish at the rim, Craig also proved his shooting ability while making 68 3-pointers last year, making him one of the most complete offensive players in the Atlantic Sun, a sometimes-overlooked mid-major league that actually finished with a higher RPI than the Southern Conference last year.
"Everyone worked very hard this summer," Craig said. "All the guys who are back are stronger and the freshmen are good players and they are working hard. I think we have more athleticism and more depth."
Which Payne plans to try to maximize by ramping up the defensive pressure. To date, the Spartans haven't had the personnel to apply pressure and challenge the passing lanes. The new focus was evident in a recent practice as the Spartans spent all but perhaps 25 minutes of a 2-hour practice on defensive drills and principles.
It is a style of play more in line with what Payne has done throughout a head coaching career of 26 seasons, 380 victories, and three NCAA tournament appearances.
"It's always been that way with my best teams," Payne said. "… When you have more talent you can dictate things defensively better and more frequently, and generally speaking, that's how you win. Defense can be there all the time. You don't always shoot it that well and you make mistakes. But the kind of defensive effort that becomes a staple is what we want."
But for the best-laid plans of the early autumn to work in the deep of winter, Payne will need marked improvement from returnees such as Olumuyiwa, who led the A-Sun in blocks last season at 2.3 per game, and Ricardo Glenn (6-8, 250) as well as for a couple of newcomers to help sort out what is for now an unsettled backcourt situation. (A name to watch is Adrian Rodgers, a 6-foot-4 freshman from Alpharetta, Ga., who combines the ability to score with above-the-rim athleticism.)
A more reasonable non-conference schedule should help the development.
While the Spartans have played as many as nine "guarantee games" — matchups with programs from power conferences such as the SEC that mid-majors schedule for the check that comes with the expected beatdown — only four such games are on the docket this season.
So instead of piling up miles and confidence-draining defeats, Payne is counting on some early wins to help affirm what he's teaching one of the youngest teams in Division I.
"The schedule this year is a step forward for this program," Payne said. "You can't build a program by losing. … I expect us to be a better, much more dangerous team."