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November 3, 2009

Downey stands tall for South Carolina

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Even while taking in a U2 concert during the offseason, South Carolina coach Darrin Horn couldn't help but think of Devan Downey.

"One of the things that crossed my mind - and there was no doubt in my mind - was that every guy in that deal was born to be doing what he's doing," Horn said.

And as Horn sees it, Downey is doing exactly what he was born to do, too. For now, that destiny is playing a fearless brand of basketball at South Carolina. Downey is a 5-foot-9 (and that may be a little generous) point guard who relishes the underdog role for a team that has made only one NCAA tournament appearance in the past 11 seasons. He's not afraid to carry a team that needs a nudge off the bubble and into the NCAA tournament.

"It's like little man's syndrome," Downey said. "God gave me my height and speed, and that's what I'm born to be."

Downey is playing for his second college program and his third coach (or fourth, considering Bob Huggins recruited Downey at Cincinnati but never coached him).

Downey was a top-40 prospect out of Chester, S.C., and if anyone underrated him, it would have been Huggins.

"Because of the physicalness of the way his teams played, he was not a huge proponent of small guards," said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who was an assistant for Huggins at Cincinnati before taking over as interim coach during Downey's freshman season at Cincinnati in 2005-06.

Until Tim Smith - a 5-9 guard at East Tennessee State - gave the Bearcats a scare in the 2004 NCAA tournament, Huggins wouldn't have considered Downey for his program. But Smith had 26 points and four steals in the Bearcats' 80-77 victory over ETSU, and Huggins then gave Kennedy orders to find a guard who - like Smith - could run circles around opponents. That guard turned out to be Downey.

Huggins was fired before Downey played a game at Cincinnati, but Downey was one of the top freshmen in the Big East under Kennedy. After Cincinnati replaced Kennedy with Mick Cronin, Downey considered following Kennedy to Ole Miss. Instead, Downey elected to return home to South Carolina, where he was the state's "Mr. Basketball" out of high school. Downey redshirted in 2006-07 before earning All-SEC honors the next season playing for Dave Odom.

"There's probably only a handful of guys under 6 feet tall in America at any level who have an opportunity to play in the NBA," Kennedy said. "I think Devan Downey is one of those guys."

Horn's up-tempo style might provide the best environment for Downey to flourish. Last season, Downey averaged 19.8 points and was sixth in the nation with 2.9 steals per game on the way to honorable mention All-America honors.

South Carolina guard Devan Downey has played for three coaches at two schools. This year will be the first time that he has played back-to-back seasons with the same coach.
2008-09South CarolinaDarrin Horn19.84.52.9
2007-08South CarolinaDave Odom18.45.43.2
2006-07South CarolinaDave OdomRedshirted
2005-06CincinnatiAndy Kennedy12.34.12.0
"He's thrived with what we do, which is [with] a high level of accountability, and in a system where if I could pick my point guard, it would probably be him," Horn said. "I wouldn't trade my guy for anyone in the country."

Downey is one of the fastest players and best penetrators in the nation. He also led the SEC with 89 steals last season. Downey credits his defensive prowess with playing defensive end in youth football, and others have noticed his attitude.

"At his size, you've got to play fearless," Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson said. "You've got to play tough. He wants the ball in crunch-time situations."

Horn and Kennedy feel Downey could thrive in the NBA. Downey eyed the NBA draft after the season but elected to stay in school.

"He's just got a gift at 5-9 not only to get places, which a lot of guys can do, but to finish and to be able to create his own shot at that size," Horn said. "He's the best finishing guy I've ever seen at that size - ever."

With Downey and senior forward Dominique Archie leading the way, South Carolina returns four starters on a team that went 21-10 and tied for the SEC East regular-season title at 10-6. But in a weakened SEC last season, those numbers didn't get South Carolina into the NCAA tournament.

The Gamecocks missed the NCAA tourney for a fifth consecutive season because of a weak non-conference schedule and poor play down the stretch. The Gamecocks were 16-4 on Jan. 31, but limped home and again finished the season in the NIT. South Carolina lost three of its last four games, including a 14-point loss to Mississippi State in the first game of the SEC tournament.

Having the nucleus of that team back is encouraging, but it doesn't guarantee more wins or a tournament berth.

The SEC East looks to be much deeper this season. Kentucky is a Final Four contender, and Tennessee and Vanderbilt return the bulk of their teams and are bringing in solid recruiting classes.

Despite its record, South Carolina remained a notch below the top teams in the SEC a year ago. The Gamecocks went 0-5 against Tennessee, Mississippi State and LSU and were 3-5 in conference road games.

"Everyone else is getting better as well," Horn said. "We can't just show up and do what we did last year and think it's going to be OK."

One area where Downey can improve is to put more faith in his teammates. Downey often put the team on his shoulders last season, for better or worse. South Carolina lost both games when Downey scored at least 30 points. He had 37 in a 98-87 loss to Clemson and 33 in a 97-93 loss at Florida.

"I know I can make the play and get the shot off, but I know it might not be the best play for the team," Downey said. "I'm watching a whole lot of film to correct those things."

Those adjustments in a more competitive SEC could propel South Carolina to only its fifth trip to the Big Dance since 1974.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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