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March 11, 2011

USC-Ole Miss Hoops Extra

2011 SEC TOURNAMENT
Georgia Dome, Atlanta
All games Thursday-Friday on SEC Network
All games Saturday-Sunday on ABC
Thursday
Game 1 -- (E4) Georgia 69, (W5) Auburn 51
Game 2 -- (W3) Ole Miss 66, (E6) South Carolina 55
Game 3 -- (E5) Tennessee 74, (W4) Arkansas 68
Game 4 -- (E3) Vanderbilt 62, (W6) LSU 50
Friday
Game 5 -- (E4) Georgia vs. (W1) Alabama, 1 p.m.
Game 6 -- (W3) Ole Miss vs. (E2) Kentucky, 3:30 p.m.
Game 7 -- (E5) Tennessee vs. (E1) Florida, 7:30 p.m.
Game 8 -- (E3) Vanderbilt vs. (W2) Mississippi State, 10 p.m.
Saturday
Game 9 -- Semifinal, 1 p.m.
Game 10 -- Semifinal, 3:30 p.m.
Sunday
Championship -- 1 p.m.

ATLANTA - As painful as Thursday's 66-55 season-ending loss to Ole Miss was, South Carolina turned to the future with a hopeful bright eye. There was really no other approach to take, considering the plodding end to the year.

"That will be something, first of next week," coach Darrin Horn said after finishing a 14-16 season. "We're on spring break right now and we'll get back in our routine next week. Take a look and evaluate things like we always would."

One factor that may be an intriguing battle for next year is at point guard. While Bruce Ellington is a very talented athlete, backup Eric Smith made significant strides in the late season.

"I think it can work," Smith said after his final game, where he scored five points in 17 minutes. "As the season went on, we tried it here and there. But I think if we continue to work on that, we'll get more fluid with it."

Ellington took over the role from the beginning, becoming the Gamecocks' leading scorer although a late-season skid (where he was hindered by a bad leg) wrecked his percentages. Many began to criticize Ellington as trying to do everything himself, but it could be viewed as an either-or situation - it's not like he always had a steady option to pass the ball to, when the Gamecocks' offense was so tepid.

Smith was the pass-first point guard the Gamecocks needed at times. He could be patient enough to find the open man, once he got past some freshman-year issues of getting tied up at the top of the key or at half-court. Smith has the speed to run the break and needs to work on his offense, but the rest of the team is in the same boat of the last note.

On Thursday, Ellington got in early foul trouble and for whatever reason, the offense seemed to flow better when Smith was running the show. Smith wasn't a threat to shoot - Ole Miss' original defense was to let Ellington have room since his shooting hasn't been that dangerous lately - but after Smith drained a 3-pointer, the Rebels had to start planning for the other guy.

One solution could be playing Smith at the point and Ellington at two-guard, but that also presents a problem. There aren't too many teams in the country that would start two guards under 6 feet tall, and if Smith is going to be a pass-first guy, that clues in the defense to who will and who won't shoot it. Also knowing that Lakeem Jackson, for all his athleticism a miserable outside shooter, will probably be in the starting lineup next year as well, it takes two of five out of the equation.

But Horn has to find a solution. The theme of the excruciating last month of the season was the Gamecocks' lack of offense and mystery of how to repair it. Asked simply who will score next season, Horn said it's an offseason issue to work on.

"I'm not really worried about that right now," Horn said. "We'll evaluate that moving forward. I'm just concerned about the kids in the locker room."

GOING OUT ON TOP: Senior center Sam Muldrow finished his career with 12 points, nine rebounds and seven blocked shots, adding to his school career record. Muldrow improved every year he was at USC, becoming a valuable offensive and defensive threat as a senior.

He also got to have a highlight-reel play in his last game, when Jackson quick-fed him in the corner. The Rebels, expecting Muldrow to try a hook or step back for a 3-pointer, were caught off guard when the big man dribbled once, took two steps and leaped.

The one-hand jam won definite points and "oohs" for straight nastiness.

HOW?: The Gamecocks finished the game with zero fast-break points. They had their chances, but Smith and Ramon Galloway each had shots at the rim bounce right out.

USC shot 29.9 percent for the game, which added to its yearly total of under 40 percent from the field. Before the tournament, the Gamecocks ranked No. 311 in the country in field-goal percentage, out of 336.

SETTLING: Ellington's interest in football over the past month has been discussed, although Ellington never said either way what he was going to do. On Thursday, he was asked point-blank by GamecockCentral.com if he would be playing football next year.

"No, no sir," Ellington answered. "I'm not."

Sources close to Ellington say that he has considered going out for football, since he ended his prep football career as a state champion at Berkeley High School. But many of the same sources say that it was more Ellington feeling that he had to please fans and friends who wanted him to, rather than do what he wanted to do.

Ellington's best days as a football player were as a quarterback in the "Wildcat" package, where he used his speed and shiftiness to get around defenders. Looking at USC's football team, the Gamecocks already have Stephon Gilmore to do that, with backup quarterback Connor Shaw also showing some very good running ability last year. And Ellington won't get any minutes if he tries to play tailback, considering he would be battling with a lot of others for the backup role to National Freshman of the Year Marcus Lattimore.

Spring football practice begins on Tuesday, and there would be no penalty and seemingly no problem if Ellington wanted to participate. He can practice all he wants to as long as he doesn't play in any games.

But barring a change of mind, Ellington seemed definitive on Thursday that he would be sticking with basketball.

LET ME SPIN: There has been speculation in the past few weeks that sophomore guard Stephen Spinella might transfer out of the program. On Thursday, at least, Spinella said he would be around for next year.

Spinella's playing time has considerably dropped since the early season, when an increased emphasis on his defense got him more minutes and thus, more points. He has not played in USC's past 11 games.

THE OTHER GUYS: Arkansas and Tennessee played each other during Thursday's first game, which ended up being known for a subplot. Each coach was in hot water with the NCAA for similar offenses.

Bruce Pearl's case has been well-documented, but John Pelphrey was nailed on Thursday before the tournament. In a report on CBSSportsline.com, Pelphrey is shown in a photo with two high-school recruits - Archie Goodwin and Trey Smith, teammates at Sylvan Hills (Ark.) High School. Goodwin is a consensus Top-20 recruit for the class of 2012.

NCAA rules state that a coach cannot have off-campus contact with recruits until they finish their junior years of high school. Goodwin and Smith were in their junior years when the photo was taken.

Pelphrey hasn't commented on the photo, which at least is giving him a lot better scenario than Pearl at this time. Pearl took photos, lied about it, then encouraged the player in the photo to lie about it.

But Pelphrey may be in deeper trouble. Speculation has been swirling that if Pelphrey doesn't win the SEC tournament this year, he's going to be fired after four seasons. The Razorbacks are said to be looking at longtime former assistant coach Mike Anderson, now the head man at Missouri, as Pelphrey's replacement, although Pelphrey has signed a strong recruiting class for next year.

Pelphrey signed Ky Madden, B.J. Young, Aaron Ross and Hunter Mickelson, each an ESPNU Top 100 player, for Arkansas for next season. The class is considered one of the nation's five best.

Tennessee beat Arkansas 74-68.

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