COLUMBIA ó In the long and difficult process of trying to transform South Carolina menís basketball from a laughingstock into a winner, coach Frank Martin had to know his first season might be rocky.
The Gamecocks were coming off three consecutive losing seasons, and Martin had little time to recruit the type of program-changing players he covets. He was, however, able to land a newcomer experienced with winning ó something the Gamecocks desperately needed.
From the moment shooting guard LaShay Page arrived to spend his fifth and final season of eligibility playing for USC, Martin praised Page for his leadership of a team with just one other senior. On the court, Page scored 11.7 points per game, second on the team, while playing nine of USCís first 12 contests. He struggled with shooting recently, but was unquestionably a valuable asset.
With one non-conference game remaining before Martin dives into his first SEC schedule, he will no longer have Page as a transition piece. USC announced Friday that Page was declared academically ineligible for the rest of the season.
The Gamecocks conclude non-conference play by hosting S.C. State today, and they also will not have their No. 3 scorer, wing player Michael Carrera, who averages 10.4 points and will miss his second straight game with a hip injury.
They likely will not have Bruce Ellington, their starting point guard for the past two seasons. Ellington has rejoined the basketball team now that his duties as a football wide receiver are finished for the season. But Martin said he plans to rest Ellington today and have him return to practice Sunday or Monday. USC opens SEC play Wednesday at Mississippi State. Ellington, USCís No. 2 scorer last season, has played in four games this season.
Now, the Gamecocks will not have Page, whose ineligibility leaves juniors Brenton Williams and Brian Richardson to take on larger roles. Williams already has. He didnít start any games last season, his first at USC after transferring from junior college. He averaged 6.1 points last year, but has boosted that to a team-best 13 this season. He started the three games Page missed, and his past seven games have included scoring outputs of 17, 10, 16, 12, 11, 17 and nine points.
Richardson was an offensive non-factor last season, when he started two games and averaged 3.2 points after starting 24 and averaging 5.9 as a freshman. His minutes dropped from 19.4 per game as a freshman to 12.3 last season. His only start this season came in USCís last game, as it was without Carrera and Page, but Richardson is averaging 8.3 points in 20.9 minutes.
Yet even with Ellington returning, Pageís presence will not be easily replaced. Page, 23, led Southern Mississippi to the NCAA tournament last season, his second at the school after spending two at a Florida junior college. He had to go there after attending Dillon High, to improve his grades.
In part because he graduated from Southern Miss, Page received waivers from the NCAA and Southeastern Conference to spend his final season at USC without sitting out a year, which the NCAA usually requires for transferring players.
Coach Larry Eustachyís departure from Southern Miss for Colorado State played a role in Pageís desire to transfer to USC for his final season, Page said. So did Page having two daughters who live with their mother in Marion. Pageís mother died last February, and he hoped his return home for his final season would provide happy closure to his career.
NOTES: Two USC football players underwent successful surgeries Friday. Neither is expected to participate in spring practices, USC said.
Starting quarterback Connor Shaw, a rising senior, had his left foot operated on. He injured it Oct. 27 against Tennessee and played through it for most of the rest of the season. Aggravating it forced him to the sideline for the end of Tuesdayís Outback Bowl win over Michigan.
Rising sophomore linebacker Cedrick Cooper had surgery on his left knee, which he hurt in a pre-bowl practice. Cooper played primarily on special teams in 2012, as a redshirt freshman, but was going to compete for playing time this spring, because USC is losing all three of its starting linebackers.