Earl Grant watches as College of Charleston junior point guard Joe Chealey starts up the floor at the team’s practice court at TD Arena.
Chealey weaves his way between the cones on the floor as incoming freshman Grant Riller picks up the defensive pressure.
“Move your feet, move your feet!” Grant shouts as Riller slides across the floor and moves in on Chealey.
What a difference a year makes.
A year ago, Grant was an assistant basketball coach at Clemson getting ready for the intense summer recruiting season. This June, Grant has spent the last couple of weeks working with his players in hopes of developing more skill and toughness as he heads into his second season as the Cougars head coach.
Most college basketball hirings occur in the spring, allowing new coaches a full summer to not only recruit, but work with their players before taking the floor. Grant, who was hired in September after former head coach Doug Wojcik was fired, had no such luxury. Grant was forced to hit the ground at a full sprint as he had less than three months to get to know his players and install his systems before the Cougars’ season opener against Furman.
This summer, he’s had a chance to get into his offseason program at a normal pace. He’s also been able to acclimate five new players with seven veterans.
“It’s certainly a different feeling compared to last year,” Grant said. “This is our first summer together. This is really a vital time to work and develop our identity early on in June and July. It allows us the opportunity to study each individual and put together a plan that will allow us to maximize their talent.” What Grant has done during most of the drills the last few weeks is match up a veteran player like Chealey against a newcomer like Riller. If it’s not Grant and Chealey butting heads, it’s freshman Marquise Pointer and sophomore Cameron Johnson going at it.
“There are a lot more guys in the gym and the workouts have been a lot more competitive,” Grant said. “I think that’s only going to make us a better team. Guys are really, really getting after each other and that’s good to see. No one has a guaranteed job right now. Everyone is fighting for minutes. I think it’s a good mix of returning guys and a lot of youthful exuberance.”
Grant is a firm believer that what a team does in June and July will pay dividends in January and February. The Cougars are coming off the worst season in program history, losing a school-record 24 games in Grant’s first year at the helm.
“You win games based on what you do over the summer and you reap the benefits in the winter,” Grant said. “We didn’t get this opportunity last summer and that’s why this time is so important for us not only from an individual development standpoint, but for our team chemistry.”
The addition of incoming freshmen Marquise Pointer, Jarrell Brantley and Riller along with junior college transfer Payton Hulsey and graduate student James Bourne from Winthrop are having an immediate impact during summer workouts.
“Good players need other good players to push them,” Grant said. “Joe Chealey’s being pushed, Cameron Johnson is being pushed, Donovan Gilmore is being pushed and that’s good. It’s the competition that I think I’m most excited about. This is a process. It’s a process to be where we want to be, but I’m really excited by what I’ve seen so far.”
With more depth, Grant said he hopes to be able to pressure teams more on both ends of the floor. While, there will not be wholesale changes to his philosophy, Grant said the Cougars will attack more.
“It’s not going to be a drastic change defensively,” Grant said. “We may extend our defense a little bit more. The biggest change will be that more guys are going to have fresh legs because they’re not playing as much. We’ll pick up teams up full-court, man-to-man defense. We’ll get up and down the floor to wear people down.”
Grant will hit the road for the summer recruiting season in the next couple of weeks. The Cougars will have at least two scholarships to give and Grant is looking for help in the post.
“We need some size, there’s no question about that,” Grant said. “We need to get a couple of talented guys that are athletic and long and can make plays in the paint.”