USC's Sheppard makes rapid recovery, unexpected return

Frank Martin received the text message 90 minutes before tipoff.

It was from Shamiek Sheppard, the South Carolina freshman who had torn the ACL in his right leg over the summer, yet rehabilitated more rapidly than anyone predicted. A week earlier, doctors had told the 6-6 forward that his repaired leg tested stronger than his good one. For two days, he practiced with no issues. Now Sheppard was faced with a decision to play - or keep his redshirt season intact.

An hour and a half before the Gamecocks tipped off Tuesday against North Carolina A&T, Martin had the answer. Sheppard dressed out, played five minutes, scored three points - and is now on the active roster as USC faces No. 9 Iowa State at 6 p.m. Saturday in his hometown of New York.

"I'm actually excited to go back home and play in front of my friends and family," Sheppard said. "But we're just going out there to handle business. We just want to take care of business."

Understandably so, given that the Gamecocks (8-3) have won six straight - the longest winning streak of Martin's three-year tenure as head coach - and are looking for their first victory over a top-10 opponent since upsetting No. 1 Kentucky in 2010. And they received a boost by the return of Sheppard, who was expected to sit out all of this season after tearing the ACL in June, but whose rehabilitation was a month ahead of schedule.

"The initial plan was for all this to be taking place at the end of January," Martin said. "I was not going to expose him - that's why we said redshirt - I was not going to expose him to burn a year of eligibility to play eight, nine games. Right now, he's got an opportunity to have 20 games to help the basketball team."

Martin left the decision up to Sheppard - play now and have this partial season count toward one of his four years of eligibility, or complete a redshirt season and have four full years still ahead. That question was answered with 1:22 left in the first half of Tuesday's 91-54 victory over the Aggies, when Sheppard jogged to the scorer's table with a large brace around his right knee.

"I had a lot of conversations with the coaching staff, my family back at home, close relatives to me," Sheppard said. "Basically, everybody said the same thing - if you love the game, if you feel like you're 100 percent, then go out there and perform. So that's what I did."

He looked no worse for wear - Sheppard played five minutes, grabbed two rebounds, hit the deck once in a scramble for a loose ball, and showed plenty of the athleticism which drew Martin to the Brooklyn native in the first place.

"He's five months removed from ACL surgery, and he snatched a rebound out there standing under the basket. He just jumped. And he was like, elbows on the rim," Martin said. "He brings athleticism. He's got a toughness to him. He's an unbelievable person to sit around and have a conversation with, how thoughtful he is, how articulate he is. But when he goes out on the court, now, he's not backing down from anything. He brings a little edge to him on the court that I think is good for our basketball team."

Not everything is ideal - Sheppard's conditioning isn't where it should be at this point in the season, and Martin now has to work another player into a squad which just completed USC's first unbeaten month since November of 2004, and is trying to win seven straight games for the first time since Dave Odom's 2003-04 team started 8-0 on its way to the school's most recent NCAA tournament bid.

"Now, it's my job to integrate him into what we do, using his talents without disrupting our team and the chemistry that we've created," Martin said. "That's my job. I've got to figure that one out. He's got to get in better shape. He's got to learn what we do better, so that I can take a sample size of all the things that we do, and find a little package we can utilize when he's in there."

Sheppard says that while he feels "100 percent physically," he still has work to do as far as catching up to the Gamecocks' system. But the difficult task of rehabilitation is behind him, and now the freshman travels with USC to play the Cyclones (10-1) at the Barclays Center in his native borough.

"First thing I said to him was, 'You remember in June, when you were down, and you thought the end of the world was coming? Sometimes, things go wrong and they're not as bad as they seem. You kept your head up, you go through a difficult moment, and you get to go home and play in front of your family,'" Martin said. "I'm happy for him for that."