AIKEN -- The road to Columbia and an opportunity for a state championship has had its bumps and potholes for South Aiken guard Michael Tyler.
The senior enters tonight's 8:30 p.m., S.C. Class AAAA matchup with Socastee of Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the Carolina Coliseum as the leading scorer for the Thoroughbreds (24-5). But life hasn't always been so sweet for Tyler. The 6-foot-3 shooting guard's career almost was over before it ever took off.
Just below the cuff of Tyler's baggy shorts on his left leg are scars from two knee surgeries that serve as a daily reminder of just how far he's come. Today, he averages 18 points a game, but both his sophomore and junior seasons ended when his knee blew out.
The second time his knee gave way was the most devastating for Tyler. He had started the first three games of the 1996-97 season, but only was able to give the South Aiken fans a glimpse of his potential when he was lost for the season.
"I came back I think a little too early," Tyler said. "I didn't rehab it enough and I reinjured it the same way. I made sure not to make that mistake this year."
This season would be different for Tyler. He took his time rehabilitating his knee. He learned a year ago the penalty for coming back too early. He didn't start his first game until the Thoroughbreds went to Kissimmee, Fla., to play in the Great Florida Shootout from Dec. 18-22.
Tyler exploded in Florida, averaging 29 points in South Aiken's three games, and coach Donnie Holland finally got to see what he'd been thinking for two years.
"I knew he was going to be a player last year," Holland said. "I think he would have been playing like this last year had he been healthy."
Tyler's rise to stardom was something teammate Tony Kitchings, the Thoroughbreds' marquee player, didn't expect.
"Mike surprised me a little this year," South Aiken's 6-10 center and South Carolina signee said. "If you would have told me Mike would have been the leading scorer this year I wouldn't have thought that.
"I think the Florida Shootout is where he got his confidence. He surprised me, but I hope he keeps it up."
After two seasons of watching from the bench, Tyler didn't attract much attention from opposing defenses early in the season. He understands how his success stems from Kitchings.
"I'm the leading scorer because they concentrate on him (Tony) so much," Tyler said. "They'll collapse on Tony and everything will open up for me."
In South Aiken's three playoff games, Tyler has scored 59 points. Point guard Kevin Muns said teams have tried to contain Tyler during the second half of the season.
"Everybody is keying just as much on him as Tony, and he's still scoring about 20 points a game," Muns said. "Nobody expected Mike to come in and be all-state, but he's shown it every game. He can elevate so much on his jumper that he can get over anybody."
Regardless of tonight's outcome, Tyler's mere presence on the court allows him to smile when he looks back at the road he's traveled the past two years.
"I never think about it as my first year coming back and being able to play," Tyler said. "It does mean a lot to me since I worked so hard in the offseason to get to play this whole season."
South Aiken's allotment of tickets is sold out, but tickets can be purchased today at the Carolina Coliseum box office for $5.