COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Could South Carolina's turnaround be this simple?
Chris Warren is slowed by ankle injury, the Gamecocks lose seven straight games. Warren is back to full strength, the Gamecocks win three in a row.
Of course not, South Carolina coach Dave Odom said as he prepares to try for four in a row against Tennessee (15-6, 7-3 Southeastern Conference) at the Carolina Center on Wednesday night. "But suffice it to say that the things I think (Warren) gives us we needed badly," Odom said.
It's hard for anyone to minimize Warren's recent contributions for South Carolina (10-11, 3-7).
He's averaged 17 points a game since returning to the starting lineup three games ago, including setting consecutive career highs against Clemson (17 points) and Arkansas (23). Suddenly, a team that flirted with the bottom of the SEC is thinking postseason.
"I'm feeling real comfortable out there, shooting the ball pretty well," said Warren, a senior from Garland, Texas. "It's weird how things go sometimes. One time of the year you're out, another time you're winning, making shots and making plays."
Besides an extra jump shooter - Warren hit six 3-pointers in last Saturday's win over Arkansas - Odom said Warren brings the Gamecocks leadership and solid perimeter defense.
Not so long ago, Odom was unsure he'd get anything from Warren.
Odom took a chance on the junior college player with only about a month of recruiting time after taking the Gamecocks job in 2001.
When Warren got to campus, he was so consumed by basketball, Odom said, that things like studies and schoolwork sometimes went out the window.
Warren started just twice that season, finishing with about 4 points a game. Knowing a career beyond South Carolina was unlikely, the 6-foot-5, 195-pounder worked like crazy over the summer to make his last year his best, Odom said.
Warren joined the starting lineup before Christmas and seemed ready for a solid SEC season when he broke a small bone in his left ankle at practice on Jan. 5. A projected three-week recovery time stretched to a long, agonizing month.
"I had never been hurt in my three years in college," Warren said. "I got hurt, then we lost those seven games and it was real frustrating because I really thought I could help my team out."
Odom wasn't sure if even a healthy Warren would've mattered in some of those losses like at Mississippi State (64-48) and LSU (71-58) and back home against Kentucky (87-69).
"I don't want to take anything away from Chris Warren, or his teammates," Odom said. "At the same time, I don't want to paint things out of perspective."
Warren is happy to help out and his teammates welcome the contribution. Center Tony Kitchings said Warren's long-range baskets against the Razorbacks freed up space underneath the basket. "We got a guy like that shooting six threes, other teams have got to respect them," the 6-10 Kitchings said. "That makes the job (underneath) a little bit easier."
Warren's recent streak could be credited to a little off-court coaching.
He was resting his sore ankle in a bucket of ice the day after the LSU loss Feb. 5. Odom walked by and asked Warren how he felt.
Not too good, Warren told him. He had no confidence in his game, his foot ached all the time and he feared he might break it again.
Odom brought Warren to his office. He said the rest of South Carolina's games were likely all that remained to Warren's basketball career.
"What you're doing is you're going halfspeed," Odom said. "And you're going to have half as much success as you could have going all out and taking a chance at having something really, really good."
Warren stepped up his game the following Saturday, making 5 of 7 shots for 11 points and five assists. Things continued against Clemson and Arkansas. And guess what, his foot doesn't hurt so much these days.
"I just decided to let it go and concentrate on my senior year," Warren said. "It just feels a lot better."
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