UK Men's Basketball

Ellington fills Downey's shoes for Gamecocks

South Carolina's Bruce Ellington, left, dribbled past Clemson's Milton Jennings last month. The 5-foot-9, 197-pound Ellington has become one of the top players for the Gamecocks. "His play, obviously, impacts our team. He can make plays on both ends," Coach Darrin Horn said.
South Carolina's Bruce Ellington, left, dribbled past Clemson's Milton Jennings last month. The 5-foot-9, 197-pound Ellington has become one of the top players for the Gamecocks. "His play, obviously, impacts our team. He can make plays on both ends," Coach Darrin Horn said. ASSOCIATED PRESS

When Kentucky went to South Carolina last season, mighty mite Devan Downey dropped 30 points on the Cats. UK's distinction as the last unbeaten team in Division I basketball ended.

UK and the rest of the Southeastern Conference figured Downey's departure after the season meant no more concerns about a 5-foot-9 South Carolina point guard.

Wrong.

Freshman Bruce Ellington has smoothed South Carolina's transition to life without a three-time all-league player like Downey. The Gamecocks go into Saturday's game against visiting Kentucky as a co-leader in the SEC Eastern Division.

To hear some league coaches, Ellington might represent an improvement over Downey, who incidentally led the SEC in scoring (22.5 ppg) last season.

"I think all of us felt going into this year, 'At least Devan Downey is gone,' " Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said on this week's SEC teleconference. "But he's back in the form of Bruce Ellington."

Ellington's 22 points helped South Carolina rally past Vanderbilt in the league opener.

"The kid's really a good player," Stallings said. "I don't know if he's totally made up for the loss of Downey, but he's certainly lessened the burden of the loss."

Florida Coach Billy Donovan dared suggest Ellington was better than Downey. Or, to be precise, more complete as a player.

"Downey had to score so much," Donovan said. " ... I always felt like he was a guy that really rested on defense. ... Ellington, to me, is a much, much more complete player.

"His effort and what he does defensively as a freshman is so much better than what Downey's was when he was a senior."

Ellington scored 23 in a three-point victory at Florida, including the Gamecocks' final six.

South Carolina Coach Darrin Horn recoiled from the invitation to compare Ellington and Downey, the latter now playing professionally in Turkey (and not for the team that once had Enes Kanter).

But while Downey's contributions were once vital for South Carolina's viability, Horn noted that Ellington is important, too.

"It's crucial," he said of Ellington's influence on the Gamecocks' fortunes. "It's almost impossible to be good in this league or at this level without a good point guard. His play, obviously, impacts our team. He can make plays on both ends."

Ellington caught the eye of Kentucky Coach John Calipari, who noted that the freshman may be short, but packing 197 pounds he's not little.

"He has a football body," Calipari said, "and he uses it that way. He understands angles."

Calipari said he wasn't sure whether UK's star freshman point guard, Brandon Knight, would be matched up against Ellington. Or if UK's defensive stopper on the perimeter, DeAndre Liggins, would get the assignment.

Ellington has a football background. A five-sport player for Berkeley High in Moncks Corner, S.C., he led the team to South Carolina's Class AAAA state championship as a senior. He accounted for 40 touchdowns that season, throwing for seven and rushing for 33. That led to a scholarship offer from Florida.

When deciding his athletic future, he sat down with his mother and an older brother and told them he wanted to play basketball.

"Basketball was kind of my first love," he said. "When I was little, I didn't really like football. I went out because everybody else went out."

Ellington endured football for a while. "I used to cry a lot," he said.

Ellington was a starburst in basketball. An injury caused him to miss the summer circuit where players gain a reputation until the July before his senior year. By then, Horn had made South Carolina an immovable No. 1 on the player's list.

"It felt like a big family," Ellington said of South Carolina, which is about an hour's drive from his home. "I'm like (the veteran players') little brother."

Among those taking Ellington under his wing was Sam Muldrow, who has blossomed as a senior. He's among the SEC's top 10 rebounders (9.0 rpg) and is the runaway leader in blocks (25 in the first four games).

In addition to a team-leading 14.9-point and 3.6-assist averages, Ellington also brings an intangible quality that translates to success, Horn said.

"He's one of those kids, he's got that 'it' factor," the South Carolina coach said. "He loves to be in that moment" when the game is on the line.

Ellington's team-first approach makes him the kind of player that Horn hopes can form a foundation for his program.

"It's kind of like defining class," Horn said of the intangibles Ellington brings the team. "I'm not sure you can recognize it when you see it."

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