If the award was handed out today, second-year South Carolina coach Lamont Paris would be — or at least absolutely should be — the national coach of the year in men’s college basketball. That might be true even if you viewed his season so far in a vacuum.
The Gamecocks are 18-3 overall, one game out of first place in the SEC, and just took down consecutive AP top-10 teams, Kentucky at home and Tennessee on the road, in a week. But we like our coaches of the year to be plucky overachievers, and no one in the sport can lay greater claim to that description than Paris.
“If you see me dancing in the locker room with my guys, it’s because that’s the one thing I’ve learned in this profession: Don’t get numb to the joy of winning,” he said this week. “Maybe one day we’ll beat a top-five team on the road, and it’ll be a blip, and we won’t even acknowledge it because we’re supposed to do that. Maybe one day. But until then, we’re going to celebrate when we win, and we’ve had a lot of joyful moments in the locker room this year.”
Let’s rewind to October. There aren’t many things in sports sillier than the annual conference media day dance in which reporters make semi-educated guesses about what order teams will finish, then ask coaches to comment on the associated pressure of being picked so highly or the motivational power of being so thoroughly disrespected. And frankly, we should’ve known Paris was cooking up a special season when he showed up at SEC Media Day armed with equal parts data and disdain for the entire charade, then thoughtfully tore it to shreds.
“Here’s what I’ll say about picks,” Paris began, grinning. “There were 14 picks last year. Does anybody know how many of those were right? Zero. Not one team last year was picked in this spot and then finished in that same spot.”
He continued with some math.
“Let’s say if your standard deviation was one or two or three, it seemed like you knew something,” Paris said. “I picked the team first, and they finished fourth. You had some sort of idea. Seven of the picks last year fit that criteria. Seven of the picks were off by more than four. Two of the picks, one was off by seven, one was off by eight. There’s not much in a pick.”
He came prepared because the Gamecocks were picked to finish in last place this season. And while he called it “blasphemy,” a simple defense could be made of that vote: South Carolina went 11-21 in Paris’ first season. He won four conference games. He lost two meetings with Tennessee by a combined 83 points. Those kinds of numbers stick in the memory of the folks who cover the SEC. But the thing Paris was — and still is — so annoyed by, is that no one seemed to notice he didn’t just run it back with the same roster.
He kept the team’s best player, Meechie Johnson, and added several instant-impact pieces: Wofford’s star big man (B.J. Mack); the Big Ten’s No. 2 assist man (Ta’Lon Cooper); a former SEC 3-point leader (Myles Stute); a top-100 freshman (Collin Murray-Boyles). Paris, who went to consecutive Final Fours as an assistant at Wisconsin and jumped from 10 wins in his first season as the coach at Chattanooga to 20 wins in Year 3 to 27 wins and the NCAA Tournament in Year 5, did not see a last-place team. Not even close. He noted that the roster last season had 122 combined career starts, “and we did not finish last,” while this season there were 480 career starts on opening night.
“But I will say this,” Paris continued that day in the fall, “the only thing I can thank them for is they picked us last. Second to last is nothing. What does that mean? I can’t even use that as bulletin board material. So last it is.”
Almost four months later, the last shall be first if South Carolina wins at Georgia and Alabama loses to Mississippi State on Saturday. It would be — really, it already is — the most dramatic turnaround in the country. The Gamecocks, despite losing five games in the final minute of regulation or overtime last season, including a major scare for the second-ranked Crimson Tide, finished the year ranked 221st in Ken Pomeroy’s metrics-based ratings.
Now, they’re contending for just the second SEC title in program history and the first since 1997.
“I don’t aspire not to be last,” Paris said this week, repeating a line from his anti-preseason poll rant in October. “That’s not a goal of ours, to say, ‘Hey, guys, you said 14th, but we actually finished 12th!’ That’s not a goal. We are trying to build. We are building. That’s why some of these wins are program-type wins. We’re building a program that stands for something. We’re building a program that, when you think about South Carolina, my vision is that you’ll say, ‘They’re going to be in the tournament this year, again, like normal.’ That’s what we’re building.”
So how is Paris doing it? He knows you might roll your eyes at the painfully overused C-word, and he hates to even go there, but it really is the secret sauce. And “culture” to him just means valuing the things that impact winning the most and recruiting to that criteria, then reinforcing the culture every day in all the little things you say, teach and do. He learned that from Hall of Famer Bo Ryan at Wisconsin.
“We always had good players there, but we hardly ever had just the best guys. Even when we had Frank Kaminsky, the player of the year, we were going up against Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl Towns and Devin Booker,” Paris said. “So to know how to win when it’s not dependent on just having better players, that’s served me really, really well. And if there’s one success that I’ve had for sure, it’s that I’ve knocked the culture piece of this out of the park. The culture of our guys aligning with the culture of our program: selfless and grateful, which is almost impossible in today’s world, to feel grateful for anything because there’s always someone else, always another place, always more money. But we’ve got a group of guys who are super grateful.”
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Grateful and gritty can make for a winning combination. Toughness is one way to think about the word grit. Being rubbed the wrong way is another. And when coaches and teams are trying to build something, a little sandpaper sure comes in handy — to knock down the rough spots and to lovingly agitate. Paris didn’t print out the preseason SEC poll and tape it up in his players’ lockers. He didn’t drape a banner with that last-place prediction over the tunnel entering the arena. But he has not let his players forget what people thought about them.
“When we do things that aren’t winning-type things, I tell them: ‘Exactly right, last place. That’s a last-place decision you just made. That’s a last-place attitude. That’s last-place effort. That’s last-place energy. They were right if that’s how you’re going to play,’” Paris said. “We’ve got a prideful group. I’ve challenged them, and they’ve responded. It really doesn’t have much to do with basketball when I make these challenges. If that’s how you’re going to respond to a teammate, well then last place it is. It’s a reminder to do the little things, and that’s where we’ve excelled.”
Quite usefully for Paris, respect has been slow to catch up to the results. Even after South Carolina started the season 13-1 — its lone loss was a nailbiter at rival Clemson — with wins over Virginia Tech on a neutral court and WAC-leading Grand Canyon (19-2) in Phoenix, few people outside Columbia, S.C., were talking about the Gamecocks. After they dominated top-10 Kentucky to reach 16-3, still no appearance in the AP Top 25. Here comes that word again.
“Blasphemy,” said Paris, whose team surely, finally will be ranked next week after controlling Tennessee from start to finish in Knoxville. “You can only beg for approval for so long. We’ve moved on. But at the same time, I’m a competitive guy, and just like looking at our roster and saying ‘dead last,’ it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
For a coach trying to push all the right buttons in a rebuild, being repeatedly underestimated is the gift that keeps giving.
“Bring it on,” Paris said. “It worked in our favor.”
(Bryan Lynn / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)