COLUMBIA, S.C. – — The game had long ago passed from interest, leaving the jubilant Kentucky fans to hone their chanting skills on the freshman at the free throw line.
“Michael wears short shorts … Michael wears short shorts …”
Michael Carrera smoothly sank his free throw then, to the glee of the Rupp Arena hordes, tossed a wink and a smile.
Carrera wears his shorts high, folding down the waistband. He says he does so to honor his father, Luis Carrera, who was a basketball player of note for two decades in his native Venezuela.
Carrera could have been a baseball player
“I was good,” he said. “I was really good in baseball. My dad was like, ‘oh, man, we’re going to make a lot of money.’ ”
But kids with motors like his demanded a sport of constant movement.
“I had to play something that just keeps me going, and I found basketball,” Carrera said.
Carrera was a member of Venezuela’s junior national team and played at locales throughout South America. His family took the plunge and sent him to Montrose Christian Academy in Maryland with the hope of getting him on the game’s fast track.
In short order, legendary prep school coach Stu Vetter realized he was witnessing one of the best rebounders he had ever mentored.
But the offers failed to pour in. Carrera had some work to do in the classroom, and interest from major schools cooled.
That roughly was around the time Frank Martin was hired to revive the USC program. Martin learned of Carrera, was wowed by Vetter’s praise and decided to give the kid a call.
This past December, Martin laughed as he recalled that recruiting process.
“Michael Carrera’s recruitment was one phone call,” Martin said. “That’s the kind of passion the kid has. That’s the kind of belief the kid has. He said he always wanted to play for me and it was one phone call.”
In retrospect, it makes sense. Carrera’s passion for the game is every bit as evident as Martin’s passion to teach it. Carrera quickly became a pacesetter for the team’s practices despite his newcomer status.
That became clear when guard Damien Leonard showed up to the team’s preseason media day with a nose guard. Carrera had broken his nose during practice a day earlier.
Carrera’s debut was a whopper — a 17-point, 15-rebound performance in USC’s come-from-behind 82-75 win against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. However, there were issues.
At one point during the game, Carrera had become so wrapped up in firing up the Colonial Life Arena crowd that Wisconsin-Milwaukee nabbed an easy basket behind his back.
Soon after in practice, Carrera suffered a concussion that would cost him three games.
“Mike’s biggest strength is his passion,” Martin said at the time. “Mike’s biggest weakness is his passion — understanding how not to allow that passion to keep you away from being on task with what your team is trying to do.”
It was on the team’s first true road trip that the chant that would define him came into being. Inside steamy Carnesseca Arena on the St. John’s campus, the Red Storm’s ebullient faithful locked on to those short shorts.
“Michael wears short shorts (clap, clap) … Michael wears short shorts … (clap, clap)”
St. John’s blasted the Gamecocks on that November evening, but Carrera had been unfazed by the Red Storm’s cadre of shot-blockers and their admiring hordes — he recorded his second double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
The chant went up at LSU and Carrera replied with 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. The chant was sounded at Kentucky and Carrera responded by schooling Wildcat freshman sensation Nerlens Noel to the tune of 18 points and six rebounds.
Unfortunately, Carrera’s contributions haven’t always led to victory and as the losses mount in SEC play, the freshman is receiving an unwanted lesson in hard knocks, for the player has a hard time separating his results from the team’s progress.
“I’m trying to win,” he said. “I’m trying to win. I’m not a loser. I hate to lose and every time that I lose, I just want to stay in bed. I don’t want to do anything.”
USC is making the turn in SEC play with a 2-7 record. Winnable games remain, despite the team’s three-game losing streak. Beginning Sunday with Tennessee, the Gamecocks embark on a trio of contests that could somewhat salvage the season.
With nine games remaining in the regular season, Carrera leads USC in points (10.6) and rebounds (6.9). If he continues trending upward, he has a good chance to become the first freshman in school history to lead the team in both categories and the first underclassman since Jimmy Foster accomplished the feat as a sophomore in 1982.
The numbers are impressive. But the kid wearing the short shorts would trade it all for victory.
“That’s what I am,” he said. “I don’t like to lose. I like to win. That’s what I do.”
WHO: USC (12-10, 2-7 SEC) vs. Tennessee (11-10, 3-6)
WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Colonial Life Arena
TV: Fox Sports Carolinas
RADIO: WNKT 107.5 FM
SERIES: Tennessee leads 37-23
COACHES: Frank Martin (129-64 in six seasons, 12-10 in first season at USC); Cuonzo Martin (91-66 in five seasons, 30-25 in second season at Tennessee)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Like USC, the Volunteers have struggled offensively of late, scoring no more than 62 points since a Jan. 19 win against Mississippi State, a span of five games. … Tennessee also is winless in true road games this year (0-6). … During their three-game losing streak, the Gamecocks have allowed opponents to shoot 57.1 percent. … Tennessee has won 11 consecutive games against USC, including a wire-to-wire 73-64 win in the most recent meeting. Today’s meeting comes 20 years to the day after a memorable USC victory against the Vols. On Feb. 10, 1993, USC outlasted Tennessee 111-107 in double overtime, despite 20-point efforts from Tennessee’s Allan Houston (29), Lang Wiseman (26) and Corey Allen (22).
- Patrick Obley