The scene defined his season.
Moments after South Carolina ended its season with a 70-59 loss to Mississippi State in the SEC tournament, freshman forward Michael Carrera was spotted in the training room, still in his uniform, with a Band-Aid covering the just-re-opened cleft over his right eye. There was one icepack on his knee and another nearby, in case the concussion-like symptoms that had kept him out of most of the game returned.
Carrera must have felt like he had gotten run over by the Zamboni across the hall. No one could tell from the ear-to-ear grin that was pasted on his face.
Hurt, agony, pain, like the axiom in the FBI training film says. And then the last part.
“I trained my mind as well, to tell my body that nothing’s hurting,” Carrera recently said. “Nothing’s hurting and you got to go.”
It’s that simple?
“Well … no,” Carrera said. “But that’s what I tell myself.”
Carrera finished his first year at USC sporting nearly as many injuries as games played. After bursting through anonymity with 17 points and 15 rebounds in USC’s season-opener, Carrera was on the bench for the next three games after sustaining a concussion in practice. He beat up his teammates about as much as he beat up himself — when Damien Leonard showed up for last year’s media day with a broken nose, everybody fingered Carrera’s elbow as the culprit.
The rabid ferocity with which Carrera played earned him a spot on the SEC’s all-freshman team, but he missed five games because of injury and played almost every other one feeling the effects of other bang-ups. The most painful was a stress fracture in his hip, something that felt like an exploding firecracker in his side every time his foot hit the floor. It kept him out of practice for the last half of the season and hindered his game production.
Carrera still averaged 9.9 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds, earning opponents’ respect/hatred with the way he charged after rebounds and second-chance points. The Gamecocks’ best offensive option most of the season was the Carrera stick-back, and the unchecked passion of how he outfought teammates and opponents for loose balls earned him praise as one of the most energetic players in the SEC.
It wasn’t good enough. Not for Carrera.
“I hate losing,” he said after a summer session at the S.C. Pro-Am. “I like winning. We won some last year but not enough. I want to win this year.”
As a new season dawns, with basically a new team, a repaired hip and the veteran experience of playing a full year under Frank Martin’s system, Carrera is being looked on as a leader, despite his sophomore status. A move to his best position — small forward, after he spent most of last year at power forward because of the team’s lack of height and bulk in the post — should help.
What will help him, and the Gamecocks, the most is Carrera remembering what Martin has repeated to him since he arrived.
Your worst enemy is yourself.
“Michael’s biggest challenge is his mind,” Martin said. “I don’t say that in a negative way. It’s just being able to stay focused on the job at hand. I don’t need him making a basket and turning around and running back cheering at the student section and all that, and then he gives up a basket on the other side because he’s wrapped up with the students.”
Martin said it several times last year — Carrera’s greatest strength was his passion, and his greatest weakness was that same passion. He admired the player for continuing to play hard despite his ailments, and loved his energy, but that energy was being wasted if he couldn’t control it, leading to two fouls in three minutes and finding himself on the bench.
Carrera would sometimes get frustrated, talking to himself in rapid-fire Spanish after a missed free throw or complaining to an official about a non-call — or more often, a call against him. The gift for stirring the crowd by waving his arms, or proudly flaunting the shorts that stop above his knees, was being equaled and sometimes negated.
With a fresh influx of talent, Martin needs Carrera to be the constant on the floor this season. That’s doing what he does, with a constant remembrance of why he’s on the floor and what he has to do to remain on the floor.
“I just love to be on the court, playing for the school, for everybody,” Carrera said, mentioning that he likes to channel Martin’s eyelid-popping intensity on the sidelines into his own game. “I just want to help the team and win more games and make it to the tourney.”
For USC to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004 will require a lot of “go-rights.” The seven freshmen and transfer Ty Johnson have to meld right away. The returnees, notably Carrera and Brenton Williams, have to be consistent. The Gamecocks can’t get to the final five minutes of close games and then not find ways to finish, as they did so many times last year.
It’s no surprise that Martin is leaning on Williams and Carrera to help the youth of the team, to show them how he wants the game to be played, to pick them up when they’ve fallen. Williams because he’s the only senior until Bruce Ellington returns and has the ability to be a lethal scorer.
Carrera because everybody listens to Carrera.
“Mike loves to win. Mike is loyal. Mike has tremendous charisma. He makes us a better team,” Martin said. “Mentally, he needs to continue to grow and mature so his impact can last for longer periods. That was a challenge for him last year and it was hard to fix it, because he couldn’t practice. He’s a lot better at that, a lot better. Day and night.”
The player who signed with Martin on the basis of one recruiting phone call faces a heavy burden. The Gamecocks might go only as far as Carrera can take them. He wants to lead, which is a positive, and the other players are gravitating to him as a leader.
“One thing about Mike, he’s always going to have your back,” said Johnson, a past-and-present teammate of Carrera. “Playing with him in high school and now here, it’s the same thing. Mike’s going to bring energy, he’s going to bring toughness. Everything a coach might want in a player. He’s not going to complain too much, but also, Mike is going to be Mike. You just got to know how to deal with him, and talk him through things, and just let him play.”
When he plays at his finest, Carrera is fun to watch. Flying through the lane, arms and legs in an improvised Zumba dance, attacking the glass like it owes him money, that’s Carrera on his best days. On his worst days, which aren’t many, he’s pouting to the officials, being pushed off the block or the most awful scenario, for himself and USC — sitting.
He aims to have no worst days this year.
“It was pretty hard last year. I couldn’t move, basically,” Carrera said. “But I do whatever I can. I play for the university and I play for Frank.
“I just do what I can do to help everybody. All this is, is about winning. That’s what we want to do.”
Follow Cloninger on Twitter at @DCTheState