Atlantic Sun Preview: Humble, unassuming Torrey Craig leads USC Upstate’s revival

Not long after South Carolina Upstate forward Torrey Craig earned Atlantic Sun freshman of the year honors during the 2010-11 season, his high school coach's phone began ringing off the hook.

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Schools from the ACC and SEC who hadn't shown any interest in Craig when he was in high school suddenly began sending word via third party that they would welcome him as a transfer.

They noted USC Upstate hadn't finished with a winning record since joining Division I. They pointed out the Spartans played in a 1,500-seat high school-sized gym. And they insisted Craig could receive vastly more exposure playing on a bigger stage in one of the nation's best conferences.

"They fail to realize that kind of stuff doesn't turn Torrey Craig's head," said John Smith, Craig's former coach at Great Falls High School in South Carolina. "He's as humble as can be. He has no ego whatsoever."

Staying at tiny USC Upstate has turned out to be a wise choice for Craig so far. The 6-foot-6 junior won Atlantic Sun player of the year honors as a sophomore last season, averaging 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds and leading the Spartans to a third-place finish in league and a surprising 21-12 overall record.

The return of Craig, last year's Atlantic Sun freshman of the year Ty Greene and two other starters has raised hopes USC Upstate will contend for its first league title since joining Division I in 2007. With Belmont off to the Ohio Valley Conference and perennial league power East Tennessee State rebuilding, the Spartans are one of a handful of A-Sun teams capable of taking advantage.

"We've been working hard together and we know what we need to do," Craig said. "If we achieve that goal, I think it would mean a lot to all of us. The coaches, the fans and the community."

It's no surprise to those close to Craig what he has accomplished in college because they saw glimpses of his potential during high school.

Even though Craig split his time between football and basketball his first three years of high school, he eventually established himself as one of South Carolina's best players. He almost willed Great Falls High School to a 2010 state championship in South Carolina's smallest enrollment division, scoring 34 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in his team's 66-58 loss in the title game.

Craig's statistics suggested he should have been inundated with Division I scholarship offers, but several factors prevented high-profile programs from showing much interest.

College coaches questioned whether Craig's production against small schools in South Carolina would translate against taller, stronger Division I opposition. He might have been able to dispel those concerns on the AAU circuit except he only played one year and the team he joined played him out of position.

Since Craig projected as a small forward in college but played mostly as a face-up power forward on his high school team, college coaches wanted to evaluate him on the perimeter with his summer team. Instead his AAU coaches reinforced concerns that he didn't dribble or shoot well enough to play the wing by using him exclusively down low after two of the team's taller players quit unexpectedly.

"It was tough, but I knew I had to play a role for us to win games so I wasn't really upset," Craig said. "I didn't like it at first, but I was willing to help my team."

Craig's dream schools were in-state programs South Carolina or Winthrop, but neither offered a scholarship. The Gamecocks didn't recruit him. The Eagles evaluated him closely since Great Falls is only 30 miles from their campus but coach Randy Peele eventually decided to pass.

One of the few schools to extend a scholarship offer was USC Upstate, which first began scouting Craig in January of his senior season. At the request of his assistants, head coach Eddie Payne watched Craig in person for the first time on senior night at Great Falls and came away impressed that a kid who was clearly the best player on his team would display such unselfishness and prudent shot selection.

"Those types of things are under-evaluated," Payne said. "It didn't take me more than four or five minutes to figure out Torrey was a talented player, but it's not just about talent. You have to be able to blend in with other people. Those types of things help make a program win."

Craig has rewarded Payne's faith in him by helping turn USC Upstate into a winner.

Since arriving on campus, he has worked hard on his ball handling, improved the range and consistency of his jump shot and bulked up in the weight room so he can more easily finish at the rim. He also has fit in well with his teammates, displaying the same softspoken humility he did throughout his high school career at Great Falls.

"Recruiting is not an exact science," Smith said. "Coaches cannot judge a kid's character and commitment. That's a hard thing. You don't know how a kid's going to respond as the competition goes up. There has to be that desire and commitment. I knew from Torrey's character that he would do everything humanly possible to be successful, and I was right."

Other players might have been tempted last year to parlay a big freshman season into an opportunity to play at a higher level, but Craig has different priorities. He wants to finish what he's started at USC Upstate by taking the Spartans to a league title and an NCAA bid.

"At the end of the day I'm happy where I'm at," Craig said. "If I had to do it all again, I'd do it the same way."

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