COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina leading receiver Bruce Ellington returned to basketball practice and is expected to play when the Gamecocks travel to No. 9 Oklahoma State Friday night.
"Bruce is off the charts," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said Tuesday. "Just him being at practice made our team better."
Ellington has shuttled between the football and basketball teams for the past three seasons. He had four catches for 51 yards last Saturday night as South Carolina closed its regular season with a 31-17 victory over rival Clemson.
Rarely one to sit still, Ellington called Martin Monday night and said he was ready to get back on the court. Ellington is a needed jolt of experience on a team that features eight new faces — seven of them freshmen.
And Martin said Ellington quickly showed the time away at football hadn't dented his basketball savvy.
"Twenty minutes in, he already understood some of the things we're doing differently better than some of the guys who've been here eight weeks," Martin said.
Martin plans to call on Ellington's leadership against the Cowboys.
The game is part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge that continues this week. It's only the second game South Carolina has played since Nov. 17 as Martin back-loaded his schedule because of youth and his belief Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson wouldn't be allowed to play until mid-December.
The NCAA ruled Johnson eligible for the season the night before South Carolina's opener on Nov. 9.
While Martin's glad to have Ellington back, the coach's is uncertain how long the point guard would be able to go at Oklahoma State.
Ellington wrapped up a football regular season where he topped the Gamecocks with 43 catches for 635 yards and six touchdowns. He had a 29-yard catch in the second quarter down to the Clemson 9 that led to a field goal and a 17-7 lead.
"What he does is pretty much not normal for most athletes, playing two sports the way he does with little time off before he goes back to the next one," said Brenton Williams, third on the Gamecocks with 10.5 points a game. "He just has unlimited energy."
Ellington starred at both sports at Berkeley High School in Moncks Corner. He started his South Carolina career just with the basketball team before deciding before his sophomore season that he'd go out for football, too.
Ever since, it's been a whirlwind of practices and meetings between two of the university's most high-profile sports.
Although statistically, Ellington's production has dropped each season in basketball while rising in football.
Ellington averaged 12.8 points a game his freshman season on the court. That dropped to 11 points a game as a sophomore and 9.9 points a game last winter, his first playing in Martin's system.
On the football field, Ellington caught 17 passes his first season in 2011 and improved that to 40 catches for 600 yards a year later.
Martin said Ellington's got a relentless will to improve and that should set a positive example for younger teammates. For instance, Martin said Ellington saw the defense change during one set at practice and called his own play on the fly, something the coach had been pushing junior point guard Johnson since October to do.
The next drill, it was Johnson in that situation and Johnson who called his own play, Martin said.
"Just that moment with Bruce made Ty do his job," the coach explained. "That's the dynamic he brings that's demanded of him in football."
Martin said he hadn't yet talked with football coach Steve Spurrier about when Ellington might be needed back for bowl practice. Last season, Ellington played four games between the Clemson football game and the bowl game. He was back on the court a few days after he caught the winning TD pass in a 33-28 victory over Michigan at the Outback Bowl.
Ellington has said throughout the fall he wants to help make basketball as successful as Gamecock football has been.
"Coach came here to try and change the program," Ellington said of the basketball team last month. "They're all working very hard at it."