The thaw began late one night in a hotel room in Stockholm. It was the summer of 1996, and guards BJ McKie, who had just finished his freshman year at South Carolina, and Melvin Watson, who had been a sophomore, were rooming together during the Gamecocks' exhibition tour of Europe. The previous fall, McKie had come to school with high school All-America credentials and a prodigious local following, having grown up 10 minutes from the South Carolina campus. Watson, the incumbent point guard on a team that had won just 10 games the season before, had not eagerly awaited this hotshot's arrival. "Everywhere I went, people would ask me about him coming in to take my spot," Watson says. "I felt I had to prove myself all over again."
Though both players ended up starting—Watson at the point, McKie at shooting guard—as South Carolina finished 19-12 and went to the NIT, a chill persisted between them. Until that night in Sweden when, during a two-hour rap session, Watson finally told McKie why he had been so distant. "It was a relief," Watson says. "I apologized for prejudging him and told him that for us to become better players on the court, we had to be better friends off the court."
As backcourt mates and soul mates, Watson and McKie last season led the Gamecocks to a 24-8 record and South Carolina's first SEC championship in any sport. They were both selected first-team all-conference, and they're the main reasons the Gamecocks are favored to repeat as league champs. Watson's words that night in Stockholm were indeed prophetic; as the two have blossomed into perhaps the nation's finest backcourt, so too has their friendship bloomed. "If he comes in here today, I'll know right away if something is wrong with him," McKie says. "We've grown that close."
Even as good as McKie and Watson are, they're going to need help from the frontcourt now that Larry Davis, the third guard in South Carolina's diminutive lineup, has graduated. (Last year, the 6'1" Watson was the Gamecocks' leading defensive rebounder, with 4.3 per game.) Two starters return up front—6'11" senior Ryan Stack and 6'7" junior William Gallman—along with 6'10" junior Bud Johnson, who had a disappointing sophomore season. Add in 6'7" junior LeRon Williams, a muscular transfer from Florida, and Carolina should be stronger than it ) was last year. "I like the four bodies we've got," coach Eddie Fogler says.
As successful as they were last season, the Gamecocks were routed in their final two games, losing by 15 to Georgia in the SEC tournament semifinals and by 13 to Coppin State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. McKie, for one, believes that South Carolina learned from those defeats. "We were satisfied with just getting to the NCAA tournament," he says. "I think it was a lack of experience. We got mentally and physically tired. We understand that can't happen this season if we're going to achieve the goals we want to achieve."