NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Second Round-Arkansas vs South Carolina

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A year ago, South Carolina coach Lamont Paris hoped a homegrown freshman forward could help launch his coaching tenure on a successful note, but it didn't work out. With five-star prospect GG Jackson as their leading scorer, the Gamecocks finished 11-21 and 4-14 in the SEC.

Jackson turned pro and is now starring for the Memphis Grizzlies. Paris turned from the youthful orientation and flipped South Carolina from a team ranking 269th in Division I experience at to a team now ranking 26th in the same metric.

But in the end, it's the original formula that has the Gamecocks surging, even if that was never the plan. No. 15 South Carolina has won five of its last six games entering Friday's SEC Tournament quarterfinal showdown with Auburn, and freshman forward Collin Murray-Boyles is one of the most obvious reasons why.

The former three-star prospect, who played three seasons of high school ball for A.C. Flora High School just a few miles from South Carolina's campus, finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and four steals for the Gamecocks in their 80-66 win over Arkansas to begin SEC Tournament play on Thursday. It was the latest example of an improbable rise to stardom for a player whose other offers were from the likes of UNC Wilmington and Jacksonville.

Murray-Boyles is averaging 16.7 points and 8.1 rebounds over his last 11 games. In a league that has been fixated on Kentucky's crop of five-star freshman, Murray-Boyles has been as good as any of his peers over the past month, despite ranking just 108th nationally in the Class of 2023.

"I mean, I don't know how it's a secret at this point," Paris said. "He's been playing really well. Our team's been winning a lot of games. He's a key part to it on both sides."

While the gaudy offensive numbers stand out — Murray-Boyles is shooting better than 70% from the floor over the last 11 games — Paris is quick to point out that his contributions go much deeper than what you see on the surface.

"I'm telling you, defensively is where he really stands out," Paris said. "He's so active. He anticipates at a high level. He's got tremendous feel. Then he's got the athleticism both vertically and from an agility standpoint that allows him to make plays and recover when he makes mistakes typically. He's a high-level player."

Murray-Boyles rates as South Carolina's top defender, per At 6-foot-7 and with a solid frame, he is big enough to hang with opposing post players but nimble enough to lock down opponents on the perimeter as well. 

What makes Murray-Boyles' rise all the more surprising is the fact that he's young for his class. He won't turn 19 until the offseason. Nevertheless, he looked unintimidated taking on 24-year old Arkansas big man Makhi Mitchell on Thursday.

"He's a workhorse," said teammate B.J. Mack, a fifth-year senior who has battled Murray-Boyles extensively in practice. "He's always got a knack for the ball. We call him a mini-Dennis Rodman. The ball just naturally seems to find his hands."

When it does, Murray-Boyles knows what to do with it. While his range does not yet extend to the 3-point line, Murray-Boyles has established an arsenal of ways to score inside the arc for a South Carolina team that can occasionally find itself in offensive ruts.

"He's got an unbelievably high ceiling," Paris said. "I don't even think he's close to it still. He continues to achieve and continues to grow more than anything. He continues to grow. Some of the shots he made today were off-balance, moving away from the basket. It takes incredible touch to finish some of those."

A bout with mononucleosis kept Murray-Boyles out for the season's first seven games, and he didn't crack the starting lineup until his 10th game on Jan. 13. In less than two months as a starter, he's blossomed into arguably the most important player for a Gamecocks team that is projected as a No. 5 seed for the NCAA Tournament in Jerry Palm's Bracketology.

Perhaps the only thing keeping Murray-Boyles from longer looks by NBA scouts at this point is his lack of a perimeter jumper. Considering how quickly he's picked up everything else, it's likely just a matter of time before that's also in his arsenal. 

An apt comparison is to former Tennessee star Grant Williams, who was also an unheralded 6-7 high school prospect from the Carolinas. It was unclear whether he was a wing or a big man, but Williams managed to evolve into one of the SEC's top players over three seasons, earning SEC Player of the Year honors before declaring for the NBA Draft. Now, Williams is in Year 5 of his NBA career because of his versatility. 

It's easy to envision Murray-Boyles' collegiate career following a similar script. In the meantime, he is thriving in the role of mono miracle and mini-Rodman for a South Carolina team that has been full of surprises after being picked to finish last in the league.

"He keeps us young," Mack said. "Our starting five is a pretty old group, so he comes in and brings that energy and brings that youthfulness. We're just trying to keep up with him when he's out there running."