Hand Lamont Paris a blank check at South Carolina and all the coach of the year awards

On Sunday morning, South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner should waltz into Lamont Paris’ office, slide a blank check across across his basketball coach’s desk and step out of the room.

At this rate, every day Tanner waits, Paris’ price goes up.

With South Carolina’s 93-89 victory over Mississippi State on Saturday afternoon, the Gamecocks wrapped one of the greatest regular seasons in program history. Granted, this is not a men’s basketball program with closets full of rings and chopped-down nets, but perhaps that makes what the Gamecocks did this season that much more impressive.

After winning just 11 games in Paris’ first season, the Gamecocks just completed the first 25-win regular season since men started playing hoops in Columbia. That 14-game year-over-year jump is a program record. The 13 SEC victories are the second most in program history. And the seven road SEC wins — including a victory at No. 5 Tennessee – tied a program record.

Another mark worth noting: This year, South Carolina was 4-1 in one-possession games and 11-3 in contests decided by six points or fewer.

In tight games, where coaching matters the most, the Gamecocks were magnificent. They were magnificent because Paris replaced outgoing five-star freshman G.G. Jackson with a duo of elite grad transfers in B.J. Mack (Wofford) and Ta’Lon Cooper (Minnesota). South Carolina had length, maturity and a desire to defend like wolves who needed to eat.

Undoubtedly, Paris was the best coach in the SEC. He was also the least paid, making an SEC-low $2.2 million this season (though incentives should boost that figure). He is a shoo-in to win the conference’s coach of the year award and many, including Tennessee head man Rick Barnes — think Paris deserves national coach of the year honors.

There are two ways to hand out coach of the year. It’s either the coach of the best team — so probably — Houston’s Kelvin Sampson or UConn’s Danny Hurley — or the coach of the team who best blew expectations out of the water.

While some would make the case for Utah State’s Danny Sprinkle or Iowa State’s T.J. Otzelberger or Washington State’s Kyle Smith, none of those teams lost 20 games last season. None of those squads were picked to finish DEAD LAST in their conference.

Which leads us back to that check.

As odd as it is, Paris is still largely unknown. If you’re not an SEC basketball fan or a die-hard consumer of college basketball, chances are you aren’t familiar with South Carolina men’s basketball — let alone Paris.

That all changes in a week.

The NCAA Tournament will bring more eyeballs. More hype. More notoriety. It will lead to more fans, more boosters, more athletic directors watching upsets and Sweet Sixteen runs and convincing themselves that coach can turn around their program.

That’s why Andy Enfield has a job at Southern California. Ditto for VCU’s Ryan Odom. It’s why Texas retained interim coach Rodney Terry. Heck, it’s arguably why Paris is at South Carolina.

If Chattanooga’s David Jean-Baptiste didn’t nail a buzzer-beater to lift the Mocs to a Southern Conference Championship and a trip to the Big Dance, who knows if Paris would have ever been on South Carolina’s radar.

There are plenty of current athletic directors who either need to fill a basketball coach vacancy or know they’ll need to in a few days — cough, Louisville, cough. Those ADs undoubtedly have a short list of candidates and the better that coach does in March, the more they’ll be coveted.

For example: Let’s say South Carolina wins a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. Folks in Columbia might start reminiscing about 2017 and the deja vu of the Final Four back in Phoenix. Meanwhile, Ohio State supporters might be talking about bringing the hometown kid back to the Buckeye State.

In one season, South Carolina men’s basketball faced apathy. The only reason not to wall up the upper level of Colonial Life Arena was a few concerts and Dawn Staley’s magnificent team. Less than a year later, Paris and his scrappy sharpshooting squad were selling out the 18,000-seat arena as they came up just short of an SEC regular-season title.

And to the argument that this season was a one-off, that he got lucky in the transfer portal and teams that play in close games will eventually lose close games, Paris has a precedent for program-building.

At Chattanooga, the Mocs won more games in every single season aside from the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign. He just kept getting better.

After the Gamecocks lost to No. 4 Tennessee last week, the 49-year-old Ohio native started talking about building houses. Some people, he said, build houses to sell. Those people rush through inspections. They don’t care how thick the insulation is because it’s not going to be them relying on it in the winter.

Then there are others, he mentioned, who build houses to live in. Those are the folks who invest in all the things you can’t see — the foundation and the structure and the electrical wiring. When they start reaching milestones, starting painting walls and moving in furniture, they can rest easy knowing everything behind the walls is solid.

Paris seems ready to start picking out paint colors. That usually takes four or five years. Paris did it in two.

“What we have right now, it’s solidly built,” he said. “That’s a humongous success.”

The next success is making sure Paris isn’t decorating in another city.

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