Another Southeastern Conference game, another narrowly missed opportunity for South Carolina.
After dropping its SEC opener 56-54 at Mississippi State on Wednesday, the Gamecocks fell 74-71 on Saturday to Auburn, which, like Mississippi State and USC, is expected to struggle.
Before the Feb. 2 home game against Georgia, which is a very good chance for a victory, the Gamecocks have to play LSU, Vanderbilt, Missouri, Arkansas and Florida. They get two of those at home – Vanderbilt and Arkansas – but all five of those games are going to be tough. After this 0-2 start, USC could be looking at a 0-7 start to league play.
Remember, if USC wins six games in league play, it would assure itself of avoiding its fourth consecutive losing overall record. Now, USC needs to go 6-10 down the stretch in league play for that to happen. Not impossible, but the chances for victories are running out. The Gamecocks don’t play Auburn again. They still have two games left against Georgia, one against Mississippi State and two against LSU, though LSU isn’t a terrible team by any means.
Now that the Gamecocks are 0-2 in the league, in two winnable games, they are going to have to win a game that they’re not expected to win. It could certainly happen, since they played well Saturday against an Auburn team that beat Florida State and is playing better. But Martin was still frustrated by coming so close to his first SEC victory and missing out.
Here now, the highlights of his postgame comments …
** The last play, a desperate missed 3-pointer by Bruce Ellington, was botched by Mindaugas Kacinas being out of position when he took Ellington’s in-bounds pass, then passed it back to Ellington in the corner. Martin explained his strategy and what went wrong …
“Mindaugas ran to the corner (before the ball was inbounded) and I have no idea why. As you can tell, we put four perimeter guys out there and we ran some dummy action at the beginning just to get (Auburn) sucked in and then we sprinted three guys backside (on the opposite side of the court from the inbounds pass), outside the 3. The idea was to screen with Eric (Smith) on Mindaugas, if (Auburn) switched, which is what most people do in that moment of the game. Now you’ve got a point guard guarding your 6-8 guy (Kacinas)
“So we can throw the ball inbounds (to Kacinas) right at the 12-foot mark, and (Kacinas) can turn around and have Bruce popping strong-side corner, and now (Kacinas) can turn around and hit Bruce or he can skip that ball diagonally to the guys that we’re setting up (the other guards on the opposite side). We were also trying to set a backside flair (screen) once the ball came in bounds.
“But Mindaugas ran to the corner. And once you run to the corner, now you’ve completely negated the backside action (with the other guards), and now you allow (Auburn) to do what they did to Bruce in the corner (crowd him). You congest the 3-point line and it’s unfortunate. But the game, we had plenty of plays in the last four minutes and we wouldn’t make them. We’ve got to learn how to make those plays.”
Martin clarified about where Kacinas was supposed to be.
“He was supposed to go around that 12-foot short corner, right on the baseline right there. That way, when you catch it there, now you pressure the back side of the defense with the shooters and you isolate everyone over there (on the opposite side of the court) and now Bruce steps in behind the 3 and he’s got a chance to get a shot. But (Kacinas) ran to the corner, so now the whole defense is in the corner, so now how’s Bruce going to shoot the ball from the 3 if (Kacinas) is standing outside the 3 in the corner? That also negates the back side. It’s a freshman mistake. He’ll learn from it.”
** Auburn shot 58.5 percent, while USC shot 45.6. USC held Mississippi State to 38.8. Saturday was the fourth time this season that a team shot better than 50 percent against USC. None of them shot better than Auburn did.
“Welp, it’s unfortunate. We played a good defensive game on the road (at Mississippi State) and didn’t play well offensively (39.2 percent, 24 turnovers) and got beat and now we come home and we play pretty good on offense and not very good on defense and get beat. Like I told the team, the bright side is that we’re knocking on the door. We’re right there. There’s a lot of plays that we can make that we’re leaving on the court – the layups or rebounds that we’ve got to get, simple passes that we’ve got to make. That’s two games that if we just make one more layup, one more play, we’re probably sitting at 2-0 right now. I’m a lot more encouraged than I am discouraged. I think as we continue to fight to learn how to win these kind of games, it’s going to be a whole lot of fun when we figure things out.
“Our defense wasn’t any good today. We played hard. Don’t misunderstand me. Our kids fought. I’m not selling kids down the road. Our attention to detail defensively wasn’t good. We let them catch the ball wherever they wanted. They’ve got too many shooters so when they catch the ball so deep on the floor, number one, it puts a lot of pressure on our post defense when you’re going against a four-year guy like Rob Chubb that understands. Coming down the stretch, he had some big-time plays for them. We’d be right there to make a play where maybe we could get a two-possession lead, and he’d come down and make a big-time play, whether it be an offensive rebound or a solid post-up or make a pass.
“Our defense wasn’t very good today. We really tried, but we got away from our principles. The way we defend, we’re not the biggest team in the country. I think you’d agree with that statement. That doesn’t make you good or bad. It’s just who you are. Our ball pressure and our perimeter defense has to be real good. Today, we gave in as the game wore on. The pickup point of the ball (by USC’s guards) started coming deeper and deeper on the floor and that puts a lot more pressure on the defenders behind you. We’re not big enough to play that way.”
Playing behind (position-wise) in the post is a recipe for disaster for any team, especially USC.
“You can’t play behind in the post. I coached a guy at K-State name Jordan Henriquez. He averaged five blocks a game coming down the stretch last year in Big 12 play. If he played behind in the post, I took him out of the game. Now, he’s 7-1 with a 7-7 wingspan. You can’t play behind in the post. You can’t. You can’t. It cannot happen. And our guys tend to end up getting behind in the post. Because that’s what they do in high school.
“You understand what I’m saying? They just play back there, they don’t fight, they’re a little bigger than most guys they play against so they’re used to just being in people’s way. You can’t play behind in the post and we’ve got to do a better job there. But what happens is, when the guys on the perimeter don’t fight to extend that offense a little higher up on the floor so then that post entry (pass) is a little longer, it makes it hard when you’re a little smaller in the post. We’ve just got to be better. It’s plain and simple.
“We had opportunities to make some plays. Let’s give you a real quick moment. We’re actually making a couple baskets. We score, they score. We score, they score. We score, and we score on a heck of a play, and we’ve got to get a stop. Let’s get a stop. We’re rolling right now on offense. They’re tired. Let’s get a stop. They didn’t run offense. They just cut Frankie (Sullivan) to the wing there, he caught it, took his time, caught his breath, took one dribble, stuck his shoulder in Brian Richardson and Brian fell down and (Sullivan) jumped up and made a shot.
“Do you think that’s real good offense? I do. Because that’s a real good player making a winning play. Brian can’t fall down there. You can’t. You see what I’m saying? That’s what we have to learn. That moment right there, it’s not time to try and take a charge. You’ve got to play strong and like a man right there. I talked about the rebound Rob Chubb grabbed for a three-point play. Well, Mike shoots a layup coming down the stretch there and there might have been contact. Whatever. It hit the bottom of the rim. You’ve got to make the layup. You see what I’m saying? You’ve got to make those plays. That comes with time. You’ve got to be fearless in your approach and that’s something our guys are learning little by little.”
** Shooting guard Damien Leonard played the best game of his career – 17 points and nine rebounds. USC needs guards to step up with LaShay Page done for the year (academics), and Leonard was superb Saturday.
“That’s what happens when you’ve got guys who are doing their jobs every day in practice. Some days, a guy rolls his ankle and sometimes a guy is in foul trouble and now you call their number and they’re prepared for the moment. And that’s what he’s been doing. My confidence in him has grown. Damien makes some toughness plays for that we’ve got to have. Defensively, he’s got to get better on the perimeter. He’s leaps and bounds from where he was at. That’s the only reason he’s on the court right now. But there are still a lot of things that he’s got to do better for us out there.
“But he grabs nine rebounds and we’ve got front-line guys that play 40 minutes and grab one. I don’t understand that. We had a huge possession there coming down the stretch where Mike (Carrera) rotates over to take a charge and they kind of throw it up there and you’ve got to go get that rebound, and we don’t. Who comes up with it? Chubb. Now, it’s a basket, three-point play. You’ve got to go get that ball and we didn’t.”
** Ellington, who had 18 points, was also much better than he was at Mississippi State, his first basketball game since Dec. 19. His performance underscores Martin’s hope for this team.
“I haven’t been around him a heck of a whole lot, but I can tell you in the time I’ve been around him, he’s got a lot of pride and he likes to win and he’s not scared to make a play. So based on the last couple days in practice, I knew he’d play a lot better today. He’ll keep getting better. He doesn’t understand half the things we do defensively, but he plays with such energy and toughness that it gives him a chance.
“Our guys are trying. They really are. BCS basketball is unforgiving. You can try real hard and kind of feel like you’re not getting stuff done. But our guys are getting a lot of stuff done. I’m real encouraged by what I’m seeing.
“I don’t pay attention the record. People pay attention to the record. I get it. I understand. We don’t win, you guys will be talking to someone else in four years. I know how the deal works. I don’t pay attention to all that stuff. I pay attention to my guys – are we playing the game the right way, are we getting better? If I start telling our guys, ‘Oh, we’re 0-4. My God, we’re never going to win,’ what do you think they’re going to do? You understand what I’m saying? I don’t worry about that stuff. I really don’t. I couldn’t care less. We could be 0-27.
“I had my first year coaching in 1985. We went through a seven-game losing streak. I was a junior varsity basketball coach, and I beat those poor kids up because they were losing. You know what, that didn’t help us win any games. The only thing that’s important is that we understand that we’re doing things right. What we’re not doing right, let’s correct it, let’s keep fighting, let’s get a little better, let’s worry about what we can control, which who we are every day. And all that other stuff will take care of itself.”
** Guard Brian Richardson had been the guy who stepped up in Page’s absence. His past six games: 16, 11, 12, 16, 15 and 20 points. He had zero Saturday as Auburn focused on him. How he adjusts to that defensive focus down the stretch will be a big key for USC.
“B-Rich just got in foul trouble early and he just really couldn’t get going. You’re in the SEC, so guess what? Auburn’s coaches collect a paycheck like me. They told them, ‘Hey, this guy is playing well right now. Don’t give him any open looks.’ When he was in there, that zone extended to him and he couldn’t get himself in a flow. But other guys did. That zone paid so much attention to him when he was in there that created opportunities for others. Bruce stepped up. Damien stepped up. Eric Smith stepped up. We got the ball inside the zone because now that zone gets spread out and those guys on the inside of the zone make good plays for us. It’s part of playing conference ball. That’s why when guys are all-conference players, that’s why they’re so good, because everyone in the league knows what they do and you try to take them out and you still can’t.”