Back to work for Frank Martin and the South Carolina basketball team after an 11-day break from games for final exams. The men’s team gets undercard billing Wednesday night, with a 5 p.m. game against Appalachian State before the women’s game against No. 1 Stanford at 7:30.
Martin went into the exam break feeling relatively good about the Gamecocks, after a 91-74 win over Jacksonville on Dec. 7 – to follow up inept offensive performances in back-to-back losses to St. John’s and Clemson. Those are USC’s two best non-conference opponents of the season – St. John’s and Clemson – and the Gamecocks did not show up offensively in either game.
The next four games (Appalachian State, Manhattan, Presbyterian and South Carolina State) will serve as a tune-up for the Southeastern Conference schedule, which begins Jan. 9 at Mississippi State. That’s when things will get hot and heavy in Year 1 for Martin, and when the Gamecocks see just how well they can hang against legitimate competition on a nightly basis.
Because Martin has never gone through an exam break with this team, he isn’t sure what to expect Wednesday night as the Gamecocks emerge from the break.
“After that week with St. John’s and Clemson, I probably was ready to go on vacation, to be honest with you, like disappear in the Caribbean somewhere and become a bartender somewhere,” he said. “But after the way we played against Jacksonville, I would have liked to have played the next day.
“We’ll see. It’s the first time I’ve been through it with these guys. You go through these experiences with other teams and you’ve got guys in the locker room that you’ve been through this before (with) and you know how they’re going to react. I’ve never been through it with this team. We had a good week. Guys have been great in practice. I think we’ve made progress. But we’ll see. That’s the unknown because we’re all going through this for the first time as a group. We’ll see how we respond from this break, based on how we come out and play here this week.”
The Gamecocks can focus solely on basketball from now until the second semester. Classes begin Jan. 14, so they will play six games without having to worry about academics, including their SEC home opener, Jan. 12 against Auburn. After the Appalachian State game, they head to the new NBA arena in Brooklyn, N.Y., to face Manhattan on Saturday evening.
“Exam week is a difficult week for practices for the reason being that the guys are stressed out and we emphasize academics in what we do,” Martin said. “The pressure of having to perform well on one exam that’s worth so much for a final grade. Because of the exam schedules, you can’t practice at the same time every day. One day you’re practicing at nine in the morning. The next day you’re practicing at noon. I think one day we practiced at night. It gets you out of routine and out of whack.
“I credit the guys. They were awesome last week. What we tried to do was we spent so much time on defensive stuff in all our preseason that we tried to just really, really focus (during the exam break) on trying to run better offense. We really didn’t do a whole lot of defensive breakdown stuff. It seemed to be productive as the week went on. We’ll see how things move forward now that we’re back in game prep mode. The great thing is, now school is over, and now we can practice 14 hours a day and no one can get mad.”
Offense has been a major issue for USC this season, and Martin saw growth in that area during the exam break.
“Here’s the deal: At the end of the day, the plays don’t make the players, the players make the plays,” Martin said. “But in order for the players to have success within the plays, you need five guys that understand the play, so the spacing is the right way, so there is no paralysis. Offensive basketball is all floor spacing. If the floor is not spaced the right way, if one guy is in the wrong place, it messes it up for everyone else. So good offensive teams, that takes time. That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of repetition and most important, it takes an unbelievable understanding by the guys on the floor to comprehend the concepts, to understand: What are the shots that we’re trying to get when you run certain things? There’s a pecking order.
“I haven’t been in a football huddle in so long, it’s crazy, and all they did was tell me to block the guy in front of me anyway. Quarterback, that’s an amazing athlete to me. Because everyone is trying to knock your head off, and you can’t worry about them, but in your mind, you have to understand what every single person on your offensive line, every receiver and every running back is doing. And while guys are trying to rip your head off, you’re supposed to keep your eyes downfield and focus in on the progressions that you’re coached to do. That takes a lot of discipline, but that’s the understanding that you’ve got to have for your team to have a good offense.
“It’s the same way in basketball. It’s no different. Guys understanding what they do only doesn’t help you offensively. Your center (also) has to know what your point guard does and your point guard has to know what your wing does. As soon as guys have a better understanding of that, you run better offense. I think we’ve made progress. I could be wrong, but based on what I’m seeing, I think we’ve made some progress there – the understanding of our concepts so guys aren’t paralyzed. That’s what I think we’ve gotten better at.”
It was originally thought that point guard Bruce Ellington would not play against Appalachian State, but he will, and then return to football duties. He will miss the Manhattan and Presbyterian games and return versus South Carolina State.
So why did plans change with Ellington playing against Appalachian State? In short, because Ellington wanted to play and football coach Steve Spurrier is letting him. And that’s more than fine with Martin, who doesn’t just hand out praise to any of his players, and has made it clear he really likes Ellington.
“Bruce cares so much,” Martin said. “I didn’t understand this a month ago, because I wasn’t around him every day. But Bruce cares so much about what he does that he invests himself. And when you have a player that invests himself, as a coach, you trust him. So I understand why coach Spurrier trusts him. (Ellington) just wanted to play. It says a lot about coach Spurrier. He’s so unselfish. It would be really easy to say, ‘Absolutely not.’ Because they’ve got a huge game coming up.”
Shooting guard LaShay Page missed the Jacksonville game because of a stomach bug after going a combined 1-of-13 shooting for five points against St. John’s and Clemson. He will try to rebound from those struggles starting Wednesday night.
“He’s perfectly healthy,” Martin said. “He spent two days in bed with his head stuck in a waste basket. But he’s fine. He might be in college, this might be his fifth year, but he’s still 23 years old. He had a bad week. Who knows what happened? We’ve talked about it. Not only are they human beings, but they’re kids. Our job is to make them understand that that can’t happen, but not to worry about a bad day or a bad week. He just didn’t have a very good week. I think he didn’t prepare well going into the St. John’s game and didn’t play well there and I think he just allowed that to impact him in preparation for the Clemson game. But he’s been real good all week and his spirits are up. He’ll be fine.”
Sticking with the backcourt, shooting guard Damien Leonard has barely played this season. He has played in eight of nine games and averaged just 9.6 minutes and 2.5 points. He was a starter for most of last season – 20 of 31 games – and averaged 21 minutes and 6.8 points. He did play 13 minutes against Jacksonville – his most action since the fourth game of the season, against Elon – and shot 0 of 3 while scoring two points. So what’s up with Leonard?
“It’s like when we lose game, it’s always, ‘Well, you guys didn’t do something right,’” Martin said. “Well, maybe the other people did something good. It’s no different as players. I understand everyone is always trying to figure out why some people don’t do well. Maybe he is doing well, but the other guys are doing a little bit better. I don’t think he’s doing anything wrong. There’s other guys who are playing well. It’s not lack of confidence on my part. It’s not that I don’t think he can do the job. There are some things he’s got to do better. Those are between he and I. But it’s not like he’s doing things wrong. It’s not like he’s being benched or disciplined. Those other guys are doing things a little bit better than him. Against Jacksonville, we put him out there with LaShay being sick and he actually did pretty good. Didn’t make any shots. I don’t care about that. He actually did the other things pretty good.”