Offense was a big talking point for Frank Martin this week, in his press conference and during practices. South Carolina was abysmal on offense in last week’s losses to St. John’s and Clemson, and while Jacksonville is not as good as either of those teams on defense, the Gamecocks delivered an improved offensive showing Friday night in a 91-74 victory.
They shot 55.4 percent and had 20 assists. They had 10 assists in each of the past two games, and they shot 36.9 and 34.6 percent in those games.
“We had a good week of practice,” Martin said. “I really felt that we put three consecutive real practices together with tremendous enthusiasm and personality and discipline. It was good to see our guys be willing to do that. I think that’s why we played as well as we did the first 27 minutes of the game or so.
“That’s a positive step. It’s important that we comprehend that when you prepare right, you give yourself a chance to play right. Last week, we didn’t prepare well so it was a frustrating week. Like I try to tell them all the time, you get what you deserve, and hopefully we learn from that.”
USC finished with 17 turnovers but had just five in the first half, after which it led 57-30.
“We didn’t have those bad turnovers that deflate you, so instead of being deflated, we gained confidence and aggressiveness because we took good shots and we didn’t turn it over,” Martin said.
Point guard Bruce Ellington wasn’t USC’s leading scorer Friday. He had 12 points. Michael Carrera had 17 and backup guard Brian Richardson had 16 on 5-of-6 shooting, including 4-of-4 on 3-pointers. In the previous three games combined, Richardson had nine points on 2-of-13 shooting. But in his second week of practice, Ellington had a major impact on USC, and it’s pretty clear that Martin, who doesn’t always praise everybody, really likes Ellington.
“There’s one guy that I can tell you now that I’ve been around him for seven, eight, nine days, so I’m getting a feel for him, and I can tell you what he doesn’t like, and he doesn’t like losing,” Martin said. “And that’s Bruce Ellington. I saw a completely different Bruce in practice this week. I saw a guy that took last week personally. Last week, he practiced and he tried but he was just trying to learn and kind of fit in. This week, he kind of put his personality into it a little bit, and his leadership ability kind of carried over to some of those other guys.
“So Eric Smith had the best practice week he’s had all year. I think it’s no surprise that you see him go out there and play as well as he did on both ends of the floor today. Eric’s really trying, really, really trying. But he’s got to find that confidence. And I think Bruce’s practice week helped Eric this week, so Eric probably spoke more this week than he has the rest of the past two months combined.
“Things spread on your team, whether negative or positive. And all of a sudden, guys start talking and taking demand and the next guy talks, and before you know it, they don’t shut up. And then as a coach, you can kind of sit down because they’re kind of doing their own stuff and you let them be. I think that started with the week Bruce brought into practice this week. He’s an interesting personality and I enjoy being around him. He’s definitely a competitor and he’s definitely about winning.
“In practice, he matches up with Eric. Now they go against each other. Bruce is getting us into offense (in practice), and that’s putting Eric in a situation where now he’s got to defend a real good player (Ellington), and when Eric’s on offense, he’s got to get us into offense against a real good player (Ellington). That competitiveness between those two guys carried over to the way we played collectively. Competition makes you a better team. It’s the best.”
Martin wanted more communication on offense. That was the No. 1 thing he harped on this week. So he had to be pleased to see Ellington bring that out of Smith. It paid off with a nice game for Smith on Friday – seven points, seven assists, one turnover.
Ellington likely won’t play in USC’s next game, Dec. 19 against Appalachian State (or the two after that). He will return Jan. 5 against South Carolina State. But because the start date for pre-bowl practices hasn’t been determined yet, Ellington will continue to practice with the basketball team until those football practices begin, Martin said.
Martin also had some good comments about the role of Richardson, who averaged 3.2 points last season and shot 29.9 percent, including 23.3 on 3-pointers. He seems to be getting his confidence back.
“I’m not into pigeonholing people,” Martin said of Richardson’s role. “I’ve never understood why we try to always pigeonhole people into being something – well, he’s that. Just be a good player, man. I never recruited him. I had no idea what he can and can’t do. But I know he told me that he couldn’t make a shot and he lost his confidence. I said, ‘Well, impact the game in other ways.’ The game is played in different ways. It’s not just about shooting the basketball. How about defending, how about making a pass, how about maybe driving the ball? He’s got some length, he’s got some athleticism. He can do some good things for us.
“He had a good week. He wasn’t good last week. He was good the week before that. That’s why he’s helped us win games. (Assistant coach) Brad Underwood is on him every day. Brian has the ability to become a real, real, real good defensive player, because of his athleticism and his length. He has a good mind for the game. Now he just has to believe in himself that he can do it. But I’m not into pigeonholing. Impact games, man. It’s not just about shooting 3s. Do different things and believe in what you’re doing. If you can’t make a shot, then get to the foul line and make a free throw. Maybe that will make you feel better. What we saw today, I’m a true believer that preparation leads to confidence and confidence leads to your ability to perform when you’re on the stage, and we performed on the stage today because we prepared the right way, and all of those guys went into this game with a lot of confidence on their side.”