The numbers say South Carolina is the worst defensive team in the Southeastern Conference.
The Gamecocks allow 68.5 points per game, just behind LSU (68.2), which USC visits Wednesday for its third SEC game of the season, as it seeks its first win. The Gamecocks’ field goal percentage defense is 44.2. Nobody else in the league is worse than Vanderbilt’s 41.6.
USC’s first-year coach, Frank Martin, is a defensive-minded guy who is transitioning his players from the zone they used last year to an aggressive defense that requires lots of pressure by the man guarding the ball-handler, and lots of help from the other perimeter defenders, to cut off the gaps through which the ball-handler could dribble.
Martin has said repeatedly that the foundation of his program will be defense. And he was rightfully pleased with the Gamecocks’ defense in their first SEC game, a two-point loss at Mississippi State in which they held the Bulldogs to 38.8 percent shooting. But USC followed that up by allowing a season-worst 58.5 in a three-point loss to Auburn.
USC’s offense has actually been pretty good this year. The Gamecocks rank seventh in the SEC with 72.5 points per game and fifth with a field goal percentage of 45.6. Obviously, it’s early in the league schedule, and the SEC’s teams have played non-conference schedules with varying degrees of difficulty. So these numbers will be worth more as the season goes on and the teams start playing a more similar level of competition.
But as the Gamecocks come off Saturday’s dreadful-at-times defensive performance against Auburn, defense was a big topic at Martin’s Tuesday press conference. He talked about it at length.
First, though, he began his press conference with a not-so-subtle, but light-hearted, dig at the attention paid to ESPN’s NFL draft analyst, Mel Kiper Jr., and more specifically the media attention paid to Kiper’s lengthy winter teleconferences.
“Who’s getting drafted in the ninth round from Utah State?” Martin said unprompted, as he sat down for the press conference.
He was informed that Kiper’s teleconference isn’t until Wednesday.
“Oh, I thought that’s what you guys wanted to talk to me about,” Martin said. “I even gelled my hair like Mel Kiper.”
Everyone laughed. So what does Martin have against Kiper and his magnificent pompadour?
“Nothing,” Martin said with a smile. “I just love how much time people spend listening to that stuff. My question has always been: If he’s that good, why hasn’t an owner hired him to be his GM? That’s just kind of the way my dumb brain thinks sometimes. I think he’s awesome. More power to him, man. I wish I could have his job. I’ll be honest with you. It’s a lot less stressful than having to sit here and talk about our late-game execution.”
And, of course, coming off losses of two and three points to start SEC play, the first question was about late-game execution. Martin chuckled before answering it, but obliged with a thorough response.
“Against Mississippi State, it’s a little different because they’re in that 1-3-1 zone and that’s kind of more on my shoulders than the players’ shoulders because probably didn’t spend as much time as we needed to in preparing for that, which is not an excuse. Mike (Carrera) and Bruce (Ellington), who are two main cogs in our team, combined had three practices in a month (leading into that game). We didn’t get it done.
“The other day here (against Auburn), I watched that film over and over. Eric Smith makes back-to-back 3s and has a wide-open 3 and shoots an air ball. Michael Carrera makes a heck of a post move, has a layup, misses. I don’t know what to tell you. Those kids are trying their hearts out. We’re there. We’ve got to have the confidence to make those plays in that moment. We’ve got to make that layup. Eric’s worked so hard. He’s earned the right to be a good player because of the time that he’s put in. He spent the whole Christmas break in that gym shooting the ball. It’s no surprise that in the second half, he shot those 3s like, ‘You know what? I’m making these.’ We just need him to keep growing and accepting that responsibility.
“It starts with me believing in him. If I’m in the background telling him, ‘Hey, why are you shooting the ball? Don’t you ever shoot the ball. Hey, you’re not good enough. Hey, why are you doing this? It’s not your moment.’ He’s not going to have any confidence in himself. A lot of times people see me ranting and raving, and that’s OK. But you can ask the players. Never will you ever hear me tell a player that he’s not good enough. On the contrary. One of the things that aggravates me the most is when a player doesn’t believe in himself as much as I believe in him. That comes with time. That’ll come.”
Martin had a lot to say about teaching the Gamecocks to play his style of defense.
“It’s hard to play that way. It’s hard. You’re pressing up on people and then the guy on the ball, you’re asking him to press up on the ball, which is something we’ve got to get better at, because now, by putting Bruce in there, Bruce has to understand the consistency that you have to guard the basketball with. It’s new to him, too. As good a player as I think he can be, it’s brand new to him. He doesn’t understand it yet. Just like Eric didn’t understand it back in October. Well, Eric has worked at it.
“At the end of the day, basketball is a game of spacing. Defensively, you’re protecting the paint. That’s it. You don’t want the ball in the paint. There’s different ways of doing that. You can play a 2-3 zone and pack it in. You can play a soft man-to-man. I don’t like that. It’s not who I am. I like aggressive, get after people. You’ve heard me say this before: As a coach, nothing aggravates me more on offense than when guys hold the ball. It drives me nuts. I think it’s bad basketball. Pass the basketball. There’s an open guy. Pass the basketball.
“For example, Brian Richardson shoots a 3 late in that (Auburn) game off of dribble penetration. The guy ran at him. (Richardson) has Damien (Leonard) wide open, who’s made five (3s), for a wide-open 3. Well, Brian shot it. I’m not going to tell Brian it’s a bad shot. But we’re going to show him on film that we’ve got penetration, we’ve got the kick, now your (defender) is running at you, and you’ve got to make that next pass. That’s a learning process. You understand what I’m saying? So offensively, you always want to pass the ball, pass the ball, pass the ball, don’t hold the basketball.
“Well, defensively conversely, the way I’ve created my mindset is if I know I want to pass the ball on offense, well, defensively I don’t want you to pass the ball. I want you to play one-on-one. It’s what we try to get guys to understand. That takes time. It’s different. It’s not easy. It’s hard. Because you’re asking guys to get out and extend. But the thing that’s awesome about it is when guys start really getting it, they start trusting each other, and then they believe that ‘I can go press up on this ball because my partner is sitting on that gap right next to me and he’s protecting me and my bigs are where they need to be back there, so when this (opponent) puts his head down and tries to drive me, I know I’ve got people to help me.’ And that’s what we want them to do. As we keep getting better, it becomes something that’s fun.
“It’s just different. You’re asking people to play in a way that’s different than how they played before. So that takes time. We’ve been defending pretty good. The one thing we’ve done a little too much is foul. That’s something we’ve got to get better at. It’s too deep in the year for us to be fouling so much. But we have been defending pretty good.
“Now we’re trying to incorporate Bruce and Mike back into the rotation. We need their energy. We need their toughness. But their lack of practice repetition, sometimes they’re not where they belong. As a coach, you’ve got to manage that. But we’ll be all right. There’s one thing about our locker room, and I’ve learned this: Those guys trust one another. They believe in one another. It’s just a matter of us continuing … growth and change doesn’t happen just because I walked in the building. That happens over time.
“That happens as we all go through these experiences together and the most important part takes place, that we continue committed to one another, my belief in them as players and their belief in each other and our staff as coaches, that that doesn’t deviate from the direction it’s been going in. It needs to continue to go in the direction it’s in and as long as that’s happening, I’m happy, and that’s kind of why I’m encouraged with what I see right now.”
Martin knows it’s a battle to get young kids to play the type of team defense he requires.
“That’s where our culture, our game, has changed. No one practices anymore at the grassroots level. High schools play 20 games. That’s it. So that means they probably practice for 50 days a year, 60 days a year. So outside of those 60, 70 days, whatever it is, no one ever practices. Let’s just show up and play. Let’s just play. Let’s go play. Let’s play. Well, you know what they learn when they play? ‘Well, I’ve got my man. You’ve got yours. Take care of your business, and I’ll take care of mine.’ Because that’s how you play when you don’t practice, because everything is individually.
“Everyone watches the NBA. Everybody wants to be in the next NBA guy, which is fine. But the NBA is a completely different game because the defensive rules are set up to showcase one-on-one matchups. The shot clock is short so you have a lot of one-on-one matchups. Well, what happens in one-on-one matchups? I say this to everybody. I tell this to our players all the time. Why do you think in the NBA there are 32 teams and 20 of them absolutely stink? They’re multi-millionaires, they’re professional organizations, they’ve got guys on their teams that if you play them one-on-one, they beat you 15-0 every time. Because there’s not a commitment to the team game on both ends of the floor. And then there’s 10, 12 teams that are real good, and you watch who plays in the NBA Finals and the conference championships every year, it’s always the teams that do the best job of playing on both ends of the floor as a team.
“And that’s why it’s so important that we practice. Everyone wants to get better in games and, yeah, you’ve got to get better in games. But we practice 120-some-odd times this year. Every day in practice, we rehearse our rules, our responsibilities, we put our guys in repetition, so they learn to grow in it, learn to understand the importance of playing a certain way and playing together. And we’re halfway there this year. When you watched us play the very first game we played this year (in an exhibition against Kentucky Wesleyan) and now you watch us play, do you think we’re a better team, yes or no?”
Yes, USC is better.
“Well, that’s my opinion, too. That’s the only thing I keep my focus on. I think we’re better defensively. I think we’re better offensively. We just need to continue to grow. It takes time. But what you’re saying is what it’s all about. The style of defense we play is very team-oriented.
“For example, we got in trouble against Auburn defending the post. But it wasn’t just the post defender. I was furious with our post defenders because outside of Michael Carrera, everyone else played behind Rob Chubb (position-wise). Well, we’re not supposed to play behind. That’s the easy way out. But our perimeter defense wasn’t as good as it needed to be, and we allowed the ball to get to places where that became a problem.
“We have to get better at keeping the ball further out on the floor. To do that, it’s not a one-man effort. It’s a collective effort – how the guy on the ball pressures the ball, then how guys get in gaps and extend the wings to make them catch higher (further out on the floor). That takes time. I’ll say it again. I thought we were defending pretty darn good, and now I’m reintroducing two guys to the lineup, so their energy, their toughness are things that are helping us. But at the same time, like those two guys (Ellington and Carrera), I won’t let them come out of practice, because they need as many repetitions as they can get.”
LSU starts 6-9, 256-pound Johnny O’Bryant and 7-3, 254-pound Andrew Del Piero in the post. USC has 6-11, 255-pound Laimonas Chatkevicius and 6-8, 220-pound RJ Slawson, but Martin opts to use Carrera (6-5, 212) and Lakeem Jackson (6-5, 235) as his primary forwards. Mindaugas Kacinas (6-7, 210) got into the starting lineup when Carrera was out with a hip injury and has continued to start. But none of those three guys are true post players. They’re wings.
Consider that Slawson has not started the past five games. He started every game this season before that. His minutes have gone down in the past eight games (13, 10, 13, 18, 16, 13, eight, nine). Chatkevicius, who is still raw, hasn’t started yet and is averaging 9.7 minutes. His minutes in the past six games: six, seven, 13, four, 18, two.
Will Martin need more from Slawson in the LSU game? What has caused Slawson’s playing time to decrease?
“Let me say something to you guys, because you guys are getting to know me and I’m getting to know you. If you guys continue to ask me about why guys play and don’t play, I’m eventually not going to answer those questions. I couldn’t care less. I’m just telling you. We’ve got a team and I’m going to play the guys that I feel are prepared to play. I’m not going to address when I decide to play a guy and not play a guy. If a guy’s not in uniform, then I’ll be more than happy to explain why he’s not playing. But guys that are playing are the guys that I feel are best prepared to help us win. That doesn’t mean that guys that don’t play I don’t like or they’re in the dog house. None of that stuff. All that to me is irrelevant.”
And then Martin basically explained why certain post guys play and others don’t.
“RJ’s doing everything we ask of him. He actually practiced his tail off yesterday. Post defense, Michael Carrera is our shortest post player, yet he’s our best post defender because he doesn’t play behind (position-wise). Post defense is not just a guy guard the post. A guy who played for us at Cincinnati and is still with the Pistons, Jason Maxiell. Max is 6-6. Detroit played Shaq (in the NBA Finals), and he guarded Shaq one-on-one. Now how is that possible? How is it possible that a 6-6 guy can guard Shaq? He guarded Dwight Howard in the playoffs one-on-one. How is that possible?
“Well, I’ll tell you how it’s possible, because he’s relentless in his toughness and his work ethic and then (the Pistons) had Tayshaun Prince and they had all these other long guards on the perimeter that made people catch the ball further out and then made it hard for the guy with the ball to pass it into the post. We’ve got to get to that. Defending the post is not size. I’ve coached 7-foot guys that are the worst post defenders in the history of mankind. So it’s not about size. It’s about you’ve got to have a level of toughness to guard in there and then you need your teammates on the perimeter to help you out.
“I told the team yesterday that the most unathletic player I’ve probably coached is a guy named Luis Colon. About 6-10, 260 pounds, was our starting center at K-State. I probably have more athleticism than him. That’s how scary it is. Yet we played Blake Griffin when he was at Oklahoma, and Luis guarded him one-on-one. Because of his toughness, he never let Blake catch the ball on the block, never played behind, pushed him further out. But then that defense on the perimeter – (Denis) Clemente, (Jacob) Pullen, Dominique Sutton – they pushed the Oklahoma guards further out on the floor.
“So at the end of the day, Blake had 28 points or something like that, but he took 25 shots to get the 28 points. That’s good defense in my book. When I prepare a team, if that’s what we get, that’s good defense. That negates having to double (Griffin). That way, he doesn’t throw out (to an open player), and now the floor is shrunk so now guys are shooting wide-open step-in 3s. That’s demoralizing. I’m sure Blake didn’t feel like playing that day. I’m sure he watched film and he said, ‘God, I’ve really got to play against this guy?’ At the end of the day, you do.
“And I don’t know what his preparation was like, but I know what ours was like. We never went into the game saying, ‘Oh my God, how do we defend him?’ It’s never part of it. Size, pictures, all that stuff is irrelevant. At the end of the day, you’ve got to have a certain toughness and discipline about your team and it’s a collective effort.
“That’s why teams that are dependent on one guy I always say are so easy to defend. Because you can always negate one guy. When you’ve got to guard multiple guys, that’s a problem, and LSU presents that problem because they’ve got three guys that can all shoot it, drive it, pass it, and they make it difficult. And then if you include O’Bryant to that group as an inside scorer, it creates a problem.”
Those three guys Martin mentioned are LSU’s three starting guards. Here is what Martin had to say about LSU and a bunch of other things from his press conference …
** “O’Bryant is a high-profile high school kid. You watch him on tape and you understand the talent, the ability to score, to rebound. He’s a double-double waiting to happen. The young man that starts at center (Del Piero, a former walk-on tuba player in LSU band who earned a basketball scholarship), what a story. I think that’s an awesome story.
“Then they have those three guards (Andre Stringer, Charles Carmouche, Anthony Hickey). I’m just telling you, you guys wonder what coaches lose sleep about. Well, I’m going to tell you what I’ve lost sleep about for two days. With our turnover problems and as aggressive as those three guards (are), if you take a lazy dribble or make a lazy pass, they make it into a comedy show, the way they steal the ball. Believe me, I’ve lost sleep on that one. All three of them shoot it.
“Marquette was playing them and Hickey single-handedly brought LSU all the way back and gave them the lead at Marquette (which went on to win by four). It was incredible. His persona gave the rest of them confidence to go make plays. They’re good. I hear all this talk about the SEC and it’s funny. It really is comical to me. I think LSU has a good team.”
LSU leads the SEC with 10.5 steals per game. USC averages a league-high 17.6 turnovers.
** Martin said over the summer that he wanted to see shooting guard Damien Leonard spend more of his own time working on his game in the gym. Leonard has come on strong of late. He had the best game of his season-plus college career against Auburn – 17 points, nine rebounds, five of eight 3-pointers made.
Martin knows Leonard can shoot. It’s the other aspects of the game – especially defense – that were preventing Leonard from playing earlier in the season. If you can’t defend, you’re not going to play for Martin, and Leonard had to improve that area of his game.
“Everyone in our program needs to understand that you need to approach this every single day with a sense of urgency, that if you don’t have it, I’m not going to play you. It’s just as simple as that. I don’t care what credentials you have. I don’t care if I recruited you or some guy in wherever recruited you. I don’t care. If you’re going to wear our uniform, there’s a certain work ethic, a commitment that you’re going to have.
“And I thought Damien needed to learn how to come into this gym and make this extremely important, and he’s done that. I told him yesterday, ‘Damien, the first couple weeks of the season, I couldn’t put you in the game because you were so bad defensively that it was embarrassing to our team. But you’ve committed to getting better, and you’re still nowhere near where you need to be, but the sense that committed to improve, that you’ve put in time, that you’re working at it, that’s deserving of reward.’
“That’s what life’s all about. You do your part, you get rewarded. You don’t do your part, you don’t get rewarded. That’s the way I was raised. That’s the way I’ve learned. And he’s done his part, so he’s getting rewarded with playing time. And he’s done some good things while he’s out there, so he’s earning my trust little by little. The more you put in, the more you get back, in whatever you do. The less you put in, the less you get back. He’s learning how to put in the time that you need to put in. I have a little phrase that I try to live life by: You need to earn the right. And he’s earning the right to become a good player.”
** Guard Brenton Williams is still USC’s leading scorer, with 11.5 points. But he has played just six minutes in each of the past two games and scored two and zero points. What’s up there?
“If I felt he was more prepared to play, he would have played more minutes. I feel other guys have done a better job of preparing. I told you guys before that I’ve got to make decisions day in and day out, and every decision I make is to give our team the best chance to win, and those are decisions I make.”
** Martin again said that he doesn’t pay attention to the win-loss record, and that he examines his team more deeply than that as he tries to build a program.
“If I let people in our locker room that are demoralized by a score, then our guys would be demoralized. My tenure here as a basketball coach will not be judged on graduation rate, because I’ve graduated every player with the exception of one in my career. And not because our guys do a gazillion hours of community services. Our teams will always be in the head of the class with how many hours they do of community service. No one ever speaks about that. And I understand that. It’s no problem to me. At the end of the day, they’re going to say, ‘Well, his record is so-and-so. He either won enough or he didn’t win enough.’ If he didn’t win enough, they’ll send me back to the rock I came from. OK? Simple as that. I’m OK with that.
“I don’t work based on that. Since I don’t work that way, we don’t speak to our players about doom and gloom or let’s have a parade. We talk to our guys about preparing every single day. Keep the outside noise out of the locker room. I told them yesterday, because if I don’t address it, if I don’t speak about it, someone else is to them, through Twitter or Facebook, text messages, some old coach, some uncle, whatever. They’re going to put thoughts in their minds that get them thinking about the wrong things. So if I don’t engage in conversation with them, then I can’t blame an 18- or a 19-year-old for acting the way I would when I was 18 or 19. OK?
“So what I spoke to them about is I said, ‘Listen, you guys have been around me for a while now. If we were 15-0 instead of 10-5, do you think I’d come in here with a different attitude than I have right now?’ They all said no. I said, ‘So obviously, I don’t give a rat’s you know what about the record. I don’t care what happened yesterday. I care about us competing today.’ That’s the focus that we as a staff try to keep and I think our team is understanding that.
“Our practice yesterday was awesome. I’ve said this before: Bruce and Michael Carrera give us a personality, something that we need. LaShay (Page, who is out for the rest of the season because of academics) gave us a personality and something this team needs. We need a personality. Because let’s just be honest here. We’re asking guys that never got in a game last year to be front-line guys. And I’m OK with that. I believe in them. It’s going to take them for them to engage that responsibility. I’m perfectly fine with that. I’m in no rush to get to the finish line.”