Frank Martin does not have a lot of talent to work with in his first season as South Carolina’s basketball coach. That much is obvious.
A team that goes 10-21 and 2-14 in the Southeastern Conference, as USC did last season, and then loses three starters (leading scorer Malik Cooke, Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris) … well, you can pretty much figure that the following season is not going to be all rosy.
USC has done some good things this season, most notably last week’s games – a six-point loss at Missouri and a 21-point win over Arkansas. But typical of a team in transition, this week did not unfold nearly as well. The Gamecocks got smoked by 39 at Florida on Wednesday, and then on Saturday afternoon, they were lifeless in a 67-56 loss to Georgia.
The Bulldogs shot 58.1 percent, the second highest USC has allowed all season, while the Gamecocks shot 35.8 percent, their fifth-worst clip of the year.
This is the inconsistent play – a strong week here, a crummy one there – that will happen when you don’t have a lot of talent and you’re trying to master a new system, especially on defense, where Martin’s aggressive approach is a stark change from the zone Darrin Horn used last year.
USC is now creeping back toward .500 – 12-9 overall, 2-6 in league play. The Gamecocks must close 4-6 if they want to lock up their first winning regular season since 2008-09.
In Saturday’s postgame press conference, Martin blamed himself for USC’s shoddy play this week. Almost every answer he gave included some variation of: I must do my job better.
Of course Martin isn’t going to come out and say USC is struggling because it doesn’t have enough talented players, even though everybody knows that has a lot to do with it.
To be fair, Horn did a pretty good job of recruiting. Gill, Harris and Bruce Ellington were all promising prospects, but Gill and Harris are gone, and so is the academically ineligible fifth-year senior guard LaShay Page, a Martin guy who was providing valuable leadership for this team.
So Martin ripped himself – over and over in Saturday’s press conference. He flat-out said he didn’t want to blame players for lack of effort. While there is no reason to doubt Martin’s criticism that he must coach better – he has been brutally honest about a lot this season, including candidly critiquing his players at times – there is clearly more to USC’s struggles than that.
Nobody expected the Gamecocks to win at Florida, just as nobody expects them to win their next game, Tuesday at Kentucky. Saturday’s meeting with Georgia was a winnable game, even though the Bulldogs had been playing well and have now won four of their past five.
But after starting 0-2 in SEC play and responding by going 2-2 in their next four games, the Gamecocks have put together another 0-2 run that could very well be 0-3 by the time they return home on Feb. 10-14 for back-to-back home games against Tennessee and LSU.
Here now, Martin’s comments about what went down, and what didn’t, on Saturday …
“Obviously, extremely disappointed. I’ve done just a poor job this past week of getting our guys ready to play. I’ve got to do my job a heck of a lot better. My staff’s been on me about that, and I’m not going to expand on that. That’s between me, my staff and my players. But I’ve done a bad job this week. That’s got to change.”
Georgia shot 55 percent in the first half and 60.9 in the second, even though leading scorer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was limited to just three points in the second half after scoring 16 in the first.
“Pope made some shots early. I think that gave them confidence. We were just bad (on defense). No energy, no discipline, no life. We were just bad. They caught the ball wherever they wanted it. Those guys who had asked me questions about my concerns about playing against them, is their size on the perimeter. So we had to do a good job of making them catch the ball further out on the floor. But to do those things, there’s a certain level of discipline and toughness that you have to play with. A week ago today, we played with those things. This past week, we have not. That comes down on me. I’ve got to do a better job there.”
Offensively, USC shot 39.3 percent in the first half, 32 in the second.
“I thought we ran pretty good offense for a while today and then we had segments where just the ball sticks. It doesn’t move. And now all of a sudden, you get into the 10-second mark of the shot clock, you haven’t moved the defense and now you’re going to depend on a ball screen and a Hail Mary (shot) to have a good possession, and that’s bad basketball. We didn’t play like that a week ago today (against Arkansas, when USC shot a season-best 57.7 percent). We’ve got to correct that. We’ve got to do a better job there. When you get opportunities, you’ve got to make them. You’ve got to make some shots.
“Mark did a much better job of preparing his team to play today than I did. Coming in, they were a team that’s playing with tremendous confidence, and you can see that when you watch them play. They’ve had some real good wins. They continued to play with that confidence today and we never had an answer. It’s league play. Here’s the deal: It’s league play and it’s February. The deeper into the year you go, the harder the games get, so you’ve got to have an unbelievable amount of courage, of discipline, of toughness, so you can deal with the games, because the games get harder. They don’t get easier the deeper you go into the year. Obviously, this past week, we didn’t answer the bell.
“We got real stagnant on offense (in the second half) and because of their size, if we don’t move them, it’s going to be hard to pass or score against them because they’re so much longer than we are. We got real stagnant. Up until that one little streak where we got back-to-back baskets, a 3-pointer and a steal, layup, foul, outside of that, we got nothing like that the whole second half. Everybody just stood around and played with no energy. But Georgia has a lot to do with that. They played the game the way that they were prepared to play. And that impacted us in a negative way. I’ve got to prepare our guys to play the game a little better.”
USC freshman wing player Michael Carrera shot five of 10 for 15 points in the first half, and zero of three for one point in the second half.
Carrera’s first half play was “the only reason that, what, were we up one at the half? (Yes.) I was real discouraged at halftime. I thought we had no desire to play the game. The only reason that we were even where we needed to be was because of his energy and his enthusiasm and his toughness. We went into Missouri and Missouri’s the No. 1 rebounding team in the league and we went nose-to-nose with them on the glass (Missouri won the rebounding 44-43). Outside of him, have you seen anyone else on our team get an offensive rebound this week? Is that their fault? No, that’s my fault, because I haven’t paid attention to it. I haven’t demanded as much as I need to. We’ll fix that. When I don’t do my job, I’m a big boy. I look in that mirror and I tell that guy the truth.”
Florida out-rebounded USC by 14. Georgia won the rebounding battle by three. Carrera had five offensive boards against Georgia. Nobody else grabbed an offensive board except RJ Slawson, who had two. Against Florida, Carrera had two offensive boards and four other players had one each.
USC rebounded just six of its 31 misses at Florida and was credited with 12 offensive boards (including five team offensive boards) on 34 misses against Georgia. This from a USC team that entered the Georgia game third in the SEC with 14.1 offensive boards per game, even after the Florida game.
What did Georgia do to slow Carrera after halftime?
“Just give them credit. They guarded us. They guarded him. We had him in the post a couple times and we couldn’t deliver the ball. But we were real stagnant offensively in the second half. We just kind of stood around, never got any flow and when you play bad on offense, it’s hard to score. Their size became a problem. We struggled passing the ball. Everyone thinks that size is a problem to score (against). Size is not a problem to score. Size is a problem to pass. If you can’t pass, you can’t score. That became a major problem for us in the second half.”
When asked, Martin declined to say if he has to become more aggressive in practice after being disappointed with his coaching this past week.
“I understand you’ve got to ask that question. That’s between us and those kids. We’ve played the game the right way and we haven’t for the last week. I’ve got to do my job better.”
The lone bright spot for USC was Ellington on Caldwell-Pope, after Martin made a defensive assignment shift there.
“We had to put Ellington on him because the matchup we had on him had no interest in guarding him. So we had to put Bruce on him, and Bruce kind of, I don’t want to say neutralized him, but he slowed him down. You let a real good player come out of the gate and get open shot after open shot from his spot, it’s one thing if they’re making real hard shots, but when they make shots from their spot, you’ve got a handful now, you’ve got a problem, because good players that get baskets from their spot now get extremely confident. Hat’s off to Bruce that he’s a foot shorter (6-5 for Caldwell-Pope, 5-9 for Ellington) and was able to get him to places that he didn’t want to play at, which helped neutralize him. I thought Bruce was good.
“I’m not into blaming kids. If I demand that they play with better effort, they’ll probably play with better effort. They played with effort last Saturday and they played with effort at Missouri and they played with effort everywhere else we’ve played. I allowed them to take a step back this week, and that’s not right on my part.”