South Carolina has one more game, Friday night at home against Jacksonville, before breaking for final exams. The Gamecocks’ next game after Friday is Dec. 19 at home against Appalachian State. The exams break will mark the one-month point of coach Frank Martin’s first season, which has gone about how most people expected to this point.
The Gamecocks are 5-3 with losses to Elon, St. John’s and Clemson. Just like last season, they are a mess offensively, and that’s the main reason why they are not very good right now.
Last season, USC ranked second-to-last in the Southeastern Conference with 59.1 points per game in league play. The Gamecocks were last with a 37.8 field goal percentage in league play. They turned the ball over 12.2 times per game against SEC opponents, which was actually only the seventh-most in the 12-team league.
This season, USC is seventh in the league with 72.2 points per game, seventh with 45.2 percent of field goals made and first with 19.3 turnovers per game – one more than the next-closest team, Mississippi State. Consider, too, that the Gamecocks’ offense has been dreadful in their three losses, the latter two of which have come in the past two games …
— Elon: 53 points scored, 32.1 percent field goals, 22 turnovers
— St. John’s: 65 points scored, 36.9 percent field goals, 12 turnovers
— Clemson: 55 points scored, 34.6 percent field goals, 19 turnovers
It’s hard to win when you play that poorly on offense, and that was a big topic of Martin’s Wednesday press conference.
“It’s embarrassing,” he said, when asked about turnovers. “I wish I could use another word. We’ve lost three games and all three games have basically been lost with our inability to play offense. Obviously, we sit there and we watch (tape of) games (as a coaching staff). So you guys know how we work as a staff, we all watch the games that we play individually. We don’t watch it collectively (together as a coaching staff). Because I don’t want everyone to share the same opinion as we’re watching the film. Then we’ll visit and everyone has their own opinion as to what we did well and what we did wrong.
“And what’s funny is that we’ve been together for a while so we all kind of know each other pretty good, and the one thing we are is we’re brutally honest with one another. Almost to the T, we’re all in agreement that the problem with our team is how embarrassingly bad we’ve been on offense. And we’ve got to fix that.
“Our team defense has been not great, but it’s been good enough to win with. The problem is we’re giving teams so many free points because of our inability to play offense. Our offense is so bad for numerous reasons, which is too long for me to sit here and explain right now, that it deflates us. It brings a negative connotone.
“We play so individual, with such an individual frame of mind on offense, and we don’t pass the ball, we don’t screen, we don’t know the concepts that we need to play with. See, all the things that I’m referring to, those fall on my plate. That means that I’ve got to do a better job to get our guys to do those things better, OK? Those are all coaching things. Those are all things that we have to do a better job of teaching, of demanding, of seeing them be executed. The lack of all those things that I just said creates a negative connotone to offense, which then carries over to a negative connotone to how we end up playing. And that’s got to be fixed.”
Martin mentioned earlier this season that he was going to try to keep things very simple on offense, because his up-tempo pressure defense was such a big change from last year’s zone. So have these offensive problems been all the more frustrating considering how simple Martin has kept his offensive approach?
“I don’t know if frustrating is the right word. I think any time you’re in education, you get frustrated at times, and as a teacher, you have to understand that you have to remove that emotion whenever you feel it, or else you can’t do your job well enough to get people to understand. But to piggy-back on your question, this is the most vanilla we’ve been on offense in my six years as a head coach, probably even including 16 as a high school coach. And we’ve done that on purpose, because what we’re doing is so different than what they were doing better.
“Whenever I reference that, I’m not saying that our way is right and the way before is wrong. That’s not where I’m going with this, OK? It’s just different. There’s different ways of doing it. I’m sure if Jim Boeheim took over here and he was a 2-3 zone coach and a ball screen offensive team, that would be completely different than me, too.
“It’s just we’re vanilla, and it does get frustrating sometimes, that as vanilla as we are on offense right now … let’s put it to you this way: Right now, us offensively, I’m calling for our tailback to run in the hole between the right guard and the right tackle, and our offensive line is blocking as if we’re going to run in the hole between the left guard and the left tackle. When our running back is supposed to run to the left, he runs to the right.
“And that’s a major problem right now with our team, and it’s a shame because all we’re calling are those runs into those two gaps, and we can’t figure that one out right now. But we’ll get it right. That’s the beauty of a season, is that you don’t practice to play eight games. You practice to play through March, and last time I checked, that’s three months away.”
When asked about too much individual play, Martin said that guys playing individually on offense rather than in a team concept is a big problem in college basketball.
“If you sent that question out to all 348 Division I head coaches, I’d be surprised if you got 20 that gave you a different answer than the one I’m going to give you. That’s a cultural problem in our game right now. That’s where leadership is so important, and the only way you create leadership is by going through experiences together and getting guys to understand the importance to do things a certain way. That’s what we’re going through right now.
“I just told our team yesterday that I had a point guard at K-State named Denis Clemente. Denis was 5-10, 165, 170 pounds, depending on what meal of the day he just finished. And if I told him in practice, without ever giving him a repetition, to run every offensive set at the center spot, he knew exactly what he was supposed to do. When your point guard understands that, then your team has a chance to be a good offensive basketball team.
“We’re not there yet, and it’s not a shot at Eric Smith. I can’t get our two guard to understand what he does as a two guard. I can’t get our center to understand (what) to do as our center. We have to stay consistent there. Like I told you guys after the game the other day (after the Clemson game), that old guy told me a long time ago, which kind of gets back to the frustration question, ‘Whenever you’re not understanding things and you’re trying to figure stuff out, go back and teach. Don’t get negative, teach.’ And that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
Martin listed off several offensive problems that need fixing.
“Our biggest problem, and I joked about it after the Clemson game, is communication. As a coach, I’m going to refer back to the young man I talked about earlier, Clemente. In that Clemson game, there was a huge play late in the game where we went to the 3-2 zone and (Michael) Carrera got engaged with the fans to cheer and waving his arms at the crowd and all that. And just that split second that he lost that focus on the moment, we give up a three from the corner where it’s his responsibility to cover. If you’ve got a guard or a player on your team like Clemente, he would have gone over there and punched him in the head to get him zoned in to what your team is trying to do. We don’t have that right now.
“Communication is our biggest problem offensively and defensively. For us to progress, we have to be able to communicate better. For example, you’re shooting a free throw in the first half and your team is on the other side of the court. Well, someone on the team better look at the bench to see what the coaches want to do defensively. Then in the second half, you’re shooting free throws right in front of the bench, coaches don’t need to be screaming at the guys on the court to figure out: Make sure that all five guys are matched up with the right guys. Those are all things that we need to improve on. That comes back to us (as coaches) again. We have to do better job to demand that our guys help each other out out there. Communication is number one.
“Understanding individual assignments is number two. And then the ability to screen and use screens is number three. We stand around too much. Everyone on our team that touches the ball wants to dribble it. That’s the last thing you ever do as a player. You either shoot it, pass it, or you dribble to either attack the rim or to improve a pass. We’ve got guys who just dribble because they want all 10,000 people in the stands to see them dribble. And that’s bad offense. You can’t do that. And we do that too much. We have to learn how to play basketball, and that’s what we’re trying to do every day, offensively.”
Martin has talked a lot already this season about getting his players to talk to each other more on the court. They have to do a better job of listening in order for this to happen, he said.
“Don’t you think that’s a cultural problem right now, society? I think that’s the problem. No one has ever demanded that they listen. It’s not them. It’s not their fault. It’s not that they’re bad guys. It’s not that they’re being defiant. It’s just a cultural problem. It’s been accepted of them in their life through high schools and middle schools and socially. If I don’t fight that fight, who’s going to fight it? We have to make them understand.
“This is what I’ve learned in my years as a kid growing up and the people I choose to call friends and the people I choose to work with and work for and the players that I’ve coached: When you get around people that care, they’ll learn. They’ll learn. They’ll conform to what you’re asking them to do because they care. That’s what we’re trying to figure out in the locker room right now: What guys actually care? I think they all care. But to what degree? And getting them to really, really commit themselves to how important it is that we’re all on the same page.
“That’s not going to get fixed by Tuesday morning of next week. You’ll probably hear me talk about this in January sometime. But that’s an everyday thing, and that’s something that needs to change as time goes on and hopefully a year from now, when those incoming freshmen are here, the guys in our locker room will make sure that they learn that it’s important that they listen from Day 1.
“It’s hard to communicate if you don’t listen. When you listen, then you can engage in a conversation. If you don’t listen, you’ve got no chance. Right now, listening is a big part of our problem. And if we’d listen, then we can communicate, because usually people don’t speak because they fear that they’re wrong or they’re embarrassed to say the wrong thing. If you listen then you would know whether you’re right or wrong or you feel strong about sharing your opinion. And right now we’ve got to become better listeners.”
Some other notes from Martin’s press conference …
** Freshman Mindaugas Kacinas has been solid at times while playing power forward. While averaging 27.3 points (with one start), he has 8.4 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game.
“I feel for the three freshmen, especially Mike (Carrera) and Minda, because we’re relying on them so much. And they’ve made progress. It’s not fair to expect freshmen to come in and be front-line guys, especially when all the returning guys are trying to learn what they’re supposed to do, too, because that means that as freshmen, they really don’t get a lot of help because everyone is trying to learn stuff for the first time. Minda is a great kid. I’m enjoying really, really coaching him. I like guys that when you challenge them, they don’t roll their eyes, they don’t take the ball and go home. I like guys that when you challenge them, they kind of just look at you and they tighten up those boots a little tighter and they go out there and they try a little better. And that’s what he does.
“He’s come a long way. Offensively, he’s right in there with the rest of them. He gets lost out there on us. But he brings a dimension of passing and shooting from that four spot that as the season moves on, the better understanding we all have and the better understanding that we can have as coaches of his talents, we need to take advantage of some of the stuff that he can bring from an offensive standpoint. Defensively, he’s learning the speed, the physicality of a Division I high major game. There were plays against Clemson the other day where (Devin) Booker just kind of moved him around. That’s why you like to play with seniors and not freshmen. But he’ll get there. He’s been fun to coach. He cares. Very important word. He cares.”
** Through eight games, backup junior guard Brenton Williams (who has started three games) is USC’s leading scorer, with 13.4 points per game. He is shooting 53.1 percent, 41.4 on 3-pointers (12 for 29) and 90 on free throws (27 of 30). But he does have just 10 assists to 18 turnovers.
“Brenton’s come a long way. Defensively, he’s improved. He’s so quick laterally and North and South that he’s got the ability to be a real good defender. He’s gotten better and he’ll continue to get better because we’re not going to allow him to not improve. We’re going to make sure we continue to push, prod, teach to get him to understand how good he can be there for us because he’s a long-armed kid, he’s got quickness, he can really run, and he’s strong. He goes in that weight room now and he works. He’s got all the makings of a kid that can be a real good defender. He just has to believe it in his mind.
“But offensively, he’s giving us tremendous spark right now. The only thing that he’s got to get better at is his decision making with the ball in his hands. He’s got to improve there. That’s something that we’re in conversations with him (about). His assists to turnovers, right now they’re upside down. They need to get turned the other way. But that’ll happen.
“To his credit, he cares, too. He wants to improve. He’s in those offices every day with those coaches, just trying to learn. I don’t like speaking for players and I definitely don’t like sharing my private conversations with them publicly too much. But he just asked us two days ago, right after the Clemson game, he said, ‘Can you show me tape of your former guards? I want to see how they play so I can try and play like them.’ I thought that was a pretty powerful statement by that young man.”
** Carrera continues to bring energy and is tied with Lakeem Jackson for the team lead with 7.8 rebounds per game, while ranking third with 10.2 points per game. But sometimes, his energy gets him into trouble. Against Clemson, he got into early foul trouble.
“Those three (early) fouls, he had one where he was just going after a ball on an offensive rebound and him and one of their guys were tangled up and he just grabbed a guy and they called a foul. It’s hard for me to get upset at that foul. I told you a while ago that his biggest strength is that enthusiasm and passion and his biggest weakness is his enthusiasm and passion.
“Usually, you’ve got upperclassmen that are in place that help them understand every day in practice how to channel that energy in a positive way and try and not allow him to get in mistakes. When you go into a game, when he does make those mistakes, you’ve got other guys that you’re depending on. Right now, we’re kind of depending on him a little bit. So when he has those difficult moments, it impacts our team a little bit too much.
“That’s part of learning under fire, and number two, some of the other guys playing better to take that responsibility and that load off a freshman’s shoulders a little. He’s making mistakes, but I wouldn’t trade him for anything out there. You give me 12 guys that play with his enthusiasm and I’d sleep a lot better at night than I am right now.”