Lots of information from South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin at his press conference Wednesday.
The most newsworthy nugget is that junior point guard Bruce Ellington practiced with the basketball team for the first time Tuesday and will work out with basketball until the football team begins practicing for its to-be-determined bowl game. When that happens, Ellington will be with only football again, then return to full-time basketball duties after the bowl.
That means Ellington likely will be available to play in the next three games: Thursday at St. John’s, Sunday at home against Clemson and next Friday at home against Jacksonville. How much he plays is uncertain at this point, but Martin has liked what he’s seen so far from Ellington, who was USC’s starting point guard for almost all of the past two seasons.
He played two sports last season. He practiced and played in games both during football’s break before pre-bowl practices and during the pre-bowl practices themselves.
The start date for pre-bowl practices hasn’t been determined yet, but it seems unlikely that Ellington would be available for USC’s first game after the final exams break – Dec. 19 at home against Appalachian State – because football will almost certainly be practicing then.
So Ellington should be available for the next three games, but probably none of the three after that (Appalachian State, Manhattan, Presbyterian), and then he will probably rejoin the basketball team for its first game after the bowl – Jan. 5 at home against South Carolina State.
Martin had said before the season that Ellington wouldn’t join the basketball team until after the bowl game, but he has changed that stance slightly, in allowing him to practice during the two-week break between the football team’s Clemson game and the start of bowl practices.
“Coach (Steve) Spurrier and I spoke yesterday,” Martin said. “I obviously wasn’t going to bother him during the season. I know if I was in his shoes, the last thing I’d want was the basketball coach calling me while I’m trying to set school records and be concerned about someone playing basketball. Bruce is not a kick returner for them. Bruce is their leading receiver. Bruce is a huge part of their team. That team has unfinished business left in their season and the last thing I want to do is disrupt that in any way, shape or form.
“The dynamic here is Bruce. Bruce wants to play basketball. Bruce loves to play football. Bruce loves to play basketball. Sometimes, you come across special athletes that just are capable of doing both. Coach Spurrier fully, fully supports him playing (basketball). He wants him to play. I’ve barely been around the kid (Ellington) and my respect for him grows daily because of how much he cares. So I understand where coach (Spurrier) is coming from when he’s excited about Bruce playing (basketball).
“With all that that I just said to you, after talking with coach (Tuesday), we made the decision that we’re going to let Bruce practice for the next couple weeks with us while football is out of practice. I’m pretty sure that Bruce is going to travel with us. Whether he’ll play or not, I don’t know. But if he’s going to practice, then we need to expose him to how we do things, and we’ll go from there.
“Now, I will make this point clear: When football starts practice for bowl preparation, he will be back in football every single day. They’ve got one more huge game to play and my concern the whole time was I didn’t want attention placed on what sport he’s playing, when he’s coming. I wanted him to be a football player, because that’s what that team deserved. And now that they have a couple weeks off, I was open to listening to coach (Spurrier) and Bruce and they both convinced me. Bruce convinced me that he really, really wants to do it, and coach convinced me that he’s completely supportive of it. So I feel it’s not going to be a distraction or a disruption.
“In high school, it’s a lot easier (to double up) because the football itself is not as taxing on the body and the seasons are shorter. The games (in both sports) are not as competitive. We’ve had it happen. Connor Barwin (now a linebacker for the Houston Texans), when we were at Cincinnati, we were under-manned. He sent word to us that he wanted to play when the football season in Cincinnati was over. He came out, practiced for three days and we put him in the game against Syracuse. He ended up playing major minutes for us and helping our team.
“I like football players. I think they bring a level of toughness to the basketball team that you’ve got to have. When you play a sport where you’re asked to run as fast as you can and collide with a guy that’s running as fast as he can and you fall down, and you’ve got to get up and do it again the next play, there’s a certain sense of just ‘I’ve got to get this done’ that those guys bring that we need on our team. I think Bruce brings some of that.
“From a conditioning standpoint, that’s the biggest thing, because (football and basketball) are different. In football, you take 30 seconds off between plays or whatever. Basketball, you just keep playing. There’s no stops. Being a receiver I think helps him because those receivers are running those patterns every single play and they’ve got to sprint back to the huddle and then do it again. As a receiver, I think that part of it will be a little easier. I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll figure it out. Bruce is one of those guys, though. He can run until the cows come home and I don’t think he’ll ever get tired.”
Martin said Ellington “went for a little while” in practice Tuesday. Martin was asked, based on what he saw in practice, if Ellington will be able to play in the next three games.
“Could he play? I don’t see why not. If he’s going to do it, let’s do it. I’m not into this half-in, half-out stuff. You’re either in or you’re out. That’s my philosophy. Once we made the decision yesterday to allow him to be a part of it for the next couple weeks, then let’s do it right, let’s be fully invested. How much he’ll play, I don’t know. I’m trying to figure today out. I’m trying to make sure we can have a good, productive practice today. You’re asking me about two weeks from now. I’ve got no idea. But will he play? I don’t know.
“Dominique Sutton was a mid-year enrollee for us at K-State in my first year as a head coach. His first day of practice was something like Dec. 14. We had a game two days later. I actually put him in the game. The guy that was starting at the small forward was not taking care of his business. I don’t mean as a player. I mean as a human being. So the second game, I started Dominique. Dominique started every other game he ever played for us. Never sat down again.
“So will (Ellington) play? I don’t know. I’ll probably throw him out there. That all depends on the game and all that. But he brings some natural instincts to the game. See, if he had never shown up and never really been around and just showed up yesterday and said, ‘Hey, I’m here. Let’s go. I’m Superman,’ I probably wouldn’t be as receptive to him doing this for the next two weeks. But that young man came into my office at least once a week since August. And he has studied everything that we do.
“Watching him go through some of the stuff in practice yesterday, it’s obvious that it’s important enough for him to have learned it, because he understood it a little bit better than some of the guys that have been out there every single day for two months. So he obviously cares. When people care, then I’m willing to trust. And when I trust (you), then I can play (you). So that’s kind of the way I function, just to give you an idea how my brain works sometimes.
“So I don’t know. We’ll cross that bridge for the next three games as we move forward. But I will say this, and I told Bruce this. I told him this back in the spring, I told him in the summer and I told him yesterday. There are some guys playing now that have busted their humps to grow and accept responsibility and do things a certain way, and have earned my trust. I’m not going to lose faith in them just because he showed up.”
Some other things Martin had to say today …
** USC is 5-1 and its toughest non-conference games so far are coming up – St. John’s and Clemson. Martin liked that USC allowed 39 and 40.4 percent shooting in its wins in Mexico over Missouri State and Arkansas-Little Rock. In the first four games, USC allowed 38.8, 52.8, 50.9 and 45.6 (in a loss to Elon) – too high for Martin’s liking.
“We obviously competed and had a good bounce-back after a bad week of practice leading into the Rider and the Elon game. Guys responded the way we asked of them. As a coach, when you challenge your team, you’re always looking to see how they respond to your challenges and to their experiences on the court.
“We went back-to-back games where we allowed over 50 percent shooting from the field (Morgan State and Rider), and that’s inexcusable. (Against Arkansas-Little Rock), we were in a little bit of foul trouble and we just stayed in the zone the last eight, nine minutes of the game and they made some shots coming down the stretch and we relaxed and with the foul trouble, got a little tentative.
“But we were holding them right in that 35 percent field goal percentage mark throughout the course of the game. Those are the things that you can control and those are the things that we spend a lot of time in practice to prepare, and it was good to see our guys go out there and perform that way.”
** USC has been turnover-prone so far (17, 20, 18, 22, 25 and 21 in its first six games). Martin knows what that has happened, for the most part.
“Listen, we play a style where we play fast. We’re asking guys to change how they play – whether it be the freshmen or the returning players – offensively. They’re trying to understand how we’re asking them to play. I like the game to be played fast. I like high possession games. I don’t like low possession games. To play high possession games, you have to trust your players. That means you’ve got to trust that more than one person has the ball in their hands. There are some negative that comes with that, and that’s the learning process, where your turnovers are going to be a little high, especially early in the year.
“The problem I’ve got with our turnovers is that they have cost us directly between eight to 12 points a game where we can’t defend the shots that they other team takes because they’re breakaway layups, and they’re coming directly because of our turnovers. The positive to that is that then you have guys like Brian Richardson and Eric Smith and Brenton Williams, they’re gaining confidence with the ball in their hands. I think Brian, he’s got twice as many assists this year than he had all of last year. That’s six games into the season. There’s a little give and take there.”
Richardson has 14 assists this year in 153 minutes, compared to 10 last year in 307 minutes.
** Martin offered some more details on what he has liked about USC’s defense lately.
“Our perimeter defense got back to what it needed to be the last couple games, getting to the places we belong, pushing the ball further out on the floor. Our defensive rotations are better, but they’re not where they need to be. The whole idea is to not have to rotate. That means the guy on the ball does his job, doesn’t get beat. But sometimes you do get beat because you’re trying to pressure people into playing faster than they want to play, to not play through their structure.
“Here’s how I explain how we try to defend: I try to look at what makes coaches upset when they’re on offense. And I don’t think you’d ask a coach in the country (about) what aggravates them more than when their team does not pass the ball. I know it drives me nuts when we don’t pass the ball. Well, when I’m on defense, I don’t want you to pass the ball. I want you to play one-on-one. And that’s what we try to do. We try to disrupt and make you play fast. When that happens, now that puts a lot of emphasis on the guy guarding the basketball. You have to be solid there. That’s something that we’ve gotten better at. We’re still nowhere near where we have to be.
“The other thing that we have to get better at is protecting the rim. When I say protecting the rim, that means when you get (offensive) guys playing out of control and playing a little faster and coming at you, there are different ways of protecting the rim. Well, there are two ways in particular that we have to improve. Number one is shot blocking. We’re not going to be the greatest shot-blocking team in the country, because we’re just not built that way. But we’ve still got to protect the rim. That means you better sacrifice your body and get it between the ball and the rim and take some charges. That’s something that we’re getting better at. Nowhere near where we have to be, but as we continue to evolve and learn how we’re trying to play, those are two areas that we really, really have to improve on.”
** USC’s tallest healthy player (by three inches) – 6-11 Laimonas Chatkevicius – is able to play now after serving a six-game NCAA suspension to start the season for taking impermissible benefits from his host family before he came to USC. R.J. Slawson, at 6-8, had been USC’s only post player But Martin knows Chatkevicius is still a freshman and fairly raw.
“He’s obviously tall. So I hope that becomes productive in some way. Here’s what I’ll say about the kid: He has changed his body. He is a lot more prepared to be able to get put in a game and have a positive impact than he was two months ago. He’s gotten himself in shape. Laimonas has a skill set. He’s got the ability to pass the basketball. He can make some perimeter shots for you.
“Our fight – I don’t want to call it a fight, because it’s not a fight because it’s a one-way conversation – what he needs to understand is that we don’t need him chucking up threes. We need him to maybe grab a rebound, maybe not every minute, but maybe every four or five minutes rather than one every two weeks. If he can do that for us, he’ll really, really help our team.
“His practice habits have gotten a lot better. His attention to detail has gotten a lot better. But we’re talking about our defense, he is 6-11, and if we can get him to play with the effort and passion on defense that he will play with, he’ll help our defense at the rim just because of his size and his length.”
USC is short-handed in the post because 6-10 Carlton Geathers is out until at least January with a knee injury and Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris, two promising post players, transferred to Virginia and Florida after Martin was hired.
** Martin said the St. John’s trip is “the kind of games that you have to expose your team to before you get into conference play.” St. John’s starts three freshmen and two sophomores
“Their skill level is real good. Their three guards (sophomore Phil Greene IV, sophomore D’Angelo Harrison and freshman Felix Balamou), they’re real good. They’re young, so they make some mistakes. But they can really, really score. Defensively, they’ve had moments where they’ve been lights out. I don’t want to say that they’ve had negative moments, because I don’t coach their team. I don’t know what they’re expected to do.
“They’ve got a young man in (6-8 freshman forward) JaKarr Sampson who is long, bouncy, athletic, can shoot it from about 15 to 17 at a high rate. Chris Obekpa (6-9 freshman center), he chases balls to block shots, Alonzo Mourning-ish. I’m not saying he’s Alonzo Mourning, but when you watched Alonzo play, anyone who shot the ball eight feet and in, he was coming to get it. Well, this kid does that. Anyone that shoots the ball eight feet and in, he’s chasing that ball.
“So they present a problem at the rim with their athleticism and their length. It is the best team we’ve played as far as their ability to score in the open court, because of how fast and how skilled they are. If we have a game of 20, 22 turnovers, we might be in trouble, because they’ll convert every single one of those into a basket.”