Game No. 2 of the Frank Martin Era begins in a couple hours tonight here in Columbia, against Morgan State.
The Gamecocks on Sunday beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee 82-75 in overtime after trailing by 17 points with 19:16 left in the game, cutting the lead to four with 14:32 left, seeing it jump to 15 at the 11:53 mark, then tying the game with 18 seconds left. When the Gamecocks took a two-point lead 12 seconds into overtime, it was their first lead since the 12:38 mark of the first half.
For a team that finished 10-21 last season, coming back to win that game, which the Gamecocks never trailed in overtime, was an admirable feat.
“I’ve been on teams that have come back from 15-, 16-, 17-, 20-point deficits once,” Martin said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team that’s come back from that deficit twice in a game. So it shows a lot about the resolve of the kids.”
Nothing will come easily for this team this season, especially because the Gamecocks have just three true post players, because Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris transferred after Martin was hired. Gill and Harris were two of USC’s most talented players last season.
One of them, Carlton Geathers, who played 7.8 minutes per game as a redshirt freshman last season, is out until at least mid-January with a knee injury. Another, Lithuanian freshman Laimonas Chatkevicius, is suspended for five more games by the NCAA because he took impermissible benefits from his host family before coming to USC.
That leaves only 6-8 junior R.J. Slawson, who isn’t exactly the bulkiest guy in the world, especially now that his weight has dropped to 208 pounds, which Martin doesn’t like.
While Martin doesn’t have really any depth in the post, he hopes to use some of these early season non-conference games to get a look at more players across the board.
“I’ve got to develop confidence in more guys on the team so we can create depth,” he said. “They’ve got to do their part, but I also have to do mine and entrust in them to create depth on our team. We’ve got to do a better job as coaches, and specifically me, because I’m the one that makes the decisions as to who plays.
“Everyone wants to win 40-point games. Believe me, I’d much rather sit back every once in a while and not have to make every decision and be put in a place where every decision I make can either help us win or lose a game. I’d like to sit back every once in a while and let guys play through some mistakes so they can gain some game experience. But the only way you learn how to win games like that is being in that situation, regardless of the opponent. So hopefully that can be a building block for us.”
If you want to hear Martin give some detailed analysis, just ask him about his team’s defense. It will be the foundation of USC’s identity under Martin, and he had a lot to say about it this week.
“I thought we played pretty well defensively the first 10 minutes of the game, then lack of (making) shots put us in a funk,” Martin said. “The second half, we got tired. I thought we played well defensively the second half.
“I was disappointed with two consecutive possessions coming down the stretch once we had taken the lead. One where their point guard took an outlet pass, we had just scored and I think we made a free throw, and their point guard came the length of the floor and our pickup point (on defense) is the half-court line and we never picked him up until he got inside the three-point line and then we fouled. That’s a bad defensive play in a crucial time in the game.
“Then we had another one where they called a timeout and they ran a double high ball screen and one big screened down for the other one. We were up six. And the other (big) jumped up and made a three with (1:41) seconds to go. That’s another breakdown that we can’t have, especially in that moment in the game. But outside of that, I was proud of our guys.
“Our bigs (who are really wing players), Mike (Carrera), Mindaugas (Kacinas), first time out, against a difficult matchup for young guys, because of the way (Milwaukee) plays on offense, and those guys were rock solid defensively.
“Mike had a play where he rotated over to help on a drive, they made a pass, he tripped and fell, they made another pass, he got up and blocked the guy’s shot. Right in the heart of the game right there. That’s a big-time play by a freshman. That’s a big-time play by anybody, let alone a freshman.
“Our ball defense has to get better. The way we play guarding the basketball is a huge part of our success (because of the lack of post players who can cover up for mistakes in on-ball defense by protecting the rim). When I watch that tape over and over, and our staff, we all agreed: Our ball pressure, our ability to guard the basketball, that has to really improve.”
Martin also wants to see Slawson improve the way he takes care of his body.
“This falls on him,” Martin said. “R.J. got up over 220 pounds (his ideal weight) and now he’s down to 208 pounds. That falls on the responsibility of the athlete to take care of their bodies once you start your season. He worked real hard to build his body up. Now he’s got to become a more responsible athlete to keep that weight on.
“Here’s the transition R.J. is making: R.J. has been asked to play facing the basket and shoot threes and all that stuff. He needs to understand how to play closer to the rim and he’s going through that process, he’s going through that transition. It’s something that he can be good at as soon as he grows into that job. He’s working it. Like all the guys, they’re going to get better.
“Here’s the difference between the upperclassmen and the freshmen: The freshmen are learning what I tell them to do for the first time. The upperclassmen are learning it also, but they’ve also been trained to play a different way, so it’s going to take time to change the comfort zone of how you used to play and how you’re being asked to play. But (Slawson) was fine (against Milwaukee, as he had two rebounds and no points in 14 minutes before cramping up). We need him to get back in that (220-pound) area again.”
Finally, the folks back at the home office in Charleston asked that this be passed along to you guys, so here it is …
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