South Carolina basketball is quickly spiraling toward another disastrous season, and first-year coach Frank Martin is quite ticked off about it.
The Gamecocks lost their fifth straight game on Thursday, and it was one of their worst performances of the season – a 64-46 loss to LSU in which they shot 28.1 percent, their second-worst clip of the season and their third time shooting in the 20s.
They are 2-9 in Southeastern Conference play, and if they keep playing like this, it would surprise nobody if they finished 2-16. They have road games left against Alabama (on Saturday), Georgia, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. They host Mississippi, Missouri and Mississippi State.
After Thursday’s game, Martin sat down behind the table at his press conference, paused, and then proceeded to absolutely shred his team.
“If you take (point guard) Bruce Ellington off our team, you’d probably have the 12 leading candidates for the starring roles in ‘The Return of the Living Dead,’ the zombie movie,” he said. “If you took Bruce off our team, our guys would probably win an Academy (Award) for their performance in that movie. I’ve been doing this for 28 years, nine of which as a junior varsity high school coach. That means I’ve dealt with 14-year-olds. I’ve never been more embarrassed to call myself a basketball coach than I am today.”
That was his opening statement.
Naturally, he was asked the next logical question: Is he seeing the same diligent effort now that he saw earlier in the season? He didn’t shy away from the question.
“Don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “Same players, same coach, same team. Ever since the Florida game, we’ve been fighting a losing battle because the desire to play is not there. I’ve always taken pride to get guys to do what I ask them to do, and right now, that’s not happening. They didn’t bring me here to create a bigger problem. They brought me here to fix a problem and I’m not doing a very good job of that right now.”
USC seems destined for a fourth consecutive losing overall record at this point, as the Gamecocks dipped to 12-12 on Thursday. They had been above .500 all season. What can Martin do to light a fire under these guys?
“If this was the NBA, we’d fine them, we’d take their money, we’d release them and say, ‘Good luck with ever finding another job.’ It’s not the NBA. So we’re in education. Somehow, some way, we have to reach them. It’s embarrassing. I’m just telling you, I’ve been telling our team here for three weeks that there’s a word that if it’s not in your vocabulary – whatever it is you choose to do in life – if the word ‘pride’ is not your vocabulary, you’ve got no chance at ever sniffing success.
“I’m a lot of things, but I’ve got pride. And I’m just telling you, I’m doing this (press conference) right now out of respect to you (reporters) and your jobs and because it’s part of my job. But I have never been so embarrassed. I shouldn’t coach basketball ever again if this is how my team plays.”
OK, let’s reset. That was the opening statement and the first two questions of his press conference.
Then someone asked him about the only player on the court who did anything interesting on Thursday – LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant, who scored 30 points and shot 13 of 19. It brought back memories of another great player.
“Jodie Meeks, he scored 38 against us (at Kansas State). We lost by two, fought like heck. We fought to the wire. He couldn’t miss and we tried and tried and he went for 38 and when that game was over, I was mad because we lost, but I was proud of my guys. That game, I said, ‘That guy is real good.’ That was in December of Jacob Pullen’s sophomore year. About three weeks later, first game of the SEC season, he had 54 against Tennessee.
“So I kind of felt a little better. I felt better about my team that we fought as hard as we did, and didn’t quite win, but we held him to 38. Give Johnny O’Bryant credit now. When we played at their place (in a USC win in January), he wasn’t very good. He obviously has got pride in his vocabulary and he made sure that he remembered that when he played today.”
So that wasn’t a very incendiary quote. But then Martin was asked about his team’s horrid offense, and he tried to explain the reason for this. He didn’t hold back.
“I thought we shot good shots. We lead the country in air-ball layups. If guys can’t make layups, it’s hard to win. Open threes, you’ve got guys that are supposed to make open threes, and they never make an open three, it’s hard to do. You’ve got to invest yourself to be good. You’ve heard me say this before. In life, you get what you deserve. If you don’t put in the time, that ball ain’t going to go in the basket. We’ve got guys that don’t comprehend that. They put in the time when I make them put in the time. They don’t put in the time for the love of the game. Until that doesn’t change, it ain’t going to get any better.”
But Martin’s quotes didn’t get any worse. USC has a quick turnaround before Saturday’s trip to Alabama, so how can Martin try to get things right in just one day?
“If I had Jacob Pullen, Rodney McGruder, Denis Clemente, Brent Wright, Sylbrin Robinson, Udonis Haslem, Steve Blake, Jose Baseu, Gimel Martinez, Allen Edwards, Steve Edwards, Doug Edwards, I don’t know, any of those guys (Martin’s former players), some of which you might have heard of, some of which you’ve probably never heard about in your life. If I had any of them on my team, then I’d have a guy I could trust on my team. So we’d be all right tomorrow. Then again, I can tell you, we wouldn’t have played the way we played today.
“Our lack of leadership is frustrating. Bruce makes a million and one mistakes, but I’m just telling you, with him … My assistant coach who had the scout, Matt Figger, before the game came over to me and he said, ‘I don’t like what’s happening right now.’ Just before we walked out for the game. I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘The locker room’s a morgue.’ That’s exactly what it was. If you’ve got no life for what you do, then you shouldn’t do it. If you’ve got no passion for what you do, then you shouldn’t do it. Right now, we’re passionless and we’re lifeless.
“If we somehow don’t find the resolve to try and refocus our energies into the good things, then Saturday won’t be a good day either. You control who you are every day in your life and if you walk around with your shoulders down and your head down, then you’ve got no chance at whatever it is you try to do. It’s unfortunate. For the last three weeks, it’s been real frustrating. But like I said earlier, you can’t expect 18- and 19-year-olds to figure those things out. Us guys that have been around, it’s our jobs to help them through the moment.”
Look, Martin surely understands that he does not have a talented team. But the lack of desire is what makes him madder than anything. Has he lost this team?
“If I’ve lost them, then they better disappear, because it’s going to be hard for them to be here next year if I’ve lost them 10 months into the job. You’ve got to ask them that question. I haven’t lost Bruce. I can tell you that. I haven’t lost Michael Carrera, even though he’s a freshman and he runs around like a chicken with his head cut off half the time and doesn’t know what’s happening. But outside of those two guys, if I had lost them, then they better figure out where home is at, because obviously, it’s not going to be here.”
He was again asked, for the final question of his press conference, about USC’s low shooting percentage. He said some of the same things he said earlier, then told a story about a former player to illustrate his point.
“For the ball to go in the basket, you’ve got to have a little courage and you’ve got to work at it. Right now, we’re short on courage and we’ve got guys that don’t understand how to put in extra time. I’m going to give you a quick story. We played at Texas Tech and I had a young man on my team named Michael Beasley, and he’s averaging, on the year, 24 and 14, OK? We played Texas Tech and we lose by five or something like that. And he’s a freshman. He scores 20, 21 or something. That game was in Lubbock, Texas. It started at 9 p.m.
“We get on the plane, we land at 1:30 in the morning. The airport to our gym, where everyone’s car was at, maybe a 10-minute drive. He got off the bus, went into the arena and shot 500 balls at 2 o’clock in the morning. And he is a real good player. Not an average player. A real good player. He didn’t do that because I asked him to. He did that because he knew he didn’t play well that day. That’s what it’s about. In life, you get what you deserve. So he put in the time. He earned the right to average whatever the heck he averaged for his career. I know this: I never had to worry about him not being ready to play. I never had to worry about him not doing what I asked him to do. Funny how that works, and he’s a real good player. Funny how that works.”
And then Frank Martin got up from behind the table and left the room, a frustrated man who had just fielded a bunch of questions from others, but still searched for answers to his own.