South Carolina’s non-league schedule is finished and the Gamecocks are 10-3, equaling last season’s win total (10-21). The Gamecocks didn’t lead South Carolina State until 7:20 remained in the first half, but pulled away for an 80-69 win. Next up is Wednesday’s Southeastern Conference opener at Mississippi State, then a home game against Auburn on Saturday.
USC will get point guard Bruce Ellington back for the Mississippi State game, but shooting guard LaShay Page is academically ineligible for the rest of the season. Saturday’s game against South Carolina State was USC’s first since Page’s fate was revealed. Martin started his postgame press conference by talking about Page, then discussed USC’s other guards, who will have to become bigger factors now that Page is done.
“Real quick,” Martin said, “because I’m sure there are 500 questions that are going to be asked about this, rather than ask about the game, and it pertains to LaShay Page. I failed LaShay, OK? I failed LaShay. I didn’t do my job well enough. It’s the first time I’ve had a kid not make it through the year, and that’s on me and my staff. LaShay is my guy. He will continue to be my guy. He is our guy at this university. Everything else, I hope you understand it’s a delicate situation that we don’t need to get in-depth about, so I hope you respect people’s privacy on that. Just so we’re clear on that.”
Shooting guard Damien Leonard got his first start of the season, in place of leading scorer Brenton Williams, after having his best game his last time out – 15 points against Presbyterian. Leonard shot 3 of 14 and scored 10 points against South Carolina State.
“He didn’t play real well today,” Martin said. “But where Damien’s grown tremendously for us was defensively in his attention to detail. Damien plays strong. Damien is not the most athletic guy in the world, but he plays with strength. His ability to rebound and just play with that strength and learning our defensive concepts allowed him to get on the court.
“He kind of regressed today, and it’s a shame because he practiced real well all week. Just like our team, our practices were awesome this week – enthusiastic, disciplined. Then we came out and didn’t play that way the first 10 minutes of the game. That was unfortunate. But Damien is coming along. He wasn’t great today, but I’m not one of these ‘jump off a cliff’ kind of guys. I know our country is ready to jump off that financial cliff or whatever everyone called it, but I ain’t jumping off the cliff. It takes time.”
Though USC hasn’t played a tough non-league schedule, winning helps a team that hasn’t done much of it.
“When you’re trying to deliver a message to players, when you’re trying to get them to do certain things and you’re trying to hold them accountable to playing a certain way and the demands that you place on them, and you don’t win games, they hear from so many people,” Martin said. “See, back in the day, you could hide. You can’t hide anymore, because of the Internet and social media and text messages and all that stuff.
“We didn’t have to (deal with that). Think about it. We never had cell phones. There was no Internet. So whether you won or lost, you only heard it for a day and then it was over. And you heard your coach’s message. Well, by winning, you kind of quiet all that outside noise and it allows the focus to stay on what you’re trying to do. That’s important that it happens eventually. Or else, you know what they do? They say, ‘Well, shoot, this isn’t working. Why should I keep doing this?’ So I think it’s given us some confidence.”
** USC got 15 points from Brian Richardson today. He continues to improve from last season.
“I’ll say this: If it wasn’t for LaShay and Bruce (Ellington) and all those guys and the work that our assistants have done with Brian and the work Brian has put in, if he wasn’t doing the things we’re asking him to do and hadn’t worked at it, I’d play walk-ons before I’d play him,” Martin said. “And that goes with anyone. Credit goes to him. At halftime today, what we tried to tell him was, ‘Why are you settling for the 3? You’re just like happy shooting the 3 and you haven’t made one. Then you drove the ball one time and got a layup. You drove the ball the second time and got you to the foul line. Drive the ball.’
“Then he came out the second half and did that. And guess what happens? Now all of a sudden, he sees the ball go through the net a couple times, feels better about himself, and then he gets an open 3 – bottom of the net. That’s kind of what happens. But give him credit. He wasn’t as good defensively today as we need him to be. I got mad at him in the second half because I thought he didn’t zone in defensively the way he’s been doing for us lately. And I thought he defended the score. When we go up 12, 13, he’d try to take a defensive play off. You can’t do that. You can’t play the score. But he’s worked his tail off. He’s earned the right to make positive plays and be on the floor.”
** USC will need Richardson and Williams to take on bigger roles with Page out. Martin likes what Williams brings off the bench.
“That’s one of the reasons I decided to bring him in off the bench because he gives you that (energy),” Martin said. “When you come in off the bench, you’ve got to bring something to the table. The one thing that every guy on the bench has to bring is unbelievable energy. It’s unacceptable for guys to come off the bench and play without energy.
“But then you have to have something. You’ve got to be a defensive stopper. You’ve got to be a guy that can figure out a way to get you seven, eight quick points. You’ve got to do something to create an identity coming in off the bench. When I chose to start Brent, we kind of lose that when we come off the bench. So I kind of felt that (I would) bring him off the bench to see if he can provide that (energy) and he did. I don’t know how he does it, because he’s never in the right place half the time, but he has the ability to put the ball in the basket. Give him credit for that.”
** Even as Ellington returns, perhaps to take over the starting point guard role from Eric Smith, Martin likes what he has seen from Smith, who benefited from Page’s leadership.
“I’m a fan of Eric Smith’s,” Martin said. “Early in the year people asked me (about Smith), and I kind of laughed. Eric’s been great. Today, we were kind of sluggish to start. Eric got us going. Eric had everything to do with the way we played the last 10 minutes of the first half. Then unfortunately for him, he took about a three-, four-minute segment off in the second half and then we looked like the Bad News Bears there again. But then he came out of the game, refocused and went back in and did well again.
“That’s a sign of his growth that he was able to stop the bleeding, where two months ago, when he’d make a couple negative plays, he’d dwell on those and couldn’t come back and make a positive play. Today, he showed a little growth. But Eric’s been awesome. He’s playing with a lot of enthusiasm and energy. Heck, we’re averaging, I don’t know, 75, 76 points a game (actually 74). You can’t do that unless you’ve got a point guard that’s trying to get you into offense and get the right people involved.
“Having (Page) around helped Eric Smith. Eric’s been real, real good. I understand we live in a statistic world, so anyone that doesn’t average 23 points, 13 rebounds is not any good. Eric’s been real good. Eric’s enthusiasm, his attention to detail, his excitement to come into practice and work as hard as he can and not come out of practice. I just love (says sarcastically) when you go to practice and guys are standing on the sideline. I’m like, ‘What the heck did you come to school for?’
“He used to do that. He’d take himself out of practice. Now he’s in there whether we go an hour and a half or three hours, it doesn’t matter. He’s on the floor every second of every practice. That enthusiasm I spoke about with LaShay became contagious. Lakeem Jackson’s that way. Lakeem’s not playing in a successful way by mistake, now. All that energy that LaShay brought kind of started rubbing off to some of those guys. Those guys have got to carry the flag.”
** Martin might have starting wing player Michael Carrera for the SEC opener.
“Michael is doing some stuff with our trainers Monday, some on-the-court stuff. Depending on how he reacts to that will determine how we move forward from there,” Martin said.
** Martin wanted to give Ellington a breather, so he didn’t play today.
“Bruce has been home with his family for the last three days,” Martin said. “I think he deserves the right after going for two straight years non-stop – practice, practice, class, class, practice, practice, spring, summer. The old boy needed three days to go see his mom and thank his family and just kind of catch his breath. He came today to the game. He was in the locker room with us. I’m going to go see him now. I’ve told him that I’d like for him to be at practice on Monday. That’s the day I’d like for him to be there. If he wants to be there tomorrow, I’ll go figure that one out in a second here (after the press conference).”
** Slow starts like today’s can’t happen for USC in the SEC, Martin knows.
“We have no time to have slow starts here starting on Wednesday,” he said. “You have slow starts against conference opponents, it’s usually not a good fate for that day.”
He was asked if USC is ready for SEC play.
“Are we ready?” he said. “I guess we’re going to find out now. We don’t get to hide here. We don’t get to call in sick. We can’t wake up Tuesday and say, ‘You know what, yo, we can’t show up tomorrow, man. Saturday softball league, I kind of tweaked my ankle. I’m staying home.’ We’ve got to go play that one now. So we’re going to find out exactly how this is working.
“But here’s the deal with me: If you sit back and you say, ‘All right, let me see. So so-and-so graduated (Malik Cooke), so-and-so and so-and-so transferred (Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris), LaShay went through his situation, Michael Carrera has been out with injuries,’ if I were to ask you … see, I want you to understand I expected to be 13-0 right now, because I wake up every day and I expect to win that day. I can care less about what happened the day before …
“But if I were to say all that to you and I told you we’re going into SEC play and we have 10 wins, what would you have said? Would you have said we’re ready or not ready? If I would have told you that we had won 10 with all those things I just spoke about, would you have said we’re prepared to go into SEC play? After Saturday (the home SEC opener against Auburn), that thing doesn’t stop. And you can’t give into the difficult moments in a game or day. You’ve got to be ready for that next one.”
** Martin still wants to see more movement from his team offensively.
“For our defense to set, that pressure defense that we like to play, we’ve got to score,” Martin said. “And we didn’t throw it inside, we settled for some 3s, which allowed them to kind of get run-outs and put us on our heels. Kind of all that put together with offensively, we stood around too much. You can’t make shots and you can’t rebound missed shots if you play standing around on offense. When all you do is stand around and the ball doesn’t move and players don’t move, then you’re not going to make most of your shots. You’re going to miss most. And you’re not going to rebound your misses because you never move the defense.
“So if you don’t move the defense and guys are playing one-on-one and missing shots, that’s bad offense. And that’s kind of what we did early in the game. When we did cut, we just jogged our cuts, so you don’t pressure the defense. We’ve got to get a whole lot better there. Those moments are going to hurt us in league play. I’m going through all this for the first time with these kids now. I’m learning them. I’m trying to figure all this out, why we started the game (slow). And I will. My job is for the next three days to figure out why our guys, get in their heads, listen to them as to why they feel we played the way we did the first 10 minutes of the game.
“Obviously, we’ve got to see the technical standpoint, as far as Xs and Os, but we also have to understand the human side of it. And then I have to figure out why the last three games, that’s happened, to make sure that we can do something differently so we do a better job so we don’t come out that way, especially after practicing well.”