One of the interesting things about Frank Martin’s arrival from the Big 12 and Kansas State to the Southeastern Conference and South Carolina this season is that he already knew several SEC head coaches very well.
Martin went to high school with Alabama’s Anthony Grant in Miami. When Martin was an assistant at Cincinnati from 2004-06, he spent the first season working alongside Andy Kennedy, and the second season working under Kennedy, when he was named interim head coach after Bob Huggins’ firing. Kennedy is now in his seventh season at Mississippi.
USC plays its lone game against Alabama on Feb. 16 in Tuscaloosa. And the Gamecocks also play Mississippi just once, on Feb. 20 in Columbia – the game after Alabama.
Wednesday night in Gainesville, Martin meets again with his old friend, Florida coach Billy Donovan. Martin first met Donovan when Donovan was a Kentucky assistant from 1989-94 and Martin was coaching high school ball in Miami. By the time Martin broke into the college ranks, as a 34-year-old assistant Northeastern in 2000, Donovan was starting his fifth season at Florida.
So it’s easy to forget that Martin and Donovan are about the same age. Martin was born in March of 1966, Donovan in May of 1965.
While Martin is trying to build a winner this season at USC, Donovan, in his 17th season in Gainesville, again has one of the nation’s best teams. Coming off back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, the Gators are ranked fourth in the polls.
This is a revival for Florida. The Gators missed the NCAA tournament in Donovan’s first two years, then went Sweet 16 and national runner-up. They made the next five tournaments, never advancing past the second round, before capturing the national title in 2006 and 2007.
Just consider how rare that accomplishment is, especially in an age of high roster and talent turnover in college basketball. Since UCLA won seven straight titles from 1967-73, just one team other than Florida has gone back-to-back – Duke in 1991-92.
Donovan missed the 2008 and 2009 tournaments, and lost in the first round in 2010, before making the Elite Eight the past two seasons.
Between his 16-plus years at Florida and two at Marshall, he is 437-180. In his 18 seasons as a head coach entering this season, he had 421 wins – an average of 23.4 per season.
“Look at his numbers at his age,” Martin said. “Kind of do the math. If he’s healthy, he’ll win over 1,000 games. It’s ridiculous.”
The current Division I coaching record holder is Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, with 944 and counting. He will turn 66 next month. Donovan will turn 66 after the 2030-31 season. If you take Donovan’s 23.4-win average and multiple it by 19 (the number of seasons between 2012-13 and 2030-31, counting both of those seasons in the group), you get 444.6. So let’s say 444. Add that to Donovan’s 421 coming into the season, and he’s at 865.
So while 1,000 might not happen for Donovan, it’s not out of the question, though he does have to keep up that 23.4-win pace for a while. To be precise, if he keeps up that pace for 25 more seasons, counting the current season, then he will reach 1,000. That’s a lot of work, considering Donovan would be 72 by the end of that run. Who knows if he even wants to coach that long?
Of course, a couple 30-win or high 20-win seasons would help Donovan’s career total. Anyway, Martin’s point remains: Donovan has done a lot in his career so far, and he has a lot of time left to do much more. If Martin continues to build a program at USC, his yearly meeting with his old pal Donovan could be a very fun matchup. Ditto for the meetings with Grant and Kennedy.
“Obviously, during the season, we don’t all talk as much as we’d like unless I’ve got an issue or he’s got an issue or there’s just a question,” Martin said of Donovan. “But we talk. I met Billy when he was an assistant at Kentucky and he was recruiting Allen Edwards (who played at Kentucky from 1994-98) and I was an assistant at Miami Senior.
“And then Billy hired Anthony Grant, who was the other assistant at Miami Senior. Billy hired him at Marshall. From that point on, we’ve always gotten to know each other fairly well. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for the number of wins, the number of Elite Eights, the Final Fours, the national championships, the player development. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves compared to some other guys.
“What he’s built down there is a special, special thing and you’re talking about three national championship games, two national championships, back-to-back Elite Eights the last two years, NCAA tournament every year since probably 1936 or something like that. It’s absurd. You put his numbers against anybody’s in the country.
“Billy and I are the same age, so to think that he’s close to 500 wins already. I remember getting a phone call at midnight the day he got hired (at Florida in 1996), to let me know that they were coming in to recruit our guys the next day (when Martin was head coach at Miami Senior).”
Consider, too, that Florida had been to five NCAA tournaments ever (including the 1994 Final Four) before Donovan was hired. In his 16 seasons before the current one, the Gators missed just four tournaments under Donovan and made five Sweet 16 appearances.
As USC prepares to head to Florida, the Gamecocks will be reunited there with former forward Damontre Harris, who transferred to Florida after last season. Once a highly regarded recruit, Harris will be eligible next season and have two years remaining.
Martin, though, will be reunited with a lot more people who he knows in Gainesville, from the time he spent during his formative basketball years there, 335 miles north of Miami.
Martin has coached in the state of Florida before as a college coach. In fact, his second game as a college assistant, at Northeastern, was at Miami. During his fourth and final season at Northeastern, 2003-04, the Huskies played Florida in Gainesville.
Martin got a job at Cincinnati after that season. During his two seasons there, the Bearcats played a game at South Florida. During his six seasons at Kansas State, the final five as a head coach, the Wildcats played against Florida in December 2010, but that game was in Fort Lauderdale.
So Wednesday will be Martin’s first game as a head coach at the O’Connell Center, and second as a college coach, though he spent a lot of time there over the years.
“(Florida athletic director) Jeremy Foley is a friend,” Martin said. “Obviously, Billy is a friend. (Assistant coach) John Pelphrey is a friend. (Director of basketball operations) Darren Hertz is a friend. One of my closest friends in my life played at Florida from ’83-’88. I also lived in his house in Boston for a month when I took the job at Northeastern. I can go on and on. The University of Florida is the first college campus I ever stepped foot on. Just going to their camps, working their camps.
“It goes back to a guy you probably don’t know, Vernon Delancy. I was a ninth grader when Vernon was a senior. Vernon went to Florida. The following year, I was a sophomore, and Tony Rogers was a senior and Tony went to Florida. Then my guy Rollie Castineyra, who’s a year older than me, he goes to Florida. It just continued. Then Jose Ramos and Cesar Portillo go to Florida. I was an assistant (in high school) when those guys played.
“Ben Hanks, who was a starting linebacker for them, he played for us in high school. Lawrence Wright, who was a starting safety for them, Lawrence and I are real good friends. Lawrence played at North Miami High School. Marquand Manuel (who played football at Florida), he was in my PE class. Obviously, Udonis Haslem (who Martin coached), Brent Wright, Bonell Colas, who played for me. You just go up and down the line.
“I learned college basketball on that campus. We played them at K-State two years ago, but it was down in Fort Lauderdale. It’s going to be fun to see so many old friends. You’ve got to understand now, for 16 years (while a high school coach from 1985-2000), I worked their basketball camp every year except one summer. So how many coaches that are in that area and just people on that campus and administrators that I’ve gotten to know over the years.”
Here now, some other notes from Martin’s press conference as he prepares to return to a place where he learned the game that is now his job …
** Florida has four players averaging between 11.2 and 13.6 points – forwards Erik Murphy and Patric Young and guards Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton. The Gators are offensively balanced for a reason.
“It’s been a while, but I’ve been to numerous of their practices and sat down and talked basketball with (Donovan) on who knows how many occasions. After being in the Big 12 for six years, studying Kansas and developing a relationship with Bill Self, I think the way those two teams play is very similar, in how unselfish they are, in how balanced they are. I had to beat Kansas for the last six years, so I studied them inside and out every day. It was always amazing to me their ratio between assists to made field goals every game was incredible.
“Now that I’m studying Florida … before, I studied them as a fan and to help my knowledge … now I’m studying them because we’ve got to beat them. And to see the same ratio, assists toward made baskets, is unbelievable. I can tell you defensively, it’s a heck of a lot easier to stop a team that plays through one guy than it is to stop a team that plays through multiple outlets or ways of scoring or passing. People pay too much attention to the guy that scores. It’s the guys that are willing to screen and pass. If you’ve only got two guys that are going to screen and pass, it makes it easier to guard. Every one of their guys screens and every one of their guys passes, which then enables them to have balance because you’ve got to guard everybody.”
Florida this season has 272 assists on 480 made field goals – 56.7 percent. By comparison, USC’s number is 52.5 percent.
“Offense, I’m a big believer, it’s all rhythm. The guy that cuts to screen has to be at the right time as the ball is getting to a certain place on the floor. And then the guy that’s cutting off the screen has to be when that passer is ready to pass the ball. It’s that countless hours of repetition to get guys to understand how important … because if the guy cuts and he’s wide open, if the guy with the ball ain’t ready to pass, well you just wasted your cut. If the guy who goes to screen sprints to his screen but he gets there before the guy’s got his man where he needs him to make the cut to get open – wasted the screen cut.
“This is what I’ve learned: Teams that are real good on offense are usually pretty good on defense, because you have good offensive possessions, you don’t turn it over, you take good shots, you move the ball, which makes the defense work, which then does not allow that team to be as aggressive on you when they get the basketball. That’s why I sit here and tell you guys that as a coach, I know when I’m coaching offense, I doubt if you guys have ever heard me because I’m so low key (with) how I speak during games (sarcastically said), but you probably will hear me say a whole lot of times, ‘Pass the ball.’ Nothing aggravates me more than when the ball stops. When you watch Florida, that ball never stops. It is just constant, which then doesn’t allow you to ever get set defensively.”
** Defensively, Martin sees Florida’s experience paying off.
“They’ve got a fifth-year senior (guard Mike Rosario), a four-year senior (forward Erik Murphy), a three-year high minute guy (forward Patric Young), another senior (guard Kenny Boynton), they’ve got a bunch of guys that know how to play and they’ve been in that system. I don’t think Billy gets the credit that he deserves for how good they are defensively. Everybody wants to talk about their press. Everybody wants to talk about their offense and their ball screens and all that, which they’re real good at.
“But defensively, there’s a culture there in place at Florida that they’re going to guard you. That’s why they’ve won. Now you’ve got a team that’s got three guards and Kenny Boynton, a four-year starter, Rosario is a five-year guy, (Scottie) Wilbekin is a three-year guy. And Billy is on the record as saying he’s probably their best perimeter defender. The part that we the people kind of forget about is that Scottie Wilbekin had to guard that little guard they had every day for the last two years (in practice). Patric Young had to go deal with (Vernon) Macklin and those other guys every day for two years. Not only is he getting the game experience, but he’s playing against real, real good players every single day. So he’s getting better. That’s what they’ve got. Mike Rosario had to guard (Bradley) Beal every single day in practice last year.
“That’s how you build a winning program. It’s not just about the game experience, which they obviously have. But it’s about guys that in practice are knocking each other’s heads off, pushing each other to become better and then when it’s their turn, they take advantage of that because they’ve had to work so hard to earn the right. That’s what you see with them. They’re very disciplined. They don’t turn it over so you don’t get easy baskets against them. They take good shots so you don’t get long rebounds against them. They’re national championship good from what I’m watching.”
** Martin was asked about his seemingly random appearance as an offensive line coach in the movie “Any Given Sunday,” which filmed in Miami when he was coaching high school ball there.
“For eight days, 14 hours a day. I was there for eight days and I was a school teacher, so it was the eight days of spring break and then they wanted me to commit another month and I couldn’t do it, so I quit after eight days. Two of my assistant coaches and a couple other young football coaches at the high school, they stayed there and they traveled to Dallas. Every time (Al) Pacino is in a scene, my guys are standing right behind him in the movie. It was neat. Real good experience.”
** Where does Martin see the most progress in his team at this point?
“Our biggest weakness when we started back in October was listening. Our guys struggled to listen. Well, we’ve gotten a lot better there and it’s no surprise that we’ve also improved as a team. Guys are starting to understand that listening is a very important skill.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we need to be to have an identity. I can tell you our guys are playing hard, our guys are trying. I think offensively and defensively, we’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we were at Dec. 1 or even Jan. 1 for that matter.
“There are two things that I think we’re doing right now. We’re playing with passion and we’re rebounding the basketball. Those two things are important to our staff and I know we harp on it a lot, so it’s good to see that our players are doing some of the things that we’re asking of them. That identity of toughness, of discipline, of unselfishness, those are things that I want our program to be known about. That’s an ongoing teaching process. I like where we’re headed.”
** Martin has seen the benefits from his strength coach, Scott Greenawalt.
“I’ll tell you a quick story about what I think of him. When K-State offered me the job and Scott had a job offer obviously to stay with us at K-State but also to go to West Virginia with (Bob Huggins). Scott said to me, ‘Frank, give me two days. I’ll make the decision and I’ll let you know.’ They offered me a job on a Friday. My press conference was Monday. I had to go recruiting in Arkansas for the weekend at that big AAU tournament, flew back late Sunday night and I had a press conference Monday morning. So Monday morning, I’m meeting with my boss and the president before I walked in the press conference. I left that office and Scott was in the hallway and he said to me, ‘I’m in. I’m staying.’ That made me feel a heck of a lot better about who I am as a coach, knowing that he’s going to be onboard.
“He’s ridiculously good. He challenges those kids. He gets kids to become better, stronger, more athletic, more flexible. But the most important part is, he makes our kids mentally tough to deal with difficult moments, to deal with a nagging injury, to deal with that month of February when everyone else is running around saying ‘man, I’m tired,’ well, our guys are like, ‘This is what we do, man.’ That’s what we’re trying to teach our guys right now. Normal week when we’ve got two games, we’ll lift twice and we get after them now. It’s not go in there and play paddy cake. Our guys go in there and Scott gets after them pretty good, and our guys are starting to appreciate that.
“I think earlier in the season, if you asked the players, some of them were probably like, ‘Man, I can’t believe we’ve got to do this during the year.’ But now they’re starting to understand, ‘This is pretty good. I kind of like this.’ It all goes back to my whole thought process on everything that I’m about. The harder you work at something, the longer it takes for you to give in to a difficult moment. So we all want to work as hard as we can, so when it gets in February and it’s hard for everybody, instead of giving in, we’re willing to fight a little harder because we’ve invested so much.”
** USC closes the week by hosting Georgia on Saturday. The Bulldogs are 2-4 in SEC play and have won two of three. Their loss in that span is by 17 to Florida.
“I think they’re playing their best basketball of the year. I think they’re the perfect example of why people kind of jump to conclusions in November. They’re one of the youngest teams in the country. In November, as a coach, you’re trying to get those freshmen to understand how to be a college student, let alone understand how to practice and how important it is to prepare and understand how to value every possession. They’re real young. I won’t watch them on film until I’m on that airplane after that game coming back (from Florida). But scouting Florida, they just played (Georgia), so I kind of watched them on film. I watched them live back in late November, early December. They looked like a team with some young kids. I just watched the Florida game and they looked pretty good to me.
“They’re long, they’re athletic. Mark (Fox) has got them guarding, which is what his teams do. They’re going to defend you. I think they’re a lot better now. That’s just quick judging it, without really studying what they were two months ago. We all do this, including me, is jump to conclusions when things don’t work out right away, the way we’d like for them. But that’s why, as coaches, it’s so important we understand that you better have a little patience because you’ve just got to keep knocking on that door and stay consistent with your kids.”