With football season in the books, South Carolina now turns its attention (at least for the next month and a half until baseball starts), to the serious games of Frank Martin’s first season as basketball coach.
Between now and the Feb. 15 baseball opener against Liberty, USC will play 12 basketball games, including the first 11 of its 18 Southeastern Conference games. By the time baseball season begins, we should have a pretty good read on how much better Martin’s first team is, if it is better at all, than the past three USC squads, which went 2-14, 5-11 and 6-10 in the SEC.
USC’s final non-conference game is Saturday at home against South Carolina State. The Gamecocks are 9-3 and have lost both of their legit non-conference games (St. John’s and Clemson) and also lost to Elon.
The rest of their non-league schedule is fairly dreadful. Wisconsin-Milwaukee is now 4-10, Morgan State 3-7, Rider 6-8, Missouri State 3-11, Arkansas-Little Rock 8-7, Jacksonville 7-8, Appalachian State 4-8, Manhattan 3-9 and Presbyterian 3-11. South Carolina State is 4-9.
So USC should be 10-3, thanks to its awful non-league schedule (largely crafted by the previous coaching staff), entering league play, which begins Wednesday at Mississippi State.
USC has some breaks in its SEC schedule – just one meeting each with Kentucky and Florida, though both are on the road. There are three SEC teams that currently have losing records – Mississippi State, Georgia and Auburn – and the Gamecocks get two games against the first two of those teams, and one against Auburn.
In short, presuming USC enters league play 10-3, it will need to go at least 6-12 in the SEC in order to avoid its fourth straight overall losing record. The last time that happened was in USC’s first four seasons in the SEC (1991-92 to 1994-95).
So while USC should be 10-3 as non-league play ends Saturday evening, things are obviously going to get tougher for the Gamecocks from here on out.
In the meantime, they are just trying to get their roster back to full strength. They have 12 available scholarship players (if you count point guard Bruce Ellington, even though he is on a football scholarship, because he would be on a basketball scholarship).
Big man Carlton Geathers is still out with a knee injury. He hasn’t played all year. Wing player Michael Carrera (a starter) will miss his second straight game Saturday because of a lingering hip injury. Ellington hasn’t played the past two games because he’s been with football, and Martin is giving him Saturday off so he can rest. And shooting guard LaShay Page (a third starter), could miss his third straight game on Saturday because of an academic issue.
If Page doesn’t get cleared, USC will be down to eight available/healthy scholarship players for the South Carolina State game. Of course, that was the case of the Gamecocks’ last contest, a Dec. 29 win over Presbyterian, which followed a Dec. 22 win over Manhattan.
So Saturday against South Carolina State will be just USC’s third game in the past three weeks, and its fourth since Dec. 7, as the Gamecocks were off for finals. That’s a lot of practice time, without having to worry about game preparation, in which Martin could develop his team.
Here now, Martin’s thoughts, expressed early Thursday afternoon, on where his team stands as it prepares for its first game of the New Year …
** Regarding Page’s situation, he said, “There were in-depth meetings (Thursday) on campus. I was not a part of those meetings because I’ve been at practice. I’ll be visiting with my bosses here in a little bit. As of right now, there’s still no resolution. We don’t expect this to delay more than another day or so. But as of right now, that academic glitch has not changed, therefore he is still not allowed to dress.”
** Martin knows Ellington has been through a grind and wants him to rest.
“I talked to Bruce (Wednesday) night, and I was so happy that he made that catch (to win the Outback Bowl) after not contributing anything the whole game that I told him to take the rest of the week off. I’ve put that helmet on before. After six months, that body takes a toll. So he’ll be with us Saturday (though not playing). The kid hasn’t caught his breath in more than a year, so I asked him to go catch your breath, be around, listen, but just take practice off, don’t worry about that mental thing about competing until next week.
“Like I told him, ‘Bruce you’re not just coming out here to stand around. You’re coming out here to do what everyone else does.’ And he understands. He’s awesome. He’ll be with us either Sunday practice or Monday practice. That’s the part we haven’t determined (and will determine after Saturday’s game). And when I mean ‘be with us,’ I mean dressed, with me all over him when he doesn’t take charges and that kind of stuff.”
** Martin doesn’t have a lot of answers about Carrera’s hip injury.
“He won’t play Saturday either. Here’s the thing with me and injuries: I don’t hide injuries from people, but I’m not into timetables either, because everyone heals differently. So if I say, ‘well, 10 days,’ then on Day No. 11, you’re going to ask, and I’m going to say, ‘two more weeks,’ and then you’re going to say, ‘Well, are you being honest with the injury?’
“I’ve got no idea. I don’t want to say four weeks and then dress him in 10 days, and you’re like, ‘Frank was just trying to play quiet.’ I’ve got no idea. He’s got a hip issue there. It’s not career threatening, but stress makes it worse, so he’s got to rest it. He might go out for the swim team, as much time as he’s spent in the pool the last 10 days.”
** USC emerged from the final exams break with a win over Appalachian State on Dec. 19, and Martin has been taking advantage of his players’ free time, since classes don’t begin until Jan. 14. After the South Carolina State game, USC will get two SEC games in before classes start – at Mississippi State on Wednesday and the SEC home opener against Auburn on Jan. 12.
“Our break ended Dec. 26, when everyone got in their cars or planes and came back on campus. We (practiced) that night and we took (Jan. 1) off just because we don’t need to run them into the ground, either. But we’ve been pretty much going twice a day every day with the exception of the day before the game. The day before, we just go once.”
** Martin was asked what he likes about his team so far and where his concerns remain.
“We’ve gotten better. I sat there and watched film back in October and I saw a lot of holes. Not holes because of a lack of talent, (but) holes because just guys (were) not playing as a unit yet. When I sit there and watch film now, I see a group of guys that are a lot further ahead than they were two months ago or whenever it was that we got this thing going.
“Concerns? I’ve never been a big guy with concerns. I don’t worry about things. I’m more concerned about recruiting because they’re not on your side yet, so you’re trying to fight for the unknown. I get concerned when I don’t know what’s in front of me.”
OK, so not concerns, per se, but where in particular would he like to see his guys get better?
“Here’s my deal: I want to be better tomorrow than we were today. That’s what I keep my focus on. I want to make sure that our guys’ mindset is not locked in to predetermined notions, whether are we good enough, or we’re not good enough, whether we had a bad day yesterday, a good yesterday, I want everyone coming in every day with a fresh mindset.
“I’ve had people ask me before, ‘Is so-and-so in your dog house?’ What is that? What’s a dog house?”
It’s a place where you keep your dog, he was told.
“Actually, when I had a dog, I didn’t have a dog house. What is that? I’ve never understood that. I don’t know what that is. If someone’s in the dog house, then they shouldn’t be in your program.
“You’re constantly trying to teach, get guys to understand the value of being excited every day for what’s in front of them. And that’s what I try to keep my focus on. People say, ‘Frank, you yank players out of games.’ Yeah, I do. But you know what? I put them right back in. It’s rare that I take guys out and let them sit at the end of the bench over there. I’m trying to teach. That’s what we get paid for. We’re still educators even though we’re using basketball.”
** Martin knows his team can’t overlook South Carolina State just because of its poor record. Remember, this USC team beat Appalachian State by just five and Manhattan by six.
“I’ve been in the shoes of S.C. State, where you feel good about your team and your record stinks. They were nose to nose with Maryland (and lost 61-46, and also lost 77-41 to Clemson in their last game). A couple games have gotten away from them.
“When you consider our team, we’re not the most talented group of guys in the history of basketball, so for us to be good, we’ve got to be good every day. We can’t take days off. Even if we were real talented, we still as coaches would never accept that (taking days off). But we don’t have that margin for error to take days off and still figure out a way to win a game.
“I think you guys saw that earlier this year when everybody was raving because we scored 90 against somebody (88 against Rider) and I was sitting there telling everybody that we were getting ready to get dinged, and Elon came in here and dinged us. If we’re razor sharp – and our practices have been good – then we give ourselves a chance to win. That’s all we can worry about.”
** Defense is the foundation of Martin’s system, and he has liked what he’s seen so far from the Gamecocks in that regard (especially lately, it would seem), as they change from playing a zone, which they did last year under coach Darrin Horn, to Martin’s pressure-oriented approach.
USC currently ranks last in the SEC with a field goal percentage defense of 43.9. That is with its last four opponents (Jacksonville, Appalachian State, Manhattan and Presbyterian) shooting 38.2, 36.5, 40 and 46.9 percent.
“I’ve actually been pleased. I think we’ve been pretty consistent there. We’re not as deep, because of the injuries and all that stuff, as I’d like to be there. See, that’s the one thing with how we will continue to play (in the future), we take advantage of depth because we’re so pressure-oriented on both ends of the floor.
“Without that much depth, I’ve got to be careful. I’ve got to be careful that guys get tired during the course of the game, and now you’re undermanned on the bench to put someone else in because you’re not real deep. You create more possessions that way (by playing fast), which I’m all for, but if you get in foul trouble, now it’s a problem. So we’re trying to manage it a little bit. But I’m real pleased with where our guys are at from a foundation standpoint from our defensive principles.”
** Finally, Martin, who was at the Outback Bowl, relayed a funny anecdote when asked about Jadeveon Clowney’s big hit.
“One of our incoming players (Sindarius Thornwell, Martin said later) quit playing football because he got hit by Clowney when he was a sophomore in high school in a football game, so he said, ‘I’m not playing football anymore, because that hurt.’”