Today was rather large win for South Carolina basketball – 75-54 over Arkansas.
The Gamecocks improved to 12-7 and 2-4 in the Southeastern Conference, matching last year’s SEC win total (2-14). USC hadn’t won an SEC game by double digits since March 7, 2009, against Georgia (68-51). The Gamecocks hadn’t won an SEC game by 20-plus points since Feb. 11, 2006, against Mississippi State (83-61).
Of course, in the nearly seven years since USC beat Mississippi State by 22, the Gamecocks were 39-79 against SEC competition entering today, including the league tournament. And since they beat Georgia by 17 near the end of the 2008-09 season, they were 14-43 against the league.
Now, they prepare for Wednesday night’s game at No. 8 Florida – the highest-ranked team they have played all season – as they try to win back-to-back SEC games for the first time since January 2011.
But after losing by two, three, six and seven in SEC play before today, and winning by nine in overtime, USC coach Frank Martin was happy to get a big win, even though he knows it counts as just one victory.
“Real proud of our guys, their ability to keep all the stuff that’s irrelevant and doesn’t matter out of their minds, their ears, their eyes and being able to continue to come in here excited about competing and getting better,” he said. “Obviously as a coach, because we’ve been competing, extremely happy that their focus, their energy was rewarded with a win.”
So will this build some confidence for USC?
“I don’t know. When I leave a gym whether we win 50-49 or we win 100-26, we get credit for one win. And I go home and I sleep a little better. A real, real good friend of mine that’s in the business that I’m in said to me my first year at K-State … because I was miserable. We had nine first-year guys. It was a fight every day to get them to do right. We didn’t have much leadership on that team. And he said to me, ‘Frank, our business has gotten to a place where losing is misery and winning is relief.’
“So whether we win by one or 56, I guess I have a little relief where I can actually enjoy my kids and sleep for a night. And then I wake up Monday and I’ve got to watch Florida on tape and I get depressed again. But when your (players) are playing as hard as our guys are, you get excited because that gives you a chance regardless of who is on the other side.”
Here now, some other things Martin said after USC’s largest margin of victory in nearly seven years …
** USC has been trying to get its offense going through the high post.
“I guess we do have a 6-foot-10 guy, but we don’t have 6-foot-10, 260-pound just strong low-post guys. I guess I’m going to go off on a tangent here, which I’m pretty good about, but 1993, I took a high school job at North Miami High and I tried to play the same system that we played with at my high school, which was a strong, power game at the rim, and we won 20 games. But I had 6-4, 6-3 post guys. When we played the top two or three high schools in the city, that had 6-8, 6-7 guys, it was hard for us to succeed.
“So I learned that year that I can’t be stubborn. If I don’t have the personnel, we’ve got to make adjustments. So we try to facilitate things for our bigs through what we call elbows, the pinch post area. And then cut (the post players) into post-ups (from the elbows). That way, they can create an angle and it’s not unfair because of the size.”
** What did Martin say in a timeout after USC was down 15-3 with 15:39 left in the first half?
“This ain’t good. Sometimes you call timeout and you don’t have to say too much. I just told them, ‘Yo, three minutes into the game. We’re all right.’ And then Bruce (Ellington) did most of the talking. He just wanted to make sure everyone kept their heads in it – long game, relax, it’s all good. The only thing I talked about was: Keep throwing the ball inside, which we had done. We had just missed some shots. But we’ve got to run back. If you miss shots against them, I said Missouri is a jail break (offense in terms of speed). I don’t know what this is here. This is a bad country break. I saw them on film score a shot three seconds into the shot clock. That’s how fast they come at you. Bruce did most of the talking, just wanted to make sure we all stayed on the same page and we were good. It happens sometimes. We missed some easy shots and it didn’t deflate us, but it affected us running back. That can’t happen and guys responded great.”
** Martin has long expressed his desire for his players to be more vocal, so he must have liked to see Ellington take charge.
“It’s been happening. He’s got that personality, he’s got that demeanor. If you’re an athlete and guys have been practicing for three months, you can’t walk in the first day and open your mouth. I don’t care how much of a leader you are. Now, he’s been with us here for a little while. He’s starting to feel real comfortable, so it’s allowing him to inject his personality into the team because he’s doing things better and he is better understanding what we’re supposed to do.
“I think we as coaches understand our players, and I hope they’re understanding what we want better. I think we’re playing better. I’ve talked about this. As you move forward, you go through the ups and downs of a season, you go through the good, the bad, the indifferent, and the most important part is that you learn from each other. Because if you don’t learn from each other, you can’t function together. I think we’re getting better.”
** USC won the rebounding battle 42-26, which Martin loved to see, along with USC holding Arkansas to 34.4 percent shooting.
“For everyone that thinks that to rebound, you’ve got to be 7-1, I think this team should explain to people that if you’re willing to rebound, you’ve got a chance to win, regardless of what you look like in a picture. It’s a big part of who we are. Listen, whenever I refer to stats, because I never read them. I don’t pay attention to that stuff, but one of my assistants is a stat-aholic, so he’s always talking stats. I heard him say today before the game that we’re the leading offensive rebounding team in the SEC (13.8 in league games, tied with LSU for most in the conference), that we were No. 2 in the country on percentage of offensive rebounds (out of missed shots).
“That’s pretty good, because we emphasize it. As a coach, when the players do the things that you emphasize, it tells you they’re listening. Now, it doesn’t mean they’re going to make the right play, but it tells you they’re listening. I can tell you that we don’t win today if we don’t rebound. Pat Riley said a long time ago that rebounding equals rings, and it’s the only stat … field goal percentage defense and rebounding are the two stats that I care for.”
** Brian Richardson tied his career high with 20 points today. He had seven in the past four games combined, including three zero-point games. In two of those zero-point outings, he played two and three minutes. In the six games before those four games, he averaged 15 points.
But Richardson battled through his mistakes and shot eight of 13 today, compared to three of 12 in the previous four games (after 27 of 64 during his six-game hot streak). He shot three of five on 3-pointers today, compared to one of six in the previous four games and 15 of 35 in the six before that.
How did Richardson weather the struggles?
“Him just growing up. This is what I’ve been on Brian about from the first day we ever worked out together: As a coach, I’d like for you to make shots, but I really don’t care. I want you to play with energy, with toughness, with enthusiasm, with discipline. He started missing some shots after that Mississippi State, and he started to play and practice without that discipline and enthusiasm. If you pay attention to all our games, I always went back to him the way I always did, but then he’d go out there and he didn’t have that, so I’d take him out. Then when you guys (reporters) aren’t around, I speak to him about that. I’m like, ‘Yo, Brian, energy, bro. I don’t care (about other stuff), but you’ve got to give energy.’ The last two days, he’s kind of reengaged with that energy and a sense of telling me without telling me, ‘Get me back out there. I’m ready to go.’ So I called his number again. And it was great the way he responded.”
** USC shot seven of 12 on 3-pointers today and had an overall field goal percentage of 57.7 – its best of the season. Arkansas’ 34.4 percent shooting was the second-lowest allowed by USC this season, behind only 33.3 in USC’s last game, a loss at Missouri.
USC entered today shooting 33.3 percent on 3s – ninth in the SEC – and 43.7 percent overall, which ranked eighth. Where did this 3-point barrage come from?
“The ball going in the basket (smiles). No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be … Our guys work at it. We’ve taken those shots. Against Missouri, we shot real good shots and we showed them on film, and I said, ‘Hey, man, you guys are doing the stuff we’re asking you to do. You’re playing unselfishly. You’re taking shots. Now, you’ve got to come in the gym and work at it, and then you’ve got to have the courage to jump up and make shots. It’s just plain and simple.’ One of my managers told me that we had about six guys come in yesterday after practice and shoot for about an hour. It’s no surprise we make shots. Remember, as coaches, we’re limited to 20 hours (of practice time per week) now that school kind of kicked back in.
“So once you’re done with film and meetings and practice, you’re out of time and you can’t bring them in for individual instruction. Part of becoming a good player is taking that responsibility to come back in on your own and shoot the ball. If you want to be a good player, you’ve got to do it. Guys did that. I don’t know how many they made when they came back (after practice) because I don’t keep track of that stuff, but we made them today. Hopefully that gives us confidence. We make them in practice. We’ve got to make sure the right guys keep shooting.”
** USC did a nice job of handling Arkansas’ pressure defense.
“I’ve got a rule any time we play Mike (Anderson’s) teams. If you dribble the ball along the sideline, you’re coming out of the game. I don’t care who you are. The ball has to stay in the middle of the floor. And then the spacing by the other guys has to be where it belongs. So when they come double you (the point guard), now you can see the whole thing, and good floor spacing allows you to pass it to the open guy. Lakeem Jackson and Bruce today were phenomenal – Bruce keeping the ball in the middle, Lakeem getting where he belonged. And then the other rule we’ve got is when we throw it in the middle (of the floor), they kind of bait you to throw it there. That guy in the middle is not there to dribble the ball. He’s there to catch it and make the next pass. You might have one dribble to create the passing angle, but you’re not there to dribble the ball. And Lakeem was phenomenal at that (being the middle guy) today.”
** Ellington shot six of eight and scored 14 points. In his previous three games, he scored seven points each time and shot three of 12 twice and two of 13 the other time. How did Ellington get through that slump?
“Work at it. You’re either a good shooter or you’re not. If you’re a guy that’s made shots before, and you work at it, just shoot it, make it. I don’t care. I don’t pay attention to that stuff. Now if you’re a bad shooter and you’re shooting, then you and me are going to have a problem. But he makes shots. Bruce has made hard shots here, and he’s been taking not hard shots, he’s been taking open shots. He just hasn’t made them.
“He came in the day after the Vanderbilt game, after practice, it was a Sunday, and we practiced and we went in and watched film. I went in the locker room, caught my breath, tried to reorganize my thoughts, changed my clothes, went back out to leave, and he was in the gym by himself in a chair, shooting balls. You’ve got to have pride. If you go back, you always listen to me say that in life, you get what you put in. He’s putting in the time, so he’s going to make shots. We need to understand now that he’s been at practice for two weeks, maybe three now. But think about it. He’s practiced 10, 12 times, and we’re asking him to play like the guys on the other teams that have been practicing since Oct. 13. That’s not fair to him. He works at it. He’s got pride. It’s going to come.”
** So what was the most important development USC can take out of this game going forward?
“That when they show up here on Monday, if they’re just walking around smiling, them and me are going to have a bad day. All I spoke to them about (after the game) is: ‘I don’t come in here and kick you after a loss. I don’t believe in that. I come in here excited about coaching you to get better. I want you to be excited about practicing to get better. So we won a game. Great. Unfortunately we don’t get to cancel the rest of the season because we won today.’
“We’ve got an opportunity to have confidence that if we continue to work and build and pay attention to discipline, it gives us a chance to win. You have to invest emotionally, you have to invest physically. I was talking to Billy Donovan the other day and he said, ‘Frank, it’s like putting money in the bank. The more you put in the bank, the more you’ve got at the end.’ That’s what you’ve got to do as an athlete. You’ve got to continue to invest. You’re investing in your team and who you are and hopefully we understand that.”
** Ellington also played nice defense on BJ Young, Arkansas’ leading scorer. He shot three of 12 and scored seven points.
“(Ellington) understands what we’re doing from a concepts standpoint. He’s tough, he’s got athleticism, he’s got a real good mind, he understands angles. See, the game is all angles. If you’ve got the wrong angle, I don’t care how fast you are, you’re not going to succeed. So he understands angles. When you coach him, he comprehends what you’re saying. Let’s look at his last three matchups. The point guard at Vanderbilt I think scored two points against him (Kedren Johnson had three on zero of six shooting). He’s the key to their team. Bruce neutralized him. We go to Missouri. Phil Pressey is pretty good. Neutralized him (two of eight shooting, six points). And now today this. So Bruce is understanding what we do.
“The point guard spearheads your defense and spearheads your offense. You’ll hear me say this a trillion times as long as coach Tanner (athletic director Ray Tanner) allows me to stay here: If you don’t have a good point guard, then you’re not going to be talking to me. You’ve got to have a good point guard, or else there will be another coach sitting here and you’ll be asking him, ‘Hey, why is your defense no good and why do you guys turn it over so much?’ You’ve got to have a good point guard.”
** Is Martin’s “expect to win” mentality wearing off on his team?
“I would hope so. We all get judged on these 40 minutes. I judge our players on every day, regardless of whether there’s a game or not. Yesterday’s practice, our attention to detail was great. I left here depressed because we charted it and we missed 43 layups in practice yesterday. Forty-three. So I left here depressed, because if you can’t make a layup, it’s hard to win. So when I left here, I was encouraged by what we did, but I was depressed.
“My wife said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘Eh, I don’t know how the heck we’ll win a game. We can’t make a layup.’ That’s what I told the team today: ‘Hey man, yesterday’s practice, our defense was great, our attention to detail was great. On offense, we made right decisions. You’ve got to make those easy shots, man.’ And we did that today. Early in the game, we missed a couple point-blank shots, but then it started coming. You can play as hard as you want and you can be great defensively and rebound the heck out of the ball. If you can’t put that ball through that net, it’s going to be hard. And today we put it through the net.”
** In terms of the “irrelevant” stuff Martin was referring to when he opened his press conference, he said he meant this …
“Outside noise. Facebook, Twitter, Internet, text messages, uncles, coaches, cousins, all those other people, because you lose a couple games and they all of a sudden have opinions. So we talked to our guys a little bit about, ‘Those guys aren’t practicing with you every day. They’re not sitting here watching us practice. Keep your focus on what we’re doing.’ In today’s day in age, if you don’t talk to your players about that, they’re going to listen (to the outside noise) because they’re kids and they’re going to listen to somebody. Even as grownups, what do we do? When we’re vulnerable, we listen to the next person, regardless of what they say.
“Well, when you lose a couple games and you’re coaching kids, they’re going to get vulnerable. So they’re going to listen to whoever tells them what they want to hear. So as a coach in today’s day in age, you better engage in those conversations with your team to make sure that you keep all that stuff … At the end of the day, if the score wasn’t important, we wouldn’t have a scoreboard that cost $2 million or whatever that thing costs. So the score is obviously important, OK? But that’s irrelevant. All that takes care of itself if your focus stays on your group and your culture.
“I talk to our team all the time about this. The NBA has got a lot of real good players. Why are there so many bad teams? Because of culture. You’ve got to build your culture. And when talent and culture meet, now you’ve got a chance to be great. But if you’ve got talent and no culture, you’ve got no chance. If you’ve got average talent and good culture, you’ve got a chance. So you’ve got to build your culture and to build your culture, you’ve got to keep all that stuff out and keep your focus on what you’re doing.”