South Carolina coach Frank Martin opened his press conference Tuesday morning by clarifying his very candid and critical comments from after USC’s loss to LSU last Thursday.
“If you know anything about me, for 28 years, I don’t throw my players under the bus,” he said. “I threw the culture under the bus. I threw our approach under the bus. Don’t ever say I throw my players under the bus. If you know anything about me, that’s never happened in 28 years. It ain’t happening yesterday. It ain’t happening today. And the day they kick me out of here and out of this business, I still won’t do it. Now, our culture, our approach? It’s no good. That has to change. But I’m not throwing players under the bus. I fight for my guys. I don’t kick them.”
Then he paused and considered the rainy, overcast morning in Columbia.
“What an ugly day, but what a great day to be alive and ready to go,” he said.
Even though USC will try to avoid a seven-game losing streak on Wednesday night at home against Mississippi, which would be its longest since it dropped seven straight in 2002-03, Martin saw reasons to be encouraged by USC’s latest game, a 68-58 loss Saturday at Alabama.
“Listen, we’re trying to build a program,” he said. “That doesn’t happen by just showing up. You go across history and you can find the best coach in whatever sport you’ve ever come across and you put him in his first year at a place where they haven’t had success, there’s no magic wand to the formula. There’s not a shortcut to the process. It takes time. I don’t put myself in the same breath with the great ones. I never have and I never will. There’s so many people so much better than I am at this.
“But I do study and I do work and I do prepare and I do understand what it takes to win. I told our team yesterday, ‘When you spent 16 years in high school basketball and 11 of those, your team played in the state championship game, you’ve got to be doing something right. When you spend 12 years in college basketball and nine of those 12 years, your team wins at least 20 games and we’ve been in postseason play eight consecutive years, you’ve got to be doing something right.’ So I understand what it takes to win. My staff understands what it takes to win. Unfortunately, the kids that were here don’t understand.
“It takes time. My whole thing with them is we need to worry about figuring out, teaching, learning what it takes to win. And once we embrace all that, then we can worry about winning. That’s my whole goal all year. It’s never changed. It didn’t change when we won five in a row or whatever we did. It didn’t change when we beat LSU at LSU. It didn’t change when we beat Arkansas. We’ve got limitations as a program. My job is to make sure that we continue to fight the insecurities that people have when they’re not used to winning. And we have to make sure we manage that, we educate that.
“We’re in a tough stretch right now. There’s only one way that this is going to go away, is if we take it head-on, not run away from it. We understand that we’re getting put in a grinder right now. Well, what are you going to do? Just lay there? Or are you going to deal with it and get better for it? That Alabama game, when it got kind of ugly there again in the first half, I saw Bruce Ellington say, ‘You know what, man, I am done with this nonsense. I’m going to do this, and whoever wants to help me, come on.’
“Well, now I can help Bruce, because he put his foot in the ground. And now as I started to help Bruce, then we saw two or three other guys kind of join his effort, his desire, his unwillingness to give in to that difficult moment. It was fun to coach that game. That’s why, for the first time in 28 years, I actually went home after a loss and I felt encouraged, because I saw guys follow Bruce’s lead. Where does that take us from here? I’ve got no idea. We’ve got to teach this every day. It’s an everyday process until we can get a room full of guys committed to dealing with adversity the way Bruce, guys that are willing to invest in this program. That’s an everyday process. There’s no shortcut. There’s no way around it.
“I couldn’t care less what our record is. I didn’t care what our record was, you can go back and look at press conferences, when we were No. 2 in the country (at Kansas State). People would ask. I don’t care. I really don’t care about the record. To me, it’s all about the kids. It’s about teaching every single day. Record is for fans. Record is for ESPN to have something to talk about every night as they put their last four in, last four out, all that other stuff. RPI is to give people something to talk about to keep people interested. I get it. I understand. It’s important. It’s OK.
“But for me internally, the only thing I’ve ever worried about is our kids, (and) making sure that we as a staff do everything we can to help them. Because our job is to prepare, our job is to get them better, our job is to teach them what it takes to win. And as those kids continue to learn, as Bruce Ellington’s personality continues to permeate, then our program will become stronger and better. That’s all we’re looking for.”
Martin clarified that Ellington didn’t actually say “I am done with this nonsense,” but “That was by the way he played (that Martin could sense Ellington’s determination). He went out there, made some plays defensively and got him a basket or two and then other guys started playing with that energy again that we hadn’t played with in three weeks and sacrificing their bodies, taking charges, going after loose balls, doing all the things that we’ve got to do to be a good basketball team, things that when you’re real talented, you still have to do. Those talented players won’t understand that until you build a culture and that’s how you play all the time. And all of a sudden, guys started doing things. It’s fun to be around that kind of stuff. It’s fun to see guys play with that kind of fervor and that kind of passion.”
One thing Martin wants to see his team improve on – paying attention to scouting reports.
“Michael Beasley as a freshman (at Kansas State), the first time we ever had a scouting reporting, he raised his hand in the middle of the scouting report and he said to me, ‘Coach, I understand all this. How are those guys going to guard me?’ I could have started laughing like we’re all laughing in here right now, but it’s that moment where I’ve got to capture that young man that doesn’t know any better because he’s never had a scouting report presented to him before.
“I said, ‘Mike, you want to play one day above and beyond where you’re at right now? Because everyone over there is real good, so they can guard you, so you better pay attention to this.’ Well, it was beautiful to watch that kid. Going out, you know he’s going to just out-talent everybody. By the end of the year, (he was) absorbing those scouting reports left and right. So when you play real good players, he knew where the shots were going to be, he knew what kind of stuff the other team was going to run and he knew that once he guarded that action, player tendencies.
“See, we’re not there yet. Our guys still don’t embrace the essence of a scouting report, how it can help you as a player. That’s just something that takes time. You’ve got to keep beating them upside the head with it and make them understand. And eventually, some guy is going to say, ‘Wow, when that guy catches it there, coach told me he dribbles it to his left hand every time, so I just played his left hand and I had success. This is pretty good. This helps me.’ As that goes on, all that is part of winning. All that is part of a culture of winning, is the attention to detail that comes with winning. We’re not there yet. It’s something we’ve got to get a lot better at.”
As Martin continues to try to change USC’s culture, he will face an Ole Miss team on Wednesday that has dropped four of its past six games after starting 17-2 and 6-0 in SEC play.
Two of the biggest challenges for USC in those game are guard Marshall Henderson, a 3-point marksman who averages 19.7 points, and 6-7, 240-pound forward Murphy Holloway, who averages 14.5 points and 9.3 rebounds.
Holloway, who is from Irmo and was Mr. Basketball in the state as a senior, spent his first two seasons at Ole Miss, then transferred to USC and sat out the 2010-11 season. But he transferred back to Ole Miss after that season and was given a waiver to play immediately. Holloway, now a senior, never played in a game for USC.
This will be Holloway’s first game in Columbia since he transferred back to Ole Miss. The Gamecocks traveled to Ole Miss last year.
USC struggled recently against Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes and LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant – two strong post players – and while Holloway is a physical matchup problem or USC, Martin clarified that he is different from Stokes and O’Bryant.
“Those two guys are kind of low-post. See, when we played at LSU (and won), our perimeter defense was better. We played with a little life to us, so they couldn’t get the ball in place to pass it to O’Bryant on the post, so O’Bryant started floating away from the post. That’s what our defense is supposed to do when we’re good, which now neutralizes that disadvantage we have at the rim (because of a lack of size).
“Stokes, we battled him. The game plan was to not be so consumed with him that everyone else on the perimeter … they’ve got a bunch of guys that will dribble-drive you to death and now they start getting to the foul line and the thought process going in is, ‘Let’s not be worried about doubling (in the post against Stokes) and putting our guys in difficult moments on the perimeter defensively.’
“Murphy is more of a face-up player (than O’Bryant or Stokes). (Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy) likes to run isolations for Murphy from the top of the key, from the right elbow, where he can take it and drive guys off the dribble. Then he gets on the offensive glass. It’s a little different because of the way they utilize him to score compared to those other guys (O’Bryant and Stokes), but still, he’s every bit of a grown man out there, and we have to mach that toughness that he plays with.
“I’ve known Murphy forever. Murphy’s just a strong bull that’s athletic and when you turn him loose going to his left hand, he’s a handful. You’re talking about a fifth-year senior going against basically Lakeem (Jackson of USC) and three freshmen. So Lakeem has got to be solid there for us in that matchup when they’re going head-to-head. Then when Lakeem is matched up at the three, we need one of those other guys to step up and be willing to match that athleticism and physicality that Murphy brings.”
** Martin is seeing Ole Miss emerge from its recent slump with an improved roster, and Martin is still high on Henderson, the energetic sharp-shooter.
“(Kennedy has) got the kid Nick Williams back (a senior guard who was sidelined for two games with a foot injury, but has played in the past three). They went through a tough stretch there. But he didn’t have Nick Williams. He didn’t have that big ol’ strong center, his backup center (Demarco Cox, who is done for the season after playing in just seven games, and none since Dec. 23, because of a foot stress fracture). And then he lost his sixth man to a knee injury (when Aaron Jones tore his ACL in a loss to Kentucky, which started this rough stretch of games).
“Without those three, he was basically playing five, maybe six guys. Now Nick is back. Nick is a fifth-year senior. I recruited Nick. He’s a glue guy. He’s one of those guys that just gives you stability. You’ve got to have that, a guy that when things aren’t going the way they need to go, is going to put his arms around guys and make them do the right things. So he’s got him back, so they’re getting more stability.
“Henderson, the national media might have stopped with the fanfare or whatever, (but) he hasn’t changed. If you allow him to pivot on his left foot and he can just peek at the rim, you might as well just put that ball in the basket. He’s a hard matchup. And AK, he does an unbelievable job of running stuff and getting players to screen for him. Good players can’t get open by themselves all the time. They do a great job of screening for him.”
** Martin said he didn’t want to judge Henderson’s on-court antics, which have attracted considerable attention this season.
“I think everyone has their own personality as a player and I think every coach has their own personality. As long as his coach and his administration is comfortable with who he is as a young man, I don’t think there’s any place for me to be formulating an opinion about the way somebody plays. Heck, how many people ask you, ‘God, I can’t stand Frank and his sideline demeanor’? So who am I to form opinions of other people, whether I like it or not? He’s got a boss, Marshall has a boss, Andy Kennedy has a boss. They all communicate and as long as he’s representing that university the right way on that campus, he’s going to class.
“He obviously is playing the game the right way because their team is winning and he scores 20 points a game. All the other stuff, I think it’s up to the people in his life to manage how they feel that needs to be handled. But that’s the beautiful thing about our country, man. We’re not all mannequins and all look the same and act the same. Could you imagine how boring life would be if that was the walk of life we all took? It’s a beautiful thing that there are different people, different personalities and we all learn from one another. Just because what someone does is wrong for me or what I do is wrong for someone else doesn’t make it wrong for society. It’s the beautiful thing about where we live.”
** Finally, Martin goes way back with Kennedy, Ole Miss’ coach. When Martin went from Northeastern (his first college job) to Cincinnati in 2004, he joined Bob Huggins’ staff, which already included Kennedy.
Martin spent one season working alongside Kennedy and then the 2005-06 season working under Kennedy, because he became the interim head coach after Huggins was fired. Kennedy went to Ole Miss in 2006-07 and Martin joined Huggins as a Kansas State assistant for that one season, before becoming the head coach at Kansas State in 2007-08 after Huggins left for West Virginia.
“AK, we’ve been talking all week here,” Martin said. “You find out who your real friends are when you’re in difficult moments. When you’re winning and you’re No. 2 in the country and all that, all of a sudden you’ve got all these phony friends that all want to tell you how great you are. When you’re going through a tough time, that’s when you find out who’s really with you and I can’t get Hugs (Bob Huggins), AK, Anthony (Grant of Alabama), I can’t get those guys off the phone here for the last two weeks. We rarely speak during the year (normally).
“One of (Kennedy’s) assistants is a boyhood friend of mine, just like one of Anthony’s assistants is a boyhood friend of mine. AK has this ability to instill unbelievable confidence in his players. It’s just amazing. I don’t care how difficult a moment might be for his team. When that game starts, his players have an unbelievable confidence about their ability to do their jobs. He does a phenomenal job of getting his best players shots from areas where they’re real efficient at. That’s a mark of a good basketball coach.
“It’s about putting your players in a place where they can play through strengths rather than weaknesses. This year, I kind of feel like I continue to put guys in places where they’re playing through a weakness rather than a strength. I’ve got to do a much better job at that. That comes with understanding your players, too. They understand you. You understand them. AK is just a special guy. I’ve always been surrounded by special people since I was a kid. I don’t know why. Just special people always come in my life, and he’s one of them.”