South Carolina has now lost two straight games and is 5-3 with one game remaining, Friday night against Jacksonville at home, before the final exams break.
Sunday’s 64-55 loss to Clemson wasn’t as tough for coach Frank Martin to swallow as Thursday’s 89-65 defeat at St. John’s, but he still isn’t quite sure of his team’s identity yet. That’s not surprising, since it’s still early in the season.
For the second straight game, USC had little offensive rhythm. The Gamecocks shot 34.6 percent. They shot 36.9 percent at St. John’s. Their offensive issues have been exposed against the two best defensive teams they have played all season. Moreover, they had 19 turnovers on Sunday and are averaging 19.3 for the season.
“We continue to battle and find the personality of our team,” Martin said. “It’s hard to win against anybody when you continue to turn the ball over 20 times and you’re just inept on offense. When you try to score the basketball through individuality rather than team concepts and you play good teams, you shoot a low percentage and you turn it over. That’s the unfortunate trap that we continue to fall into. It’s one of those things. There’s a lot of behaviors that have to be changed and you don’t change those like turning lights on and off. You change those through experiences and teaching and finding a personality of your team. That’s what we continue to search for. I think I saw a little bit today, but we need to find it more often.”
USC’s offensive rhythm in the first half was limited by being called for 11 fouls.
“If the referees call fouls, it’s a foul,” Martin said. “Here’s the deal: The first 10, 12 minutes of the half, we committed fouls because we’re hesitant, we play on our heels, we play with no toughness. Then the last seven, eight minutes of the half, we didn’t foul very often. I actually walked into the locker room at halftime (USC was down 28-27) and that’s as happy as I’ve been in a long time, because I finally saw guys on the court playing with the discipline, the tenacity, the lessons that we try to teach. I think it’s no surprise that we were in the game.
“But we don’t understand how to do that at a high level over an extended period of time yet. When I talk about our team’s personality, that’s what I’m talking about. Whoever you are, you need to be that all the time. You can’t be that every once in a while or just when things are good. You’ve got to be that even when things are hard, and right now we’re trying to figure that out.”
USC sputtered to start the second half because of one thing.
“Bad offense,” Martin said. “We couldn’t make a pass from the point to the wing. Whenever we did pass, guys wouldn’t move. They’d stand and look. Give (Clemson) credit now. They guard you. Defense is No. 1 on their minds every day. It’s obvious when you watch them on film and you actually line up and play against them that their personality is there all the time. But offensively, we were just inept early in the second half. Bad offense leads not just to missed shots and turnovers, but to breakaway baskets. We kind of got into that hole.
“Our staff continues to try and figure out what things we can do to put (the players) in the best position that we possibly can. Structure-wise, who’s the passer, who’s catcher, where do they catch it at? Angles, cracks, all those things – you have to learn your players and where they find success at. And that’s something that we continue to figure out as coaches. There’s only so much of that that you can learn in practice. You evolve as a team in practice. You learn from your team in games. That’s what we have to make sure that we continue to do.
“The quicker they learn and commit to learning, the quicker we’ll grow from it. The quicker they take on these kind of negative experiences and use them as a way to learn, to grow, rather than question or doubt, the quicker things get better. So you understand, when I was a real young coach, all I knew how to do was scream. I didn’t know anything else. I wasn’t educated enough to try and educate. This old guy that’s been real influential in my life said to me one day, ‘Frank, the more frustrated you get, the more you’ve got to teach. That’ll give you peace of mind.’ That’s how we do things as a staff.”
Lack of communication is a major offensive issue for USC right now.
“You give me a team that loses, and I’ll give you a team of mutes,” Martin said. “You give me a team that wins and I’ll give you a team that never shuts up. That’s the culture that you’ve got to have. That’s a problem with our team right now. We get back to guys understanding, learning, all those things. Here’s the deal: If you know what you’re doing, then you have to do your job. And then when you do your job, you have to make sure that you communicate with the others on the floor to make sure that everyone is doing their job.
“In practice yesterday, we were trying to run something and we couldn’t get guys to do what they were supposed to do. And I told the team, ‘I had a guy named Denis Clemente (at Kansas State). He was 5-foot-10, 170 pounds. He was a little point guard. I never played him anywhere but the point guard position. Never. Never played a second off the ball. If I told him to run a play as the (center), he’d run it better than our (centers).’ Now all of a sudden your point guard makes sure everyone does their job, because he understands, so now you’ve got a good offensive team. Right now, we’re searching to find that. Communication is a big problem.”
So what can Martin do to improve communication?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I ask them all the time, ‘Do we need to play and practice with Twitter?’ Because they never shut up on Twitter. Maybe we need to bring computers to practice so they can communicate that way.”
In searching for his team’s personality, Martin believes his players can take some cues from Clemson’s defense, even though the style itself is different.
“But the toughness and the attention to detail is the same (as Martin wants at USC),” Martin said. “I’ve been all over our big guys and we did a better job today protecting the rim through charges. The last two games, we’ve played two good teams that have got good interior players. When our guards do find a crack or we do throw the ball in the post, every time we shot the ball, somebody’s arm was all over that ball. We need to learn how to do that (on defense). We’ve got guys that stand there and watch a little too much. We’ve got to get a little more competitive and help-oriented defensively when you’re off the ball. Give Clemson credit. They’re going to grind you. You’re not getting easy baskets against them.”
LaShay Page entered today as USC’s leading scorer. But he shot just 1 of 6 and scored three points after shooting 1 of 7 and scoring two points at St. John’s. What’s going on with him?
“I’ve got no idea,” Martin said. “I guess I’m supposed to know. That’s what coaches should say: ‘Well, I know exactly what’s wrong.’ I’ve got no idea. His attention to detail defensively hasn’t been what we need it to be. But he’s a freshman, too (in terms of his experience in Martin’s system). He’s trying to learn. He’ll be fine.”
Martin knows USC can’t keep turning the ball over like this.
“I just told our guys in the locker room after the game, ‘It’s kind of like when you have that freshman quarterback who’s sitting in that pocket and he’s got six guys trying to rip his head off. He sees that little window between the safety and the corner about 18 yards down the field and he just throws that ball because he’s trusting that’s what he’s been coached to do.’ Those aren’t our turnovers. That’s a guy trying to make a play through the trust of the offense.
“Our turnovers are, ‘Oh my God, I’m getting ready to get hit,’ throw that ball sideways so they can steal it and score a touchdown. Those are our turnovers. You can’t have that. Let’s face it here: We’re playing high major college basketball. You can’t catch the ball and travel when you catch it. I didn’t tolerate that as a junior varsity basketball coach back in 1986. Right now, we have some of that. We’ve got to fix that. Guys need to understand. Young players don’t understand that and it’s our job as coaches to get them to understand that right there.”
Sunday was point guard Bruce Ellington’s second of three games with the basketball team before he returns to football duties. Ellington scored 12 points after having seven at St. John’s. Martin has played him 29 and 27 minutes in these two games, and Eric Smith has played 24 minutes in both contests. Ellington likely will take over the point guard spot in January. Martin has been impressed so far with some of what Ellington has done in a short period of time with hoops.
“Bruce is a dynamic personality,” Martin said. “He’s a winner. I don’t think it’s any surprise that he’s the leading receiver on the football team. I’ll say this, and I usually don’t speak about our team publicly: In three days of practice, he’s got a better understanding of some of the things that we do than some of the guys that have been at practice every day for two months.
“Now, he’s making a bunch of mistakes. Those are mistakes that will get better. His mistakes aren’t silly mistakes. His mistakes are ‘trying to make a play’ mistakes. He had a bad turnover today. They hard-hedged a ball screen and he killed his dribble and then they just hit him hard and he kind of fumbled it. You can’t have that turnover. You can’t. But the other four he had, he was trying to make plays.
“When guys have turnovers trying to make a play, you can live with it. When guys have turnovers because they just travel or you can’t pass the ball from the point to the wing … and it’s not always the guy with the ball’s fault. At the end of the day, he gets a turnover and that’s not acceptable. But it’s the guy cutting out of the corner understanding how to cut. It’s something that we’ve got to keep working on.”