South Carolina’s 62-54 overtime loss at Georgia on Saturday means the Gamecocks still have not won back-to-back Southeastern Conference games since January 2011.
They are 13-14 and 3-11 in SEC play with four games remaining, starting Thursday night at home against Missouri. While the Gamecocks likely will finish with another poor SEC record – after 6-10, 5-11 and 2-14 the past three years – they can still have their first winning overall record since 2008-09, when they went 21-10.
As first-year coach Frank Martin tries to change the culture at USC, he is encouraged that the Gamecocks have been in seven of their losses right up to the end. They lost by two to Mississippi State, three to Auburn, seven to Vanderbilt, six to Missouri, 11 to Georgia, five to Tennessee and eight in overtime to Georgia.
Of their three wins, they pulled out two at the end – by nine in overtime at LSU and by one over Mississippi.
USC’s 2-14 SEC record last season was its worst ever. That works out to a .125 winning percentage. The SEC now has an 18-game league schedule, and even if the Gamecocks lose out and finish 3-15, they will still finish with a .167 winning percentage.
Also consider that last season, USC’s margin of decision in SEC play was minus-10. This season, it is minus-7.1 – a number inflated by losses of 18, 22 and, especially, 39 to Florida. On a whole, USC has been more competitive in conference play this season.
That USC’s numbers are a bit better without post players Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris – promising prospects who transferred after last season – is a sign of progress for Martin.
He continues to try to ignite more passion in USC’s fan base, and knows that winning is the best way to do it.
USC’s average paid home attendance this season is 8,602, and 9,693 in SEC home games. Last season, those numbers were 8,868 and 9,605, though they were inflated by home games against Ohio State and Kentucky, who brought large contingents of their own fans. Those games were USC’s two highest home draws last season – paid crowds of 13,654 for Ohio State and 16,527 for Kentucky. USC didn’t have a marquee non-league home game this season.
Since winning its second straight NIT in 2006, USC’s program has not registered on the college basketball landscape, and has given its fans few reasons to be excited.
The Gamecocks went one-and-done in the SEC tournament in five of those next six years, and 1-1 in the other year. They made one postseason tournament, the 2009 NIT, and got bounced in the first round. They had losing overall records in five of those six seasons since the 2006 NIT title, and their record against SEC teams over that span, and including this season, is now 36-81.
It’s not like Martin has a ton of history to sell. USC made the NCAA tournament four straight years in the 1970s (1971-74), then again in 1989, 1997, 1998 and 2004. USC hasn’t won a game in the tournament since 1973, when it won one, just as it did in 1972.
In those days, the tournament had consolation rounds, and USC won its consolation games in 1972 and 1973 after being bounced from the regular field in its second game. USC’s overall NCAA tournament record, including consolation games, is 4-9. The details …
1971 – 0-2 (including consolation round loss)
1972 – 2-1 (including consolation round win)
1973 – 2-1 (including consolation round win)
1974 – 0-1
1989 – 0-1
1997 – 0-1 (as No. 2 seed)
1998 – 0-1 (as No. 3 seed)
2004 – 0-1
Martin talked a lot at his Wednesday press conference about what he hopes to do to change USC’s culture.
“Even the first year (at Kansas State) when I was the assistant (to Bob Huggins), very similar to this season,” he said. “The difference is we had a guy on our roster that was an NBA player, in Cartier Martin, so as the year went on, he started to understand, just like this (USC) team is understanding, and then all those one-possession games we’ve been in, you’ve got a pro. And now you run a play for that pro, and that pro jumps up and makes a basket, that pro jumps up and gets a rebound. That’s why he’s a pro, because he’s that talented of a player. We’re kind of void of that (now at USC).
“I don’t like to deal with the past because I wasn’t a part of what happened at K-State before I got there, just like I wasn’t a part of what happened here before I got here. When we got to K-State, those guys were right on the verge. They were like an eight-win, seven-win conference team. Here, people say, ‘Well, if guys would have stayed (instead of Gill and Harris transferring after last season).’ Well, they didn’t. And I’m not going to sit around and dwell on whether they should have left or should have stayed. I’ll be honest you. I really don’t care. Once they made their decisions, they needed to go do what makes them happy. K-State, we didn’t lose anybody when we got the job. Everybody that was in place from the year before stayed, so you had a lot of (returning) guys that were high minute a game guys before we arrived.
“So you had more guys that had been through it. As we deal with the season, a lot of guys that we’re playing (now at USC) never got in games last year. You go back and look at box scores from the last 10 games of the season, and most of them were never in those situations. They just didn’t play. What does that mean? I’ve got no idea. All I’m saying is it’s hard to compare here and there (K-State). The only one difference that I can tell you is that we had a guy that’s a legitimate NBA player on the roster that first year, where we were changing the culture. When I say culture, it’s not just the players, now. It’s you guys (the media), it’s the alumni base, it’s the fans. We’ve got to change all that. That’s not going to change overnight. That sense of apathy, of ‘who cares?’ – that has to change, and it’s got to change across the board with everybody, not just the players.”
He was asked how long he expects the rebuilding job to take.
“If I told you two years, and two years from now, we’re still not quite there, then you’re going to ask me that question, ‘I thought you said two years from now.’ And if I tell you two years and somehow, some way, we figure out a way to win some of these close games we’ve lost and we put ourselves in a place to be in it next year, we’re going to sit here and say, ‘I thought you said two years.’ So I have no idea. We have to change a lot more things than what I thought. There’s a lot of things that need to change for us to continue to grow as a program. And they’ll change, because I’ve engaged in numerous conversations and experienced it with different groups of people, where I’m confident that they will change.
“When I mean change, I don’t mean mass changes. It’s kind of what I was talking about with the culture earlier. It’s got to change. For things to start changing, we have to continue to play with the resolve and the fight that we’ve played with for the most part of the conference schedule. What we have to do differently is we’ve got to win these close games. When you do that, then the players continue to play better.
“Rather than hang their head in that moment against Georgia (late in the game) … and that’s not fair for me to say that they hung their head in that moment against Georgia. That’s not right. The kids played too hard. Rather than get wrapped up in a negative emotion in that moment against Georgia, maybe they can look back and say, ‘Hey, remember the LSU game (in Baton Rouge)? We figured that one out. We’re good. Let’s get this done.’ Maybe we have more of that, and then with that success breeds more positive change.
“I don’t know timetable. I’m not good at that kind of stuff. But there are a lot more things that need to be done than I thought when I got here, and that’s OK. I didn’t come here to go on vacation. We came here as a staff to do a job, and we hope like heck every day that three, four, five years from now, we can look back and maybe we can have a product like when you watch my former team (Kansas State) play, the product they put on the floor, the interest level that there is for that program, we hope we can kind of build it to where it gets to that place, too.”
Martin declined to elaborate on the specific things he meant when he said, “We have to change a lot more things than what I thought.”
“I’m not getting into that right now. Those are all things that when the season is over and as things change, then I’ll elaborate on them. As of right now, don’t misunderstand. I’m not unhappy about anything. When I say culture, I’m talking about the whole ball of wax now. I’m talking about everyone that’s involved in this basketball program. There has to be a cultural change. Believe me, I understand why there’s a sense of apathy. I didn’t a year ago. I do now. But that’s OK. Let’s change it. For it to change starts with me doing my job, getting players to play the game the right way, and everything will start moving from there.”
So why does he think there is a sense of apathy?
“One of the things I’ve tried to do is connect with as many former people that have been a part of this program as I possibly can, so I can find out their opinions, because they were a part of it. They were a part of success. I don’t know. I really don’t. I can tell you that from my conversations – and those of you guys that have been around here a heck of a lot longer than I would probably agree or disagree with me – but the last time that there was a true unbelievable connection with the alumni base, the community, the product on the floor was when Eddie Fogler was here. There was an ugly divorce there (with Fogler). I don’t know if that had something to do with that (ensuing disconnect) or not. That’s OK. That’s just kind of what I’ve learned.
“Coach (Dave) Odom won 20 games five, six times. But you don’t hear people refer to excitement during that time period. I have no idea why. I know when I look at the numbers, I see 20 wins, 20 wins, 20 wins, and I’m like, ‘That’s not that bad. That’s pretty darn good.’ The SEC was right in the middle of those years where Florida was rolling. All those teams, they were all real good. Carolina was at .500 almost every single year there (in league play). So I have no idea why. All the things that need to change, in my opinion, didn’t just happen overnight. Something has been building up over a long period of time, but it’s been 40 years since the last NCAA win. That creates of a sense of disconnect because like I’ve said all along, everyone is judged in our sport based on how you do in that NCAA tournament. You’ve got to get into the tournament and you’ve got to make a run and that creates a culture of success, a culture of excitement, and the more you do that, the more you breed it. And we’ve got to get to that.”
To Martin’s point, Fogler spent eight seasons at USC and brought the Gamecocks to the 1997 and 1998 NCAA tournaments, before being replaced by Odom in 2001-02.
Fogler won 20 games twice, in those tournament years. His final record was 123-117 – including high-water marks of 24-8 and 23-8 in the tournament years. In SEC play, he was 57-71, including 15-1 and 11-5 in the tournament years.
Odom’s seven seasons at USC included one NCAA appearance, in 2004. He had four 20-win seasons. His record was 128-104 and 41-71 in the SEC. His best SEC records were 8-8 in 2003-04 and 7-9 in 2004-05.
But as mentioned above, things have fallen off since USC won its second straight NIT in 2006, after going 6-10 in league play that season and winning three games in the SEC tournament, only to lose to Florida by two in the final. Those Gators went on to win the national title.
This season, for the sixth time in seven years, nobody will be talking about the Gamecocks as the calendar turns to March.
Martin hopes that will change sooner rather than later. He will certainly give himself a shot to turn the program around if he continues to recruit guys like wing player Sindarius Thornwell, a highly regarded prospect who is set to join the Gamecocks next season.
“I’m sure when the tournament is going on, if our season is done and we’re not playing in any event, I’m sure I’ll sit back and say, ‘God, it’s fun to be in that thing,’” Martin said. “But I’m so immersed in what we’re doing right now. Postseason play is what it’s all about. Coaches love the fact that you get into postseason because you get to practice more. That’s where we do all our teaching. Games are fun for the fans, for the media. For us as coaches, games are grueling. I love practice. For me, games are hard. I can be on the floor for 10 straight hours practicing. A 40-minute game feels like an eternity.”
A few more things Martin said Wednesday …
** Missouri is 5-4 since beating USC on Jan. 22. The Tigers’ losses are by three, two, two and seven in overtime. Their wins are by 22, 14, 19, 42 and three.
The biggest difference Martin sees in Missouri now, as compared to Jan. 22?
“A guy named Arthur Bowers (Laurence Bowers) is back on the floor. You can argue that he’s a first-team all-league player. If he hadn’t missed the games that he missed, he probably would be a first-team all-league player. I know him well from my years going up against him (while at K-State). You don’t lose a guy that’s so long, so athletic, that’s a shot-blocker, that can rebound and now what he’s done is that he can make those perimeter shots, along with attacking the rim. You don’t lose a guy like that and become a better team.”
Bowers, who is 6-8 and 227 pounds, returned from a knee injury two games after Missouri played USC. It sidelined him for a total of five games.
“What’s happened with them is all those transfers and the different guys they’ve been trying to put together, it appears that they became better, more understanding of things they needed to do,” Martin said. “And now Bowers is back, so you’ve got a more complete team, a more prepared team. Obviously, they’re going to play how (point guard Phil) Pressey plays. He’s dynamic. He’s got moments where he’ll make a mistake or two, but if you look at the whole picture from top to bottom, it’s pretty impressive what he does as a player. And he does it (while playing) a high, high number of minutes over a long season. It’s impressive that he plays as well as he does for as long of a period as he does. They’re real talented.”
** Martin continued to be frustrated by USC missing a great chance to win at Georgia, but was pleased that the Gamecocks were again in contention at the end.
“As disappointed as I was in our mis-managing of the last minute and 30 seconds of the Georgia game, I was equally as proud of the resolve and the fight that our guys played with to put ourselves in a situation where we were there to win a road game against a good Georgia team. Frustrated by our inability to close the game, but proud of the resolve and the fight and the discipline that, this late in the year, our guys continue to pay attention to playing the game the right way, to playing through the things that we recite. Two games in a row, we held an opponent in the 30s as far as field goal percentage defense (31.3 for Georgia, 37.5 for Ole Miss). When you do that and you don’t really have a shot blocker, that tells you your guys are doing a pretty darn good job of making things hard for the opponent.
Why does Martin think USC’s players got discouraged late against Georgia?
“I don’t know. I wish I could give you an answer. All I can think of the old ‘here we go again’ syndrome. I don’t dwell on it. In the huddle between regulation and the overtime, I was extremely displeased with everything we did in the last … outside of Eric Smith making two free throws, we did everything backward the last minute and 30 seconds. We didn’t do anything right. I addressed that in the huddle. I’m not one of those ‘let’s wait until after the game to address things.’ I like to address things immediately. When you’ve got a game in hand and you give it away, it’s deflating, and that obviously carried into how we played in overtime.”