Rough weeks were inevitable for South Carolina basketball, and the Gamecocks certainly endured one of those last week, when they lost at Florida by 39 points and fell by 11 to Georgia at home on Saturday.
The Gamecocks, now 2-6 in Southeastern Conference play, were flat on both ends of the floor in those games. They shot 31.1 and 35.8 percent, and allowed 52.8 and 58.1 percent shooting by their opponents.
Things get no easier on Tuesday night, when USC plays at Kentucky, a team that remains extraordinarily talented in spite of its hiccups this season, coming off a 38-2 national title run in 2012.
Since losing to Texas A&M, which dropped Kentucky to 1-1 in the SEC, the Wildcats have won five of six games, including three straight, and most recently a gritty 72-68 overtime win at Texas A&M. Moreover, three of those five victories have come on the road, including the past two (Texas A&M and Mississippi).
USC coach Frank Martin met with media mongrels on Monday morning, and before he got into talking about Kentucky’s shot-blocking sensation, Nerlens Noel, he expanded on his comments from after the Georgia game, when he blamed himself for USC’s struggles last week, but declined to offer specifics on what he was doing wrong, or how he might change his approach.
“Before I talk about our team and so forth, I made a comment after the game about it being my fault,” he said. “I don’t like not answering questions. When it pertains to players and all that, I’m not going to get in detail. When it pertains to me, I think it’s fair. Here’s where my mind was at after that game: I talk all the time about not paying attention to winning and losing, paying attention to detail, paying attention to who we are, paying attention to the culture.
“And we had been playing so good that I got wrapped up with (preparing for) the other team more than our own team. I’m asking our guys to fight every single day for the culture we’re trying to build. Well, they’ve never done that, and for me to expect them to do that on their own right now is not fair to them. If I don’t pay attention to detail, if I don’t hold them accountable, if I don’t fight for it every day, I can’t expect them to do it themselves. We’re not there yet as a program. That’s what I meant when I said what I said.”
In terms of Kentucky, Martin knows Noel poses a threat unlike any USC has faced this season.
“You don’t have time for shot fakes. You don’t have time to hold the ball. When you see a crack, you better have your eyes on that target and let it go, and know that he’s coming, because he comes every time. But if you hesitate on your move, you better pass that ball, because blocked shots are turnovers. They’re one and the same. There’s not a lot of Nerlens Noels out there that block shots at his rate.
“But we have to get better at blocking shots. There was a play in the second half (on Saturday against Georgia) which we just don’t have the personnel to make (regularly). But we were down eight, I believe, and we made a three, and we came down on defense and we got them sped up and their guy kind of drove it, and Mike (Carrera) came out of nowhere and blocked a shot. Bruce (Ellington) caught it, three-point play (on the other end). We don’t get enough of that yet, because we don’t have the personnel to protect the rim the way we need to and the way we will. But blocked shots are turnovers and that’s what (Noel) brings to their team.”
Long teams like Kentucky and Georgia give USC trouble when the Gamecocks are trying to run half-court offense, which means USC needs to get more stops than it did last week, so it can run in transition, for some easy baskets, and neutralize Kentucky’s length advantage.
“After the first seven minutes in the Florida game and the whole Georgia game, our defense was embarrassingly bad. Just bad. It’s not the defense that we had been playing for three weeks or whatever leading into last week. That’s on me. I allowed us to play that way. My first year as a head coach at K-State, we had nine first-year guys, seven freshmen, so we were, in comparison to the stock market, the most up-and-down thing you’ve ever seen in your life.
“But we had two first-round NBA picks on that team (Bill Walker was actually a second-round pick). So even on the days that we weren’t as good as we needed to be, we had a Michael Beasley to save us from a difficult day. We don’t have that right now. And that’s OK. So that means that we better be rock solid at what we’re trying to be good at, which is our defense. And then that defense needs to create some easy opportunities for us to score. We haven’t gotten that the last two games.”
USC struggled against another shot-blocking team, St. John’s, back in late November. The Gamecocks lost by 24 at St. John’s.
“We weren’t ready to play a team like St. John’s when we played them. That was an animal that was a little too big for us to deal with at the time. But yeah, St. John’s has shot-blockers. If I remember correctly, St. John’s guards were also big. They were in that 6-4, 6-5, 6-6 range, which, I don’t know if you can tell, but that usually presents a problem for us, because it makes it so much harder for us to pass the ball and get the ball to areas where we can try to neutralize shot-blocking a little bit.
“There’s not a lot of Nerlens Noels out there. He’s a special player and the thing is they just don’t have one. They’ve got two of them, because Willie Cauley blocks shots with the best of them, too. That’s the advantage of having those shot blockers back there. You can get out and guard people and really harass them, and if you get them playing a little too fast, then you create what everyone thinks is a negative play because someone gets beat off the dribble. Well, now it’s a guy that gets beat off the dribble because the guy on offense is playing too fast, breaking away from the offense because the defense is disrupting, and you’re taking them right where you want them, to that shot blocker, which is the equivalent of stealing the ball on the wing.”
Martin had an amusing response when asked about how he handles all of USC’s recent missed layups.
“I tell you what I definitely do, is there’s certain areas of my head that I don’t have to worry about brushing my hair anymore. You can’t control that (missed layups). All you can do is continue to work, continue to get good shots, instill confidence in your players and understand that as they continue to realize that we’re getting good shots, that they’ll find the confidence to make them eventually. Here’s what our team does at times: We allow those moments to impact our enthusiasm and our energy. We can’t let that happen. You miss a shot, you miss a shot. You’ve got to be proud that you got the right shot and you got a good shot. But you can’t let it impact you in a negative way.”
Martin’s friend and mentor, Bob Huggins, is having a rough season, too, as West Virginia is 10-11 and 3-5 in the Big 12.
“We spoke and obviously neither one of us is extremely happy with scores. We both have different completely set of challenges. It’s part of it. It’s not something you like going through, but you have to understand that you’re going to be a heck of a lot better for it at the end. So you better be excited about your job every single day. You better be excited.
“I had a dear friend that told me this: The good Lord makes you go through pain before there’s joy, in everything that takes place in life. And when you go through pain, it’s not comfortable, but if you keep your strength, you keep your faith, you keep your courage, your excitement for what you do, when joy gets here, then it’s that much more fun. And that’s what we have to go through right now. That’s what Huggs and I spoke about and it’s something that he’s not happy, I’m not happy, but it’s part of the deal. We understand.”
Martin has talked a lot this year about managing his team’s mindset, and trying to convince his players that they need to move past a bad moment and not let it weigh on them. USC obviously had a lot of bad moments the past three seasons, all of which finished with losing overall records, including 10-21 last year.
Martin has been a first-year coach before, but as he mentioned, that situation at Kansas State was completely different. The Wildcats were more talented and they were coming off a 23-12 (10-6 Big 12) season, in their lone year under Huggins. So has Martin had to manage and monitor the confidence of his team more this season than in the past?
“That’s something you’ve got to do every year, regardless of record, regardless of winning, regardless of losing, regardless of a good week or a bad week. That’s something you do every year. If you’re winning, then you better be having conversations with your guys about how to stay in the moment, how to not be worried about yesterday, worry about today and prepare for tomorrow. That’s education. Education is not a book and you open it, and it’s chapter one today, chapter two tomorrow. Education is day to day and dealing with whatever’s in front of you that day and preparing yourself, so when you have to go help others, you know what chapter to go back to, so you can help them through that moment.
“That’s what my job is. And it never ends. We’ve had some talks with our players this week, just like we do every week. I don’t speak about last year or the year before. I don’t speak about yesterday or the week before. I speak about today and the things we have to do today to get better for tomorrow. That’s how I try to live my life. It’s the way I try to coach. It’s the way I want my players to act. And I’m not always perfect. I make mistakes, like we all do. But it’s my mindset. That’s how I try to handle it.”