Frank Martin is going to find out a lot more about his first South Carolina basketball team starting Wednesday night, when the Gamecocks open Southeastern Conference play at Mississippi State.
USC is 10-3 against a tepid non-conference schedule, with losses to its toughest non-league opponents (Clemson and St. John’s) and also a loss to Elon. So how much do we really know about this team right now? Not much.
Even at the end of this week, the Gamecocks could be 2-0 in SEC play with wins over Mississippi State and Auburn, who will battle USC to stay out of the SEC basement this season. And while a 12-3 and 2-0 start would certainly bode well for a USC team that went 10-21 and 2-14 last season and is expected to struggle again this year, it wouldn’t guarantee anything for the rest of the league schedule.
All that said, USC is starting to get some bodies back, which will help depth and let Martin play with the fast and aggressive tempo that he favors on both ends of the court. It fits Martin’s assertive personality, but he knows that when you don’t have the bodies to play fast, you have to manage that style, or else your players will wear down.
While shooting guard LaShay Page is done for the year because of academics, USC will get point guard Bruce Ellington (its best player) back for Wednesday’s game. And there is a chance that starting freshman wing player Michael Carrera will return from a hip injury.
That would give USC 10 available scholarship players – big man Carlton Geathers is still out with a knee injury – if you count Ellington among that group, even though he is technically on a football scholarship.
Moreover, the Gamecocks this week are welcoming point guard Tyrone Johnson, a transfer from Villanova. He won’t be able to play until the second semester of next season, when he will be a redshirt sophomore. But Johnson, a former highly regarded recruit, will be able to participate in practice. So that’s another available body.
Here now, Martin talking about those things and many other items at his Tuesday press conference …
** Carrera has missed the past two games, but he did well enough in his on-court exercises with trainers Monday that Martin thinks there is a chance he might play Wednesday.
“He’s a go at practice (Tuesday), and depending how he responds at practice will determine whether he’ll play or not,” Martin said. “But he will travel either way. If that goes well, we still don’t have the kind of depth I’d like. But we won’t be as undermanned. I like playing fast. Rarely will you see us play slow. That upsets my stomach.”
** Ellington played four games after the football regular season ended (St. John’s, Clemson, Jacksonville, Appalachian State) then missed the next three (Manhattan, Presbyterian, South Carolina State) and now he is back for the rest of the season. Martin couldn’t be happier to have him back.
“From watching him whatever he practiced in early December – 10, 12 days, whatever it was – by that last day, he could impact games the way Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen did for us at K-State. That’s the kind of impact he can have on a game. He brings a personality. When he’s in practice, the guy that’s next to him, whatever team he’s with, all of a sudden plays better. You think that’s a surprise? That doesn’t happen by mistake. Now, you put (Ellington) on a different team and the guy that was next to him doesn’t play as well. That has a lot to do with who he is. He’s got that demeanor, that personality about him that he uplifts people. He gets the person next to him to play better. That’s a strong talent. That’s very important in our team.
“Here’s one thing that I’ve talked to our staff about and we’ve tried to manage this the right way: We’re not coaching a group of freshmen that have got their opinions of how things should be done and an opinion of how good they are and you’re trying to break them like that young colt. We’re coaching a group of guys that have been wounded and we’re trying to get them to feel good about themselves again.
“We don’t have that with Bruce. The other guys, we’ve had to manage that (confidence level) a little bit. We have to be careful how we coach them because they’ve played without confidence before. We can’t have that. We’re trying to get them to believe in what they can do when they do play with confidence and with a purpose. With Bruce, that confidence is never gone. There’s a sense of confidence about him that kind of permeates through our team and it’s exciting when you see someone like that. Carrera kind of has that, too. There’s a personality that you’ve got to have.”
** Martin’s thoughts on his newest player, Johnson?
“He brings a different dynamic to our team that we don’t have. He’s a 6-foot-3, long-armed, big-handed, just athletic guy that’s real good with the ball. He’s always been predominantly a point (guard), but he can also play off the ball. His ball skills are real good. His athleticism is real good. He was a high school quarterback, so that gives you an idea of the kind of mindset that he possesses. That’s who he is by nature. Big, strong, athletic guard. The way we try to play, (he) kind of fits who we are.
“It’ll be awesome to have someone like that that can train … not that his body is not healthy, but just get in that weight room, take advantage of the next 10 months or so to get his body as strong and as conditioned as he can, to be able to work on his game, and then understand our ways of practicing, our terminology, our thoughts, how we try to play, so when his number is called next year, he’s ready to roll from Day 1. There’s not a learning curve, whether it’s him for me or me for him. We both understand each other a lot better.
“If you look back on our track record with transfers, that’s really helped us. Not just winning games, but their ability – whether it was Denis Clemente or Curtis Kelly – from that first day they were eligible (at Kansas State) to impact our program because of that understanding of one another. We’re excited. (Johnson) has got the ability to be a big-time player. He’ll be dressed and ready to roll today.”
Martin had success with Clemente transferring from Miami and Kelly from Connecticut. It will be interesting to see if Johnson can have similar success with coming from Villanova to USC.
** Mississippi State is undermanned, but that doesn’t mean Martin will play any more aggressively than he normally does.
“I try not to deviate how we play based on the opponent. I’ve got to formulate a thought process on how we have to play to be able to win every game on the schedule, and that’s what we try to focus in on, and try to stay constant. We’re still playing pretty fast. It’s not like we’re crawling out there. It’s not like we’re trying to win 48-46. If we win 48-46, I’ll be pleased we won. I won’t be real happy with how we played. We have to focus in on how we need to play to be able to win every game on our schedule, and that can’t change every single day. We have to kind of stay consistent with how we’re playing.
“Having Bruce back gets us a little deeper at point guard, which is a big concern for me. I can’t run Eric Smith into the ground. I think some of the difficult moments that you’ve seen Eric have over the last three weeks or so usually have been in that middle segment of the second half. Well, he’s playing high, high minutes, and he plays real hard. He gets a little tired. I just haven’t had too many options there. Now having Bruce back, that’ll alleviate some of those problems.”
** Martin had a lot to say about gearing his team’s development toward league play.
“Everything you do should be about your league. When you coach in a league like the SEC, everything you do with your team from that first day you show up in August to the time season ends should be all organized around preparing your team to compete in league play, because it’s all about league play. Outside of postseason, the memories that you always keep are those moments that you have in league games. Those are special moments that stay with you forever and ever.
“If we’re preparing to play whoever, and we’re not practicing the way we’re supposed to practice, I might throw comments in there, like: ‘How are we going to deal with (Florida’s) Patric Young if we can’t handle this moment right now?’ I’ll say, ‘How are you going to score that ball over (Kentucky’s) Willie Cauley or Nerlens Noel if we can’t score that ball in this moment right now?’ I’m constantly using moments to get our guys understanding how important it is that we do things a certain way because the competition is coming around the corner.
“I remember coaching Udonis Haslem in high school and he was bigger and stronger than most high school kids, so he liked to take plays off and wouldn’t be as assertive or physical as he needed to be. I used to sit there and say, ‘How are you going to guard C.J. Black (of Tennessee) next year?’ And he’d say, ‘Who’s C.J. Black?’ And I’d say, ‘You’re going to find out.’ When he was a freshman at Florida, he called me and he said, ‘Coach, I know who C.J. Black is now.’ As a teacher, you’re always trying to prepare your guys for the challenge at hand.
“Let’s say we’re 13-0 in non-league play. Everybody would say, ‘Oh my God.’ Then we start league play and we end up 3-15. How happy would any of us be, including me? I probably wouldn’t be this chipper having a conversation with you. You end up in your league 15-3, people will be talking about that.
“The other part about league play is everyone knows everything about each other. We’ll know everything Mississippi State does, and I promise you they’re going to know everything we do. Well, that’s when you determine how good of a team you can really be. It’s who’s going to execute who they are better on that day? And that’s the beauty of league play, that we all know each other, but you still have to go out and do it.”
** Even if USC wins Wednesday, Martin doesn’t want to put too much stock into one game.
“Even if we win, I’ll somehow figure out a way to ruin their confidence Thursday in practice. I just have a way of doing that. It’s unbelievable. Whether we do (win) or we don’t, we better have confidence Thursday in practice. And whether we like it or not, we’ve got to play again Saturday (against Auburn). If you get too wrapped up in a game, then it can hurt you going forward.”
** Martin talked a bit about how his staff prepares for opponents, and how he sympathizes with new Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, a former Clemson assistant.
“I refuse to look at opponents, unless it’s a live game that I just happen to be sitting on my couch watching, I refuse to break film down of an opponent until we’re done with the previous opponent. So as soon as we played our game the other day, I started watching Mississippi State. Lamont Evans, who is in charge of the scout, he’d been watching them for a little bit. I try to keep the routine the same for myself and our staff. I’ll visit with him, so he kind of gives me his thoughts, then I’ll watch film, then I’ll share some of those thoughts I have with him. Then it’s his job to prepare the team for what he sees. He does that based on conversations with me and other staff members.
“As a head coach, it’s my job to trust in my assistants. Part of my job is to prepare those guys to be head coaches one day. When he stands firm with what he believes are strengths and weaknesses of the opponent, unless I completely disagree with him, I’ve got to stand strong with him and give him his opportunity to put his thoughts in front of players. Obviously, a head coach you always have the chance to overrule, but you do that in private. You don’t do that in front of the team. But we try to follow that protocol.
“As far as Mississippi State goes, any time that I go home and I might be a little frustrated about this or that or whatever it may be, you look at what coach (Rick) Ray has gone through. When you take on a new job, I tell our players all the time, I didn’t come here because it was easy. Part of my decision making process to take the job here wasn’t because, well, it’s going to be easy at South Carolina.
“I’m sure when coach (Ray) made the decision to go there, he knew what he was walking into. But the one part you don’t expect are the injuries that he’s had to deal with, on top of the guys leaving early and all that other stuff. It’s unfortunate. That first year is never the easiest. For a first-time head coach, he’s probably had to deal with a lot more adversity than anyone should have to deal with, and he’s got them playing extremely hard, by the way.”
** Martin has some long-standing memories of the SEC that he supplemented with experiences of coaching in the Big East and Big 12.
“Growing up in South Florida, the closest basketball we had as a kid was University of Florida. I spent countless times at the old O’Connell Center, watching different SEC teams play from 1983 on down the line. I’ve always been amazed at how athletic the SEC is, the amount of athletic players, the amount of big-time basketball players that have played in the SEC.
“Then I get to college and I end up in the Big East (at Cincinnati). We go in there when it expanded. You’re going and playing all these very well coached teams, whether it be Boeheim, Calhoun. Then I end up in the Big 12. And I can tell you this: When I got to the Big 12, the biggest thing for me and it was the first time I really experienced it was that every single time you played, there were 14,000 people in the stands. Every single time. I don’t care who you played, I don’t care what day of the week (it was).
“Our guys were going to Iowa State and it our first year, coach (Bob) Huggins’ year as the head coach at K-State, and there was a blizzard. I mean, it’s negative degrees. You can’t see. So I said, ‘Good. Maybe no one will show up.’ Well, 14,000 people later. I was like, ‘OK, so much for that.’
“Now, coming into the SEC, I see a lot of the same similarities in the SEC and the Big 12. I see a league that has very good coaches. Getting here this year reminds me a lot of our first year at K-State, where we had six new coaches in the league. Here, we don’t have six this year, but there’s transition in the league, whether it be Tony Barbee at Auburn, who is now starting to get his guys playing a certain way, or Cuonzo (Martin) at Tennessee.
“I heard Billy Donovan yesterday (on the SEC teleconference) speak about it. Cuonzo didn’t expect to lose (Jeronne) Maymon (to a knee injury). That’s not in your plans when you’re developing your team. Well, he lost him. So now, he’s had to redevelop new players to take on that responsibility, and that takes time. You don’t show up in November and by Nov. 15, you’ve got all that figured out. That takes time.
“I think some of that transition in our league … I don’t care what anyone tells me: (John) Calipari is as good as there is out there. Not just recruiting, but coaching. He lost a lot. It’s going to take time for all those new kids to learn how to play the way he wants them to play. By the end of the year, they’re going to be in the conversation. They’re going to be right back in it. Florida, same way. Billy lost some guys. So they’ve lost two hard games to hard opponents on the road (Arizona and Kansas State). It’s going to happen.
“Our league is in a little bit of transition right now, whether it be Billy Kennedy in his second year at A&M, Frank Haith (in his) second year at Missouri. Obviously, I’m in my first year here. Mike (Anderson) is in his second year at Arkansas. Give it a little time. As this season progresses, I think you’ll see that this league will be real good by the end of the year.”