In times like these, South Carolina head coach Frank Martin likes to think back to a saying he heard from longtime basketball coach and current ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla.
“There’s gonna be five games a year where you don’t play any good. There’s gonna be five games a year where you play probably over your head, and then the other 20 games kind of determine who your team is,” Martin said Friday, echoing Fraschilla’s words.
“And I think that’s a pretty accurate statement coming from a guy that coached for a long, long time.”
Martin’s Gamecocks are coming off, by far, their worst game of the season, a 24-point drubbing against a mid-major Coastal Carolina team in Conway on Wednesday night. The Chanticleers dominated in every aspect, from rebounding to transition points to points in the paint. The Gamecocks only held a lead in the game’s first 70 seconds.
The loss triggered painful memories and a murmuring of negativity on social media from a Gamecocks fan base that watched USC go 6-15 during last year’s COVID-19 season and have seen the Gamecocks lose to such teams as Northern Iowa and Wyoming in non-conference play in recent years.
Though obviously not pleased with the loss, Martin said Friday that he remains bullish about this year’s group, which includes nine new players and which Martin said remains very much a “work in progress.”
The Gamecocks will enter a Sunday afternoon clash against visiting Georgetown with a 5-2 record on the season, boasting quality wins against Western Kentucky, UAB and Wofford. Given all the turnover from last year’s group and considering top returning scorer Keyshawn Bryant missed the first five games of the year due to suspension, Martin said he thinks the revamped Gamecocks are ahead of schedule.
“I think these guys have done really darn well, and I think we’ve been a lot more consistent than I thought we’d be this early in the year,” Martin said. “That’s why I’m not going to overreact to a bad performance our last time out.
“... We’re all trying to understand each other. We’re all going through this for the first time, for the most part, together. And that takes time to figure out.”
Seven games in, the Gamecocks are just past the halfway point in their non-conference slate, with six games left before SEC play begins. The next stretch of games could be pivotal for USC, especially considering that three of the team’s next four opponents are Georgetown, Florida State and Clemson.
At 5-2, the Gamecocks could quickly pad their resume or just as easily go in the opposite direction. For context, USC went 14-5 in non-conference play during its 2017 Final Four season and went 14-2 in its 2016 NIT season.
Martin has consistently praised the spirit of this year’s group, pointing to veteran guard transfers James Reese and Erik Stevenson for bringing a level of toughness and leadership that the team lacked. Both have shown flashes of being productive players, although Stevenson has been streaky from the 3-point line this season, going 2 for 10 in the loss to Coastal Carolina.
But the team’s most glaring flaw through the early portion of this season has been the play of its big men, something that was exposed in Conway as the Chanticleers handily won the battle on the glass. Junior Wildens Leveque is entrenched at starting center, but Martin has mixed and matched at the 4, rotating between A.J. Wilson, Brandon Martin and Josh Gray, among others.
Martin has said he still needs to see more physicality from his bigs, and they struggled to finish at the rim against Coastal. But the head coach said he believes in the pieces he has in place, and that belief hasn’t wavered after Wednesday’s blowout.
“As coaches it’s our job to give them direction, instill trust in them, not being an emotional train wreck of judging them based on their last performance and hugging them after a good day and telling them how much you dislike them after a bad day,” Martin said. “That’s not the way the world works. That’s not the way good teams are operated.
“And those guys will be fine. The objective is for us to be the best basketball team that we can be in March. And that’s always been my objective, and that will continue to be my objective this year.”
Next USC men’s basketball game
Who: South Carolina vs. Georgetown
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Colonial Life Arena in Columbia
Watch: SEC Network