COLUMBIA — Frank Martin hasn’t gone through a season like his first one at South Carolina in a long time.
Martin, 46, went back to his time as a 20-something junior varsity coach in South Florida to recall such an awful, distressing stretch as the Gamecocks have endured during the Southeastern Conference season.
South Carolina (12-11) has won two of 10 conference games and is tied for last in the league with Mississippi State. The Gamecocks are on a four-game league losing streak with LSU (13-8, 4-6) headed to campus Thursday night.
Martin appears headed toward his first non-20 win season in his six years as a college head coach. How’s he handling things?
“Patience,” he says.
That’s been difficult for the ultra-competitive Martin, in the first season at South Carolina. After Sunday’s 66-61 loss to Tennessee, he said the Gamecocks offense wouldn’t match up with some of the high school JV teams he’s coached.
During one stretch, Martin’s was about the only voice heard at the Colonial Life Arena, shouting “Pass the ball” to his players.
“It’s not a comfortable place to be in when you’re going through what we’re going through right now,” he said. “But I didn’t show up here to run a 50-yard dash and then go home. It’s a long race.”
And getting longer with each defeat.
The Gamecocks are near the bottom of the SEC in shooting percentage and scoring defense and don’t have a player in the top 25 in league scoring average.
That means when it’s crunch time — five of their eight SEC defeats have come by less than 10 points — Martin has no one making the critical play.
When he coached at Kansas State, he’d call on Michael Beasley to get the crucial buckets and “everybody thought that was pretty good offense.”
Martin’s latest college team has him remembering the JV squad at Miami Senior High which started 7-2 then lost seven straight games. Martin was in his early 20s and struggling to find ways to reach his teenage players. Martin decided to stick to his basketball principles and demand just as much from those 14 and 15 years olds after losing as he did during their earlier success. Martin said that group rebounded to win its final two games and the lessons of that season have stuck with the coach ever since.
There have been several hurdles South Carolina’s had to surmount since Martin’s arrival. Two of the team’s best players in 6-foot-9 Damontre Harris and 6-8 Anthony Gill transferred last spring. The team’s top guard, Bruce Ellington, was the leading receiver on the football team is only now rounding into basketball shape.
Martin also lost senior Southern Miss transfer LaShay Page to eligibility issues before SEC play began, an error the coach took full responsibility for.
Martin acknowledged other mistakes, too. After a four-game stretch in January where the Gamecocks won twice and took then-ranked Missouri to the wire before falling 71-66, Martin shifted more focus to breaking down opponents at the expense of coaching up his own players.
The result was a series of disheartening losses, including 75-36 to Florida which set a South Carolina record for margin of defeat.
“Is that their fault?” Martin said. “No, that’s my fault, because I haven’t paid attention to it. I haven’t demanded as much as I need to. We’ll fix that. When I don’t do my job, I’m a big boy. I look in that mirror and I tell that guy the truth.”
Senior Lakeem Jackson said the players felt the change in their coach.
“We talked about it, and I think we kind of got everything squared away. I think we’re all on the same page,” Jackson said.
Martin has simplified his offense for his young team. The leading scorer at 11.1 points a game is Michael Carrera, a gangly, 6-6 freshman who still disappears for sizeable stretches when faced with stout SEC defenders. There are several other young players on the roster and a solid recruiting class that includes standouts like Sindarius Thornwell of Oak Hill Academy and Justin McKie, the son of the school’s all-time leading scorer BJ McKie.
“There’s a lot of training, a lot of hard days that we’ve got to go through that we can create the training and discipline, the toughness that I want our program to have,” Martin said.