COLUMBIA — Frank Martin has enjoyed meeting fans, learning about his new home city and working with colleagues like Steve Spurrier, Ray Tanner and Dawn Staley. Now, South Carolina’s new men’s basketball coach is ready to get to work.
“It’s been awesome” since arriving in March from Kansas State, Martin said. “With all that said, this is my favorite time of the year.”
Martin and the Gamecocks open practice on Friday, along with the rest of Division I college basketball. Martin was hired after last season to revive a South Carolina team that fell to last in the Southeastern Conference at 2-14 a year ago.
Almost from the time he touched down in Columbia, Martin’s spoken to civic groups, alumni groups and booster groups. He’s also worked hard on recruiting, filling a roster that lost last year’s leading scorer in Malik Cooke, young forwards Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris to transfer and, at least temporarily, point guard Bruce Ellington to the football team.
For Martin, though, his passion is practice and that can’t arrive fast enough.
“My life becomes what it’s supposed to be, which is basically those players that trust in me and our staff to help them and show them a way to be successful,” he said.
Martin’s got a lot of work ahead. Cooke had averaged 12 points a game and was the team’s go-to scorer to keep them in games. Ellington gradually rounded into basketball shape after returning to the court from the football field a year ago, averaging 11 points a game. Gill and Harris averaged more than 14 points and 10 rebounds combined.
Can South Carolina compete right away in the improving SEC?
Martin’s not ready to say.
“What was that lady who came on TV and made all those predictions? Miss Cleo?” Martin said. “She got paid to make predictions and she got put in jail. I’m not into that prediction stuff.”
Martin has liked what he’s seen from his players the past few weeks of individual workouts. Veterans like forward Lakeem Jackson and guard Eric Smith have put in the offseason work to step up their game. Newcomers like freshman forward Michael Carerra and 6-foot-11 center Laimonas Chatkevicius have entered with a willingness to learn Martin’s up-tempo, defensive system.
The Gamecocks also got a boost from Southern Miss transfer guard LaShay Page, who averaged 11.2 points last year for a Golden Eagles team that went to the NCAA tournament – and beat Martin’s Kansas State squad.
Page has already influenced his teammates. “He’s always going 100 percent and doing things to the best of his abilities,” Jackson said. “That’s what he shows being a leader.”
The true test comes when the group gets to work out altogether and Martin’s famed icy, penetrating glare locks onto player mistakes.
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” junior forward RJ Slawson said.
Smith, the likely choice at point guard while Ellington’s playing football, said Martin’s system calls for more intensity on the floor. “It’s night and day from what we ran” under former coach Darrin Horn.
Martin loves watching Ellington excel on the football field. Ellington, a junior, is third-ranked South Carolina’s second-leading receiver and caught a 20-yard TD pass in last week’s 35-7 victory over Georgia. As far as basketball, Martin won’t know Ellington’s place until he rejoins the team.
“I’m Bruce’s biggest fan to catch footballs and return kickoffs,” Martin said. “We’ll figure out what his role on our team will be whenever that football team wins that last game that they play in. I have no idea.”
Martin hopes to live up to the success of Spurrier’s football team, the national championship baseball team run by now AD Tanner and Staley’s women’s basketball program, which made its first NCAA tournament trip in nine years last winter.
The players have adjusted to Martin’s loud, pointed style. Jackson, the team’s only fourth-year senior, said it’s important to remember Martin’s teaching them how to get better and win games, something that hasn’t happened much the past two years. The Gamecocks have lost 21 of the last 23 SEC games.
“He’s a very passionate coach and he loves to win,” Jackson said. “When he yells at us or any of the younger guys, you can’t take it hard and just have to learn from your mistakes.”