It sounded like he was chewing on some kind of hard candy as he ripped his team apart. You might remember the press conference if you read or heard the words. One line stood out: “I’ve been doing this for 28 years — nine of which was a junior varsity high school coach. That means I dealt with 14-year olds. I’ve never been more embarrassed to call myself a basketball coach than I am today.” That was South Carolina coach Frank Martin on Valentine’s Day in 2013 after a humiliating 64-46 home loss to LSU, a fifth consecutive defeat that dropped his first team of Gamecocks to .500 overall (12-12) and an embarrassing 2-9 in the SEC. Fast forward almost three years to today, and you might find a kinder, happier Martin. At least a little bit. South Carolina is one of five unbeatens left in Division 1 college basketball, as they head into the final week of 2015 at 11-0 after a 75-61 pre-Christmas win over St. John’s in Uncasville, CT. So how did we get from there to here in just two and a half years? And can these Gamecocks survive the rigors of conference play?
South Carolina finished Martin’s first season 14-18 and 4-14 in the SEC. It was almost exactly the same the second season; the 2013-2014 Gamecocks won the exact same number of games overall (14) and just one more in SEC play (five). But last season, while the SEC win total again only went up by one, South Carolina finished 17-16; its first record over .500 since 2009 and only its second in nine years. Last year’s team also finally won games against quality opposition, beating Oklahoma State and Iowa State in the non-conference and sweeping Georgia (an NCAA Tournament team) in league play. This year’s team should be 12-0 (D-3 Francis Marion is the Gamecocks’ only remaining 2015 opponent) when Memphis comes to town on Jan. 2. Back in that angry 2013 press conference, Martin most notably called out his team’s effort and toughness. He said they weren’t working hard enough to make shots (that 2013-2014 team finished 248th in 3-point percentage and 244th in 2-point percentage) and even compared everyone except Bruce Ellington to zombies. In short, he was extremely frustrated that they weren’t playing like a Frank Martin basketball team.