Knowing smiles crossed the faces of South Carolina basketball players Lakeem Jackson, Eric Smith and RJ Slawson when asked this week about the famed intensity of new coach Frank Martin.
But all of them chose the diplomatic response when discussing the ways they have seen Martin’s fiery demeanor on display before the start of Friday’s first official team practice.
“He’s a very passionate coach, he loves to win,” said Jackson, a senior forward. “So when he yells at us or any of the younger guys, we tell them to take it to heart, just listen to him and learn from your mistakes.”
Smith, a junior point guard, seconds that emotion.
“We’ve seen it throughout the preseason,” he said. “I think everybody can handle it. It just keeps us going hard.”
Martin brought his fervent style to Columbia from Kansas State, where he kept the Wildcats going hard enough to reach four NCAA tournaments and make one NIT appearance in five seasons as coach.
Postseason play looks like less of a reality for the Gamecocks in the first season under Martin, who inherits a program that slipped to a 10-21 mark — 2-14 in the SEC — in Darrin Horn’s fourth and final season.
Without last season’s top scorer, Malik Cooke, who graduated, and top rebounder Damontre Harris, who transferred to Florida, Martin is searching for the right combination of players. The 13-man roster features nine returnees, although guard Bruce Ellington must first finish football season, and four newcomers — three freshmen and a senior transfer from Southern Miss, guard LaShay Page.
Martin states the competition for playing time is wide open because nobody enters with an edge due to the new staff.
“They’re all going through a freshman period, meaning they’re all learning a new way of playing,” Martin said. “They’re learning our culture, our style, what buttons they’ve got to make sure they press every day to make things work for the way we do them.”
Martin, who has a career record of 117-54, knows his players must get stronger. They must play defense. They must give maximum effort. And they must find a way to translate drill work into game performance by the time the regular season begins Nov. 11 against Milwaukee at the Colonial Life Arena.
“The quicker they learn and become more consistent, and the better job we do to coach them and teach them, will determine how we progress as a team,” Martin said.
He’s also counting on Jackson and Page to take charge of the team and set an example in their final season of college basketball.
“Whenever this season is over, there’s not another day so don’t cheat yourself by not taking advantage of every day,” Martin said. “And I tell other players how important it is they do their part out of respect to their two senior teammates.”
Martin will be telling his team plenty of things – in his own inimitable style – as the season moves forward. The players stand ready to embrace their excitable new coach.
“Coach Martin wants the best out of us so we don’t ever take it to heart,” said Slawson, a junior forward. “He’s just trying to push us to be our best.”