Basketball preview: Martin drawn by fans’ passion

New coach likes that program’s supporters care about their teams

pobley@thestate.comNovember 10, 2012 

  • INTERESTING HIRES There are 45 new coaches in Division I this season. Here are some of the more intriguing hires: 1. Frank Martin, South Carolina: He’ll bring a new kind of intensity to Columbia. 2. Danny Manning, Tulsa: Gets his own program after long-time assistant’s stint at Kansas, where he is a legend as a player. 3. Bruce Weber, Kansas State: He could never win quite enough at Illinois. 4. Pat Kelsey, Winthrop: Former assistant and player for the late Skip Prosser at Wake Forest and Xavier returns to the sidelines. 5. Mike Davis, Texas Southern: NCAA championship game he coached at Indiana in 2002 seems like a long time ago. The Charlotte Observer

The question was posed. It was inevitable. Frank Martin’s eyes briefly fixed on the far end of the room, his lips pursed. It was only an instant.

“Why South Carolina?”

Martin quickly looked down, then back at the dot-com writer. It was a question he has been answering since spring at virtually every venue. Why would SEC Media Day at Birmingham be any different?

And for those who don’t know Martin or haven’t kept up with his Gamecocks narrative, it remained a mystery why he would leave a Kansas State program he had led to four NCAA appearances in five seasons. It seemed odd he would walk away from a team that returned eight of its top nine scorers, a team that, like his others, was a darkhorse candidate to win a Big 12 title.

Then it happened, that Martin magic. That enthusiasm. That sheer unadulterated, almost childlike passion. By the time Martin finished up his soliloquy, not only was it obvious he would move on from Kansas State … it was destiny that he should end up at USC.

“I’ve been taking challenges my whole life,” Martin said. “I was just kind of intrigued by it and thought that I would take a chance and give it a go.”

What Martin saw was history. Tarnished and yellowed beneath a heap of Darrin Horn’s unfulfilled promise, Dave Odom’s disappointments and Eddie Fogler’s heart-wrenching upsets.

He saw Frank McGuire.

“People tend to forget that you couldn’t get a seat in the Frank McGuire Coliseum back in the day,” Martin said. “We are rekindling that passion and reconnecting that great past with the present.”

That reconnection might not happen this season. Coming in too late to make an impact on this season’s recruiting trail, Martin struggled to fill a roster depleted by the losses of Malik Cooke to graduation and the transfers of Anthony Gill and Demontre Harris.

The team’s leading returning scorer until Bruce Ellington’s football season concludes is Damien Leonard and his 6.8 points per game. Perhaps of more importance to a Martin-coached squad, the leading returning rebounder is RJ Slawson, who managed 4 boards per game.

But recruiting is one thing Martin and his staff do with a relentless fervor. In short order, he brought in Lashay Page and his double-digit scoring average as a fifth-year senior transfer from Southern Mississippi. He brought 6-foot-11 recruit Laimonas Chatkevicius with him from Kansas State and tacked on his 6-7 Lithuanian comrade, Mindaugas Kacinas.

Last, but not least, he snagged Michael Carrera, a 6-5 swing player with a 7-foot wingspan and quite possibly the best rebounder to come out of the vaunted Montrose (Md.) Christian prep program.

The first taste of this cobbled combination was lackluster: a one-point exhibition win against Division II Kentucky Wesleyan. But in that game — one that Page, Leonard and Kacinas missed while nursing nagging injuries — the 2012-13 Gamecocks’ strengths were briefly glimpsed.

This is a quick team. When it is running its offense correctly, it is a slashing team that plays at the rim despite its diminuitive size. It’s a team that will not yield on the boards, despite the fact it might be outrebounded regularly.

In short, the record might not show it, but this team will not be an easy out. It’s a thoroughly entertaining group that should do what Martin wants most — win over the hearts and minds of a long-suffering fan base.

When Martin arrived at USC, he went to Gamecock baseball games and witnessed the fans’ passion. He visited numerous other Olympic sport games, spoke at gatherings and even handed out sandwiches during lunch on campus.

When he traveled to the Vanderbilt football game, led the “Game-Cock” chant at a home game, then took in the epic victory against Georgia last month, he knew beyond a doubt he had made the right decision.

“Here is the deal: Good players want to play for schools where their fans care,” Martin said. “When you go to a football game and there is 85,000 people in your stands and you go to baseball and there is 9,000 people and you go to volleyball games and it is standing room only, it is pretty clear and evident that the people at South Carolina care.

“It’s that passion that people have for our program,” he concluded. “It’s coming through loud and clear.”

Why South Carolina?

Said Martin, “Why not?”

No.NamePosHgt/WgtClassHometown/Last School
24Michael CarreraF6-5/212Fr.Anzoategui, Venezuela/Montrose Christian School
14Laimonas ChatkeviciusF6-11/255Fr.Klaipeda, Lithuania/South Kent High School
12Austin ConstableG6-0/175Fr.West Chester, Pa./Henderson
23Bruce EllingtonG5-9/197Jr.Moncks Corner/Berkeley
45Carlton GeathersF6-10/255So.Georgetown/Carvers Bay
30Lakeem JacksonSF6-5/235Sr.Charlotte/Christ School
25Mindaugas KacinasF6-7/210Fr.Klaipeda, Lithuania/Word of Life Fire Traditional School
32Damien LeonardG6-4/190So.Greenville/J.L. Mann
0LaShay PageG6-2/195Sr.Dillon/Southern Mississippi
55Shane PhillipsG510/170Sr.Wheeling, West Va./Wheeling Central
2Brian RichardsonG6-4/175Jr..Wilson, N.C./Greenfield School
33RJ SlawsonF6-8/220Jr.Charleston/Fort Dorchester
5Eric SmithG5-11/205Jr.Mullins/Christ School
35Brian SteeleF6-5/196Fr.Greenville/Wade Hampton
1Brenton WilliamsG5-11/175Jr.Kissimmee, Fla./Santa Fe College

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