Commentary: Martin's Gamecocks make mental strides

Pundits torched Rebels for losing to Gamecocks

pobley@thestate.comFebruary 21, 2013 

Odds and ends from Wednesday night’s 63-62 victory against Ole Miss. …

HERE COMES THE very best quote I’ve heard all season from anybody associated with the Gamecocks. It’s not Frank Martin talking about playing patty-cake, it’s not Michael Carrera talking about his shorts, it’s not Bruce Ellington talking about, well, anything … and it’s not Lakeem Jackson talking about his free throws.

It’s Eric Smith talking about how he guarded Marshall Henderson and how USC held the SEC’s leading scorer to 11 points:

“Even though I was guarding him most of the night, it didn’t start with me. It started with ball pressure out on the perimeter with Bruce. … They make the guards play out high then that relieves pressure on me to get through screens. It gives me time to guard him, so I credit them a lot for him not being able to get off as much tonight.”

What makes that quote so awesome? It’s the first time I can recall this season that a Gamecocks player actually broke down the mechanics of USC’s game plan. It tells me the group is finally grasping how important it is to study scouting reports and watch for player tendencies.

Martin said as much Wednesday night, adding that the light bulb went on during the Alabama game when the Gamecocks solved the riddle that is Rodney Cooper.

“(Cooper) catches the ball at the top of the key and any time he catches it there, he’s going to drive it with his left hand. He got three uncontested layups driving to his left hand in the first half. Three,” Martin said. “The scouting report says every time he catches it there, he’s going to go to his left hand, so don’t get beat off the dribble from the top of the key going to his left.”

Reviewing Alabama and scouting Ole Miss revealed Rebels forward Murphy Holloway does much the same thing. While Holloway did lead all scorers Wednesday with 19 points, very few came via his strength – driving to his left hand.

“You didn’t see that happen,” Martin said. “He drove it to the left a couple of times, but it was through defense, and the help was where it needed to be.”

With Henderson, the scouting report demanded pushing him to his right and not allowing him to pivot. The second part of the plan to halt Henderson was to spread out the Rebels, force them into long passes and pin the guards against the halfcourt line.

All of this came to pass, allowing Smith, Ellington and any Gamecock guarding Henderson to easily hang with him through screens. Whenever Henderson caught a pass, there was a Gamecock inside his jersey.

“Give our guys credit,” Martin said. “We did our jobs there.” …

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HERE’S ANOTHER VIEW into how USC made melons out of lemons (sorry … that’s my nod to my own internal dyslexia).

Prior to Wednesday’s game, assistant coach Matt Figger put the scores of five games on a board. Each of those five games featured something in common: at the two-minute mark, the Gamecocks were either leading, tied, or down by one point.

USC went 0-5 in those games.

“We put it on the board,” Martin said. “We put the time, the score and every outcome of every game. Matt Figger did that just to show our guys when you do things a certain way, you put yourself in a place where you can win games.”

It was a potent lesson for the team. Win all five of those games and we are talking about USC being 18-8 and 8-5 in league play. Win just three of the five and we have a 16-10, 6-7 squad – not world-beating numbers, but certainly NIT-worthy. That would have been something, right?

Anyway, the moral of the lesson was this: When you’re in that moment, be fearless.

“We continue to preach to our guys … be fearless of the moment,” Martin said. “Hard games are not won by mistake. You’ve got to play your tail off and hope that with two, three minutes to go, you’re there. And once you’re there, play through your discipline, play through your team concepts and when you’ve got an opportunity, be fearless in the moment.

“We’ve got to get our guys to believe that. Our guys still don’t understand that. That’s because they haven’t found the experiences to dwell on and feel good about it.”

They have one of those experiences now.

“We’ve got to use moments like today to hopefully feel better, so every time we’re in that situation, we’re more fearless to go do our jobs.”

We’ll have a better idea whether that experience is sinking in this weekend at Georgia. …

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THE BOO BIRDS came out after Wednesday’s game. No, they weren’t Gamecock fans or anyone associated with Gamecock Nation. This particular species dwelled on Twitter and many called themselves national hoops pundits.

And all of them torched the Rebels for losing to the lowly Gamecocks.

Andy Katz, who was in the house for Wednesday’s game, tweeted shortly after Smith’s game-winning trey, “Upset alert, possible horrible loss for Ole Miss …”

Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal tweeted, “Ole Miss loses to awful, awful, terrible, awful South Carolina.”

My personal favorite comes from Clay Travis, who writes for Outkick the Coverage, who made a quality reference to Mississippi’s legislature finally ratifying the amendment ending slavery: “The good karma from ending slavery is over: Ole Miss just lost to South Carolina.”

Such talk did not amuse Martin, though.

“I don’t want to hear anything about the SEC is weak and Ole Miss doesn’t belong in the NCAA tournament because they lost on the road,” Martin said. “I don’t want to hear that, OK? I don’t want to hear that.”

Too late.

USA Today’s bracketologist dropped the Rebels to one of the first four out. Worse, on his online chat Thursday afternoon, Hugh Kellenberger, the Ole Miss beat writer for the Clarion-Ledger, intimated Friend of Frank member Andy Kennedy’s job is in peril when asked if the coach could survive Ole Miss missing the dance.

“I can’t see it,” Kellenberger wrote. “It’s been seven seasons, and at some point it’s time to say the marriage just isn’t working.”

The Rebels’ RPI dropped from No. 52 to No. 56 with the loss. The silver lining for Ole Miss is USC moved up from 202 to 196, helping the Rebels out by having the loss come to a team whose RPI isn’t worse than the dreaded No. 200.

The most significant chatter coming out of the various bracketologists is the USC win somehow destroyed the SEC’s chances of getting more than three teams in the field of 68.

For now, Jerry Palm of CBS has Florida, Missouri and Ole Miss in the field with Ole Miss being his last team in and Kentucky his first team out. RPI numbers are devastating teams such as Alabama (No. 59) and Tennessee (No. 65). If Missouri beats Kentucky this weekend, then the Wildcats can pretty much be waved off.

The good news for Ole Miss is every game remaining on its schedule are highly winnable. The bad news for the SEC is Ole Miss can cross Alabama off the wannabe list as well by defeating the Tide on March 5.

Want to entertain true SEC Armageddon? Heaven forbid if a team like USC or Georgia marauds through the SEC tournament to pick up an automatic bid. What we might see is a two-bid conference at that point. I can’t imagine the selection committee doing that to a power conference such as the SEC, but stranger things have happened.

But back to Martin’s views on this matter. I think he’s right when he says teams are punished too heavily for losing on the road in conference play. Sure, tourney teams need to acquit themselves well away from their home floor, but if you play in a big-time league, you’re going to lose.

Sorry for the run-on sentence I’m about to unleash on you. Frank was on a roll here …

“That happens in every league in the country when teams travel, especially at this time of the year, because the games get extremely hard and you’re starting to wind down and you don’t have as many games to play and every team plays with a great sense of urgency because of that and it makes it extremely difficult to win on the road,” Martin said. “Ole Miss is an NCAA team. They’re a very good basketball team, so I don’t want to hear that nonsense and I hope that whole song and dance doesn’t start.”

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LIGHTNING ROUND: Loved, loved, loved the USC student section Wednesday night. Sure, Marshall Henderson is a lightning rod for opposing crowds, but the taunts were delightfully creative. My favorite was “Marshall, your mom goes to college.” That’s a Napoleon Dynamite reference. Absolutely awesome.

… For those who missed it, Michael Carrera’s latest demonstration of superhero athletic prowess led him to leap entirely over USC cheer coach Erika Goodwin while chasing a loose ball into that stands.

… Another reason to keep rooting for USC wins involves having the Gamecocks fight their way out of the bottom four seeds. If they finish last or No. 11, their first game at the SEC tournament will be a 10 p.m. start. If they finish 12th or 13th, a victory in the first round means a 10 p.m. game the following night. Blech.

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