Basketball: Future brighter than the past

pobley@thestate.comMarch 15, 2013 

So, the first season of the Frank Martin era is in the books. The final numbers are a mix of grim and predictable with some hints of a silver lining trimming decades of dark clouds. Here are five things we learned in 2012-13:

THIS IS NOT YEAR 1. THIS IS YEAR 0.

There is much more to building a program than the so-called three- or five-year plan. The first season, we are learning more and more, isn’t really a first season as much as it’s a probationary period for the players from the year before.

Jump in the way-back machine and review Frank McGuire’s first years at the helm. It can be argued his true “Year 1” came in his third season. Back then, freshmen had to play on freshman teams and were not available.

McGuire joined USC in March (same as Martin) and didn’t have time to cobble together a legitimate recruiting class. That next season, McGuire’s first real recruiting class played on the freshman squad.

In Year 3? Players from each of those first two classes were available and they were juniors and sophomores. McGuire’s teams progressed from 6-17 that first year to 11-13 to 16-7 and 8-4 in the ACC.

While we’d like to approximate Martin’s first year to McGuire’s inaugural season, perhaps the most direct comparison is McGuire’s second year, when his hastily cobbled-together first recruiting class came available and the Gamecocks went 4-10 in the ACC. That team lost eight of nine conference games at one point and eked out narrow wins against Duke, Virginia and Clemson.

What will Martin’s team do in his true first year?

THERE IS ANOTHER …

Freshman, that is. We all knew about the recruiting class of Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas.

But who led the Gamecocks in rebounding in their final game?

Brian Steele.

The freshman walk-on out of Greenville is notable in that he will be the answer to a trivia question — who was the subject of Martin’s first apology?

Martin said earlier this month that he stood before his team after starting Steele for the first time and said he had made a mistake by not playing him sooner.

Odds might be against Steele earning a scholarship in 2013-14, but Martin had a history of handing significant minutes to walk-ons while at Kansas State.

BRUCE IS THE JUICE

Of all the players on his roster, there was one player who never once drew Martin’s ire.

Bruce Ellington is the undisputed leader of the Gamecocks basketball team. It was he who stepped into the huddle at Alabama when the Gamecocks trailed 32-9 and turned the game around.

It was Ellington who persuaded Brenton Williams to stay in the gym after practice to work on his shot. It was Ellington who often drew the assignment to cover the other team’s most-potent scorer.

Will Ellington return the Gamecocks in 2013-14? There have been rumblings (mostly from Ellington) that he will focus on one sport next year. Martin laughs at such talk, saying Ellington has vowed that in each of the past two years.

“I think Bruce likes to have a little fun with you guys,” Martin said at a recent news conference.

Ellington does not count against USC’s 13 scholarships, thanks to his other gig on the football team. Martin certainly isn’t going to say no if Ellington wants to return, so expect him to return.

THESE GUYS PLAY HARD

Sure, the overall talent was not there this season, but it was apparent from the opening game of the SEC season that the Gamecocks were not going down without a fight.

There were four games on the 16-game conference schedule that could be called true blowouts — Florida, Kentucky, and the second Missouri and LSU contests.

Of those four, only the LSU game stands out as a case of a team that seemingly packed it in. At Florida, the Gators kicked it into another gear approximately 12 minutes into the game, but the Gamecocks were still attempting to take charges and scored nine points in the final two minutes of that 75-36 debacle.

At Kentucky, Nerlens Noel got to know a kid by the name of Michael Carrera, who outscored the highly touted Wildcat, 18-10. Against Missouri, Phil Pressey rediscovered his point guard calling and played one of his best games of the year while never taking a shot. As a result, the Tigers nearly set shooting records against the Gamecocks, nailing 70 percent of their shots.

As for that LSU debacle? Well, we learned Martin can say some awfully funny things when he’s angry.

THE FAN BASE IS READY FOR MORE

Though their numbers pale in comparison to the football team, the basketball version of the Garnet Army is back in the saddle. Message boards have been sizzling with talk of Martin, good and bad. Radio shows are spending more and more time breaking down the team’s pros and cons.

Martin recently was asked his opinion on Columbia’s inability to host an NCAA tournament regional because of the ongoing ban concerning the Confederate flag. He said give him time, for he hasn’t reached the point where the program is doing so well that he can worry about little matters such as that.

In victories at LSU and at home against Arkansas and Ole Miss, it’s clear big things are on the horizon. Martin’s first true recruiting class will be complete by this summer and the talent infusion should up the ante on the Gamecocks’ competitiveness.

The SEC will be stronger in 2013-14 as well. Kentucky will add another monster class while teams (Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and maybe Georgia) will climb the competitive ladder to give stalwarts such as Florida and Missouri fits.

The record might not improve dramatically in 2013-14 because of the learning curve of the incoming players, but there is every reason to believe the Gamecocks can play .500 ball in the SEC, win that first conference tournament game in years and even find their way into a postseason tournament by next year’s end.

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