Frank Martin building recruiting reputation as instate ambassador

Once a high school coach himself, he has made reaching out to prep coaches one of his top priorities in establishing an home-grown talent base

nwhite@thestate.comJanuary 4, 2014 

South Carolina coach Frank Martin

C MICHAEL BERGEN — mbergen@thestate.com

  • S.C. CONNECTIONS IN FRESHMAN CLASS

    Three players from South Carolina are among the eight newcomers on this year’s team:

    SINDARIUS THORNWELL

    Guard, 6-5/206

    Hometown: Lancaster

    JUSTIN MCKIE

    Guard, 6-4/195

    Hometown: Irmo

    JAYLEN SHAW

    Guard, 6-0/182

    Hometown: Hartsville

With Frank Martin in his second season in charge of the South Carolina basketball program, the early reviews are coming in from the state’s high school coaches.

Some are going with five stars, while others are giving him two thumbs up. The word, it appears, is all good.

As the secretary-treasurer of the S.C. Basketball Coaches Association, Ridge View High coach John Combs talks to a lot of his peers. He said the chatter surrounding Martin’s first year and a half at USC is overwhelmingly positive.

“He’s been great in the community. I’ve seen him out at a number of different basketball games,” Combs said. “The whole staff has been fantastic, welcoming us out to practices, welcoming us out to games, rolling out the red carpet at the team camp. He has been great for the coaches here in South Carolina. All the ones I’ve ever talked to have said nothing but good things about coach Martin. He’s a very personable individual.”

Martin came to South Carolina with a winning history as a head coach at Kansas State, and he also had a reputation for a fiery demeanor on the court and outgoing personality away from it.

After the Gamecocks struggled in the final couple of seasons under former coach Darrin Horn, the program went looking for a jolt of energy. In walked the loquacious Martin, who has worked to get on board with the broader basketball community across the state.

“Frank is a national brand,” Carey Rich, a former USC guard who is the host of a local sports-talk radio show, said. “For folks who follow college basketball, he’s very well-respected and highly-regarded by some of the best coaches in the country.”

Irmo High coach Tim Whipple watched Martin recruit 6-foot-4 guard Justin McKie, the son of BJ -- USC’s all-time leading scorer, and came away impressed with the “phenomenal” way the coach is selling himself and the program.

Whipple, who has led the Yellow Jackets for 33 seasons, said he believes Martin’s marketing efforts have made him an “ambassador” for the school.

“He’s everywhere,” Whipple said. “Wherever you look, you’re seeing Frank Martin, and I think that’s important. He had a profile coming in on a national level, which is a great thing, and he has a profile here.”

His outreach efforts have not gone unnoticed. Rich, who led C.A. Johnson to a state championship in his high school days, spoke of how Martin had a group of Columbia-area coaches to a workout early in his tenure and gave all of them his cell phone number. Combs noted how Martin agreed immediately to speak at SCBCA clinics soon after his arrival.

“That accessibility is how he has made guys feel comfortable, and that’s why guys are so willing to help Frank Martin turn it around,” Rich said.

Legendary Eau Claire High coach George Glymph, who was a member of the coaching staffs of the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks before retiring, has watched his share of games and practices under Martin. He points to Martin’s time at Kansas State as a blueprint for what the coach can accomplish here.

“He has recruited high-profile athletes, and that’s indicative of what he’s able to do when he gets the right players,” Glymph said. “I’m very impressed with what he’s doing. Give him two or three years, and you’ll see what he’s able to do.”

Martin’s second USC team has a trio of freshmen with roots in this state: McKie, 6-5 guard Sindarius Thornwell of Lancaster and Oak Hill (Va.) Academy and 6-1 guard Jaylen Shaw of Hartsville High.

Arriving next season will be 6-2 guard Marcus Stroman of Keenan High.

“Coach Martin has done a tremendous job of making connections and forging relationships with everybody in the city of Columbia and the state of South Carolina,” Rich said. “If you can’t forge relationships, you can’t recruit. If you can’t recruit, then you can’t win games.”

Whipple said South Carolina is a small state that doesn’t produce a whole lot of elite prospects, which makes it especially important that USC -- and Clemson -- try to keep them home. If the Gamecocks can convince the best players to do that – while still being selective enough not to hand out too many offers to the next tier of in-state players – they can begin to compete at a higher level.

“If you can’t recruit your own backyard, what’s that say about your program? It means you’re in trouble if it’s not attractive enough for these kids to want to stay,” Whipple said.

Coach George Felton’s 1989 USC team reached the NCAA tournament with in-state stars such as Joe Rhett, Barry Manning and JoJo English. Coach Eddie Fogler’s 1997 NCAA tournament team, which won the SEC championship, featured top-notch in-state products Larry Davis, BJ McKie and Melvin Watson.

Keenan coach Zach Norris, who knew Martin from their days on the AAU travel circuit, watched with interest as Martin’s staff picked up the recruiting of Stroman.

“From day one when they got on board, they made a drastic effort to reach all the high school basketball coaches in the state,” Norris said. “They’ve done an outstanding job on that. They let us know their intentions for Marcus and what they had planned for him.”

Thornwell is the lynchpin of this season’s freshman class. Signing him served notice that one of the top recruits nationally will come to USC even though the program hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2004 and hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1973.

“When you go to Oak Hill Academy, it opens up your recruiting nationally,” Combs said. “To still be able to land a guy like Sindarius, that says a lot for Coach Martin and his staff.”

Rich called that an important first step for Martin, especially considering that there are several important recruits in the upcoming classes in the Columbia area. Spring Valley High’s 6-6 junior guard P.J. Dozier and Hammond School’s 6-2 sophomore guard Seventh Woods rank high on national prospect lists for their respective classes.

“When you have a guy like Seventh Woods and you have a guy like P.J. Dozier, they’re going to attract everybody from North Carolina to Ohio State to Kansas,” Rich said. “But that’s not going to discourage Frank Martin from continuing to recruit them.”

If the Gamecocks can show a significant improvement over last season -- especially if Martin’s recruits over the past two seasons show real strides -- then that momentum can have an impact on upcoming recruiting classes.

“Last year he didn’t have the size to compete in the SEC,” Glymph said. “So far he has improved that tremendously. The team on the floor this year is head and shoulders above the one last year as far as size in concerned. With that size he can match up better with his SEC opponents, which is very instrumental in what he’s trying to do.”

Combs said he believes that enticing the best in-state players to stay home is helped by Martin’s rapport with the coaches, pointing out that the USC coach was a high school coach from 1985 to 2000 in the Miami area.

“Being a former high school teacher and coach, he relates well to the struggles and issues all of us high school coaches face,” Combs said.

And Martin also knows what it takes to get to greater heights on the collegiate level. In his five seasons at Kansas State, he guided his teams to an average of 23 wins per season to go with four NCAA tournament appearances and one NIT appearance.

“From my point of view, he’s a guy whose horizon stretches a little bit further. He’ll get it done,” Rich said. “His track record and body of work tells you that he’s never lost anywhere he’s been. He has always won.”

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