The situation is bleak. No denying that.
But if Frank Martin looks at the situation instead of the next game and next opportunity to win, then the team will think it’s bleak, too.
“If I get overwhelmed, I can’t expect my guys, at age 18, to believe that there are doable things in our future,” Martin said Tuesday. “I’ve got to keep my focus on the same things I’m preaching to them.”
Other folks looking at the schedule know that the Gamecocks (10-17, 3-11 SEC) are facing an uphill climb if they’re going to finish strongly. With no way to make the postseason except to win the SEC tournament, USC is hoping to get late-season wins and at least head into the tournament with momentum.
But there are two road games among the next four, starting with Wednesday night’s contest at Auburn. USC is 5-35 on the SEC road over the past five seasons, winless this year, and Auburn beat the Gamecocks in Columbia on Feb. 5. The final two home games are against No. 17 Kentucky and No. 1 Florida.
Martin isn’t looking at the final four or tournament. His focus is on Wednesday’s game. Despite the record, he’s proud of his team’s fight and resolve, and hopes that it will be rewarded with a few wins in the last stretch.
“Every coach’s objective is to play their best at the end of the year,” Martin said. “I really think we’re playing our best basketball right now.”
To win, USC will have to do what not many teams have been able to do – shut down the Tigers’ star guard tandem. Chris Denson and KT Harrell scored 50 of Auburn’s 79 points on Feb. 5.
USC’s defense doesn’t match up well with Auburn, but the Gamecocks are going to have to try and do it anyway. The guards will have to keep Denson and Harrell on the perimeter, and if they slip past, the bigs will have to keep them away from the rim.
“Not all about the guards,” forward Mindaugas Kacinas said. “We bigs have to help them, don’t let them go into the paint, protect the basket. We’re planning to stay home, collapse in the paint, don’t let them in.”
Martin explained how tough it is to play strong up-top defense against teams that are mostly bigger and longer than the Gamecocks. Sindarius Thornwell takes the opponent’s best perimeter player, which means that Duane Notice and Brenton Williams are on the other two perimeter players.
Williams isn’t as strong on point guards as he is against other guards, but other guards are able to shoot over Williams or drive past him to the basket. It’s a problem Martin has had to confront with Ty Johnson out and Bruce Ellington gone, with no real solution other than to hope.
“You’re going to be small, you have to be just relentless on the ball,” Martin said, referencing Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, two of his Kansas State players that weren’t that big but could play very strong perimeter defense. “That’s why you see our team inconsistent. We battle those issues every single day. They’re fighting for us and that’s all we can ever ask for from those kids.”
Williams hasn’t had the time in Martin’s system like Pullen and Clemente did, but he’s trying his best. The hope is to make it tough on Denson and Harrell and unlike the Georgia game, score throughout the contest. There can be no more 10-minute droughts without a field goal.
“They’re very good players,” Kacinas said. “The majority of the team points come from them. We need to make sure they don’t have open looks.”
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