Hope permeates summer: Martin looks to build on late-season surge

dcloninger@thestate.comApril 30, 2014 

USC coach Frank Martin

C MICHAEL BERGEN — mbergen@thestate.com

Inspiration is often found in the strangest places.

“I was reading a Rich Rodriguez book from his time at Michigan, and there was a line there where Rich talks about one of his mentors telling him that, whenever you get somewhere that hasn’t had success, first you lose big, then you lose close, then you win close, then you win big,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said Wednesday. “That kind of struck a nerve, because I was right in the moment of the beginning phase of it.”

Martin read the book during his first year with the Gamecocks, and despite the flameout of Rodriguez’s tenure at Michigan, still sees value in the statement. Rodriguez never got to experience winning big at Michigan, but Martin sees the first two steps he took there as mimicking his first two seasons at USC.

Martin is hoping for his “win close” year after a strong finish to his second season.

After final exams are done, the Gamecocks are scheduled to take brief visits home and then be back on campus throughout the summer. Signees Marcus Stroman and TeMarcus Blanton are set to report at the end of May and be enrolled for the first summer session, giving the Gamecocks a full team for strength work, conditioning and individual instruction.

The team also remains full, with no players looking to transfer. Martin and his staff will continue to recruit – college basketball is again filled with transferring players this offseason – but as of Wednesday, the Gamecocks stood to return every player but senior Brenton Williams.

After winning four of their final six games, including two in the SEC tournament and one over eventual national runner-up Kentucky, the hardest thing for the Gamecocks to do was leave Atlanta without another game to play. Although it’s difficult to carry momentum over an entire offseason, Martin feels the way his group handled a tough year will be enough to bridge the gap.

“We had a gauntlet right off the bat … and you lose Bruce (Ellington) and you lose your point guard, and it doesn’t stop,” Martin said. “Those young kids were fighting for their lives, but we couldn’t quite overcome the beginning where we dug a hole. We stayed the course. We didn’t give in to public opinion, to losing games. At the end of the year, because of those things, our guys were rewarded with some wins.”

With the season over, Martin has continued to recruit, to work in the community, to stress the good about his program. While the Gamecocks lost two more games than they did his first year, it’s been a long time since USC fans could go into an offseason with hope for the next year.

“I’m looking forward to a big senior year out of myself and trying to lead this team back to where we need to be,” guard Ty Johnson said Monday. “Turn this place around. Everything is on track, and I’m just ready for this summer.”

The SEC is set to be another crucible, with Kentucky returning nearly all of its talent and adding another hefty recruiting class and three new coaches, including the returning Bruce Pearl, in the league. Martin knows Pearl and knows that Auburn will win, while he also knows Tennessee’s Donnie Tyndall and Missouri’s Kim Anderson.

“In 1995, I met Donnie and Matt Figger, all three of us were working Billy Donovan’s first camp at the University of Florida,” Martin said. “Going to be great for the league.”

Overall, it’s continuing to keep what he read in mind. Martin knew he wasn’t promised a rose garden when he took over at USC following his massively successful run at Kansas State. He knew it would take two years just to get his stamp on the program and start to see results.

He also knows that had it not been for losing both of his point guards at the beginning of last year’s SEC schedule, he might be talking about the wins that came out of a very nice season, instead of wins that came out of a season that felt good at the end.

The next steps are visible, though, and very reachable.

“We fought that first year,” Martin said. “I was real proud of the guys and our fight, but we really didn’t have what it took to win SEC games. Last year, I was excited despite the losing. I know it made me feel good going into the offseason.”

Notes: Martin also continues to work on the schedule. Keeping in mind the SEC’s edict that all teams must face challenging non-conference slates, Martin has been working to find “high-name” teams to fill the dates. Known games are home dates against Clemson and Baylor, a home game for the Big 12/SEC Challenge (opponent TBA), with a game at Marshall in return for the Thundering Herd’s visit to Columbia this year. The Gamecocks will also play in the Charleston Classic from Nov. 20-23, with Akron, Cornell, Miami, Penn State and Southern Cal.

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