COLUMBIA — South Carolina pays Frank Martin a handsome sum of money to believe he can change its floundering men’s basketball program. And that is, sort of, where it starts — with belief.
South Carolina vs. Auburn WHEN: 1:47 p.m. WHERE: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia TV: SEC Network RADIO: RECORDS: USC 10-4 (0-1 SEC); Auburn 7-7 (1-0 SEC) NOTES: Auburn’s leading scorer is senior guard Frankie Sullivan, who averages 17.2 points. Junior guard Chris Denson was academically ineligible for the first semester, then scored 13, 17, 20, 18 and eight points after returning, while shooting 52.1 percent. But he hasn’t played in the past two games because of a stress fracture in his foot that will sideline him for a month.
So a day after the Gamecocks opened their Southeastern Conference schedule with a 56-54 loss at Mississippi State, another struggling team, Martin was back in Columbia, speaking optimistically, almost defiantly, on his radio call-in show, as he turned his focus toward today’s home game against Auburn.
“We are not going to take a backseat to anybody,” he told host Andy Demetra. “I don’t care who the team is, where they come from, or what they’ve won. We’re going to go nose-to-nose and get as dirty as we got to get, to figure out a way to go beat whoever’s in front of us.”
It sounds like coach-speak, and it is. But really, what else is Martin supposed to say? His role this season is, in many ways, a salesman. He is trying to sell the notion that USC basketball can win. Sell it to fans, to recruits and even to his current players, who are used to losing.
Martin has repeatedly said change will not happen overnight. That’s why USC gave him a six-year contract worth $12.3 million. He knows this is a transition season for the Gamecocks. He knows they lack what it takes to win consistently in the SEC. They are simply not very talented, and in college basketball, recruiting talented players is a coach’s single most important task. Do it, and you will usually win. Don’t, and you won’t, regardless of your blackboard acumen.
Martin is already making progress in recruiting. He signed Sindarius Thornwell, the No. 11 small forward and No. 43 overall recruit in the Class of 2013, according to Rivals. He just welcomed a transfer from Villanova, Tyrone Johnson, who was the No. 11 point guard and No. 52 recruit in the Class of 2011. Johnson can practice with the Gamecocks now and will be a redshirt sophomore when he is eligible to play for them after next season’s first semester.
To sweeten Martin’s sell for the future — and maintain the current sanity of his own purpose-driven mind — Martin would certainly like to win some conference games this season. The Gamecocks went 2-14 in the SEC last season — their fewest league wins since they were 2-10 in the Metro Conference in 1985-86.
Wednesday’s loss at Mississippi State does not necessarily portend another disastrous SEC record, but it was unmistakably a winnable game that USC let slip away. The Gamecocks turned the ball over 24 times, leading to 28 points for the Bulldogs. Few teams are good enough to win with such dreadful turnover numbers. USC is not one of those teams.
Now Martin prepares for another beatable team, Auburn. The Tigers, Mississippi State, Georgia and USC could all very well battle to stay out of the SEC basement. That bodes well for Martin as he tries to reach the six SEC regular season victories that would guarantee the Gamecocks of not having a fourth straight losing overall record.
But Auburn has played relatively well lately. The Tigers are 5-2 in their past seven games, after starting 2-5. Their losses in the past seven games: Winthrop by seven points and at No. 12 Illinois by two. In its last two games, Auburn beat Florida State by six and LSU by five.
Like USC, Auburn and third-year coach Tony Barbee are trying to build for the future. The Tigers also have three consecutive losing seasons during which they went 15-33 in the SEC, two wins better than USC.