The basketball season starts for real Wednesday night in the mind of South Carolina men’s coach Frank Martin. Although his first Gamecocks team owns a 10-3 record in preconference play — the number of wins equals last season’s total — Martin strongly believes what happens in SEC play will be paramount to the success of his program.
“When you coach in a league like the SEC, everything you do with your team from that first day you show up in August to the day the seasons ends should be all organized around preparing your team to compete in league play,” he said. “Outside of postseason, the memories that you always keep are those moments you have in league games. Those are special moments that stay with you forever.”
USC opens the SEC season on the road against Mississippi State (5-7) at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Humphrey Coliseum. The Gamecocks have won five consecutive games despite encountering some depth issues with junior guard Bruce Ellington playing football, freshman forward Michael Carrera dealing with a hip injury, and senior guard LaShay Page off the team because of academic issues.
But Ellington, who caught the winning touchdown pass in the Outback Bowl, is back and Carrera, who is averaging 10.4 points and 7.3 rebounds, could be back on the floor with a good Tuesday practice that shows he is recovered. Both will be needed for the Gamecocks to succeed in conference play. Martin called Ellington a dynamic player who makes his teammates better and provides depth, along with Eric Smith, at point guard.
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The Gamecocks, who have gone 13-35 in SEC play the past three seasons, will face a Mississippi State team that also has struggled with depth issues, although the Bulldogs have won two of their past three games. But Martin worries far more about his team than his opponents. He wants it to keep playing hard-nosed defense and keep pressing an offensive attack that averages 74 points per game, nearly 13 more than last season.
“We have to focus in on how we need to play to win every game on our schedule,” he said. “That can’t change every single day. We have to stay consistent with how we’re playing.”
Senior forward Lakeem Jackson, who is averaging 10.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, is excited about seeing what the Gamecocks can accomplish in the SEC under Martin.
“A lot of guys are really, really ready to start,” Jackson said. “We had a lot of good non-conference games, made some strides, and we’re ready to carry it over to conference play.”
Martin, who spent the past five seasons as the coach at Kansas State in the Big 12, notices similarities between his old conference and his new one, from the overall athleticism to the solid coaching staffs.
He grew up in Florida watching SEC basketball, and although just Missouri and Florida are ranked in the AP Top 25, he likes the direction in which many of the programs are headed.
“Give it a little time,” Martin said. “As this season progresses, I think you’ll see this league will be real good by the end of the year.”
He admits there are no secrets when league opponents face each other, thanks to thorough scouting.
“Everyone knows everything about each other. That’s when you determine how good of a team you can be,” Martin said. “It’s who is going to execute better on that day. That’s the beauty of league play.”
WHO: South Carolina (10-3) vs. Mississippi State (5-7)
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday
WHERE: Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, Miss.
RADIO: WKT-FM, 107.5
SERIES: MSU leads 16-8
COACHES: Frank Martin (127-57 in six seasons; 10-3 in first season at USC); Rick Ray (5-7 in first season at MSU)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Gamecocks are 8-13 all-time in SEC openers, including an 0-2 record vs. Mississippi State in league openers. … USC’s last road victory in an SEC opener came against Auburn on Jan. 9, 2010. That win marked the program’s first in an SEC opener on the road since a 95-85 win at Tennessee on Jan. 6, 1993. … The Gamecocks have out-rebounded 12 of 13 opponents this season. … Villanova sophomore guard Ty Johnson is transferring to USC, where he will begin practicing immediately but will not be able to play in games until December. … Martin owned a 50-32 record in Big 12 play at Kansas State.