It was about a year ago when a Kansas State player’s final straw broke Frank Martin’s back.
During a timeout, Martin unleashed his trademark fury.
“I was so mad at one of our players,” Martin recalled Monday. “I was just furious at him. It wasn’t because he failed a moment in the game, but everything he did leading into that moment. I was trying to get that guy to understand — this is why you’re failing right now.”
Wildcats guard Rodney McGruder would have none of it.
“Rodney grabbed me by my shoulder and said, ‘Frank, enough. Get us to the next play,’ ” Martin said. “Let it go.”
It is a moment that resonates with Martin this week because it displayed a character attribute he is desperately seeking in his USC Gamecocks heading into Tuesday’s game at Missouri.
“What do you stand for? And once you figure out what you stand for, then you’ve got to be able to stand up for it every day, even if it’s with your own family,” Martin said. “As long as the coaches’ voices are the ones that sound the loudest in difficult times, you don’t have a personality. Your team doesn’t. We need players’ voices more than coaches’ voices, and that’s how you know you’re building a program.”
There was a lot of nostalgia relayed by Martin when talking about the struggles of his current collection of USC players.
Often, he spoke of former Kansas State guards Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen, along with McGruder, currently a Wildcat senior. Each time, he evoked the personality and drive those players brought to highly successful K-State squads.
At Kansas State, according to Martin, Clemente occasionally overruled Martin during timeouts on which play to run. Pullen would get on a player’s case before Martin got to him. McGruder was a combination of those two.
There came a moment this past weekend when that sort of leadership and personality was most in need. When freshman Michael Carrera told media following USC’s loss to Vanderbilt that he thought the team was tired, it was something that never should have made it to the podium.
“Mike’s a freshman,” Martin said. “There’s a reason coaches go gray and bald when relying on freshmen.”
The Gamecocks definitely rely on Carrera, so the team definitely needs one of its few elder statesmen to keep words such as “tired” out of a young player’s postgame vocabulary.
“When guys aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do in practice, who’s going to be our Denis Clemente? That’s going to stand up and demand his teammates understand what they’re supposed to do?” Martin said. “Who’s going to be our Jacob Pullen who in the moment when you need a defensive stop is going to grab his teammates in the huddle, make me shut up and tell them what they’re doing?”
Paging Lakeem Jackson, Eric Smith, Bruce Ellington anyone?
“Rodney had to grab me, make me understand, ‘Yo, Frank, enough of that nonsense, I need you now,’ ” Martin said. “ ‘You’re my guy, Frank, I need you, get to the next play. What do I need to do to help you win here?’
“You need that.”
WHO: USC (11-6, 1-3 SEC); No. 22 Missouri (13-4, 2-2)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Mizzou Arena, Columbia, Mo.
RADIO: WNKT 107.5 FM
SERIES: First meeting
COACHES: Frank Martin (128-60 in sixth season, 11-6 in first season at USC); Frank Haith (172-110 in ninth season, 43-9 in second season at Missouri)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: These two teams have never played, but Martin and Haith are familiar with each other due to their two games last season while Martin was at Kansas State. Martin won both meetings, including a 78-68 upset at Columbia. Haith on USC: “Frank’s got them second in the nation in offensive rebounding. I’ve played against his teams before, and I know how hard they’re going to compete.” Martin on the Tigers: “They’re fearless on offense. They’re going to ball screen you to death and they are fearless. We’re getting ready to go in and deal with a dogfight.” ... Missouri will be missing fifth-year senior post player Lawrence Bowers, whose absence has been noticeable in two losses this past week. Senior guard Keion Bell also is doubtful, according to Haith.