Hoping that familiarity and success leads to confidence, Frank Martin is hopeful the USC men’s basketball team can snap out of its four-game losing streak Thursday night against LSU.
The Gamecocks (12-11, 2-8 in SEC) picked up their first league victory of the season with an 83-72 overtime victory against LSU (13-8, 4-6) on Jan. 16 in Baton Rouge.
“Hopefully, we can have a sense of confidence that we were able to play halfway decent against them,” Martin said. “Hopefully, it gives us a sense of confidence that we can reach back to and try to feel good about ourselves … but they’ve gotten a lot better.”
At issue is the torrid play of forward Johnny O’Bryant. In that first meeting, O’Bryant managed nine points and six rebounds. Lately, the 6-foot-9 sophomore has rattled off a stretch of six double-doubles in seven games.
“Johnny’s really played well for us down the stretch and I think he has kind of found his niche and come into his own,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “He continues to grow and take that responsibility. … He’s the focal point and, as of late, he has been able to accept the responsibility, play well and make some plays at both ends of the floor.”
That much is clear to Martin.
“O’Bryant is probably playing the best stretch of basketball that he’s played in his time at LSU right now,” Martin said. “He’s a difficult matchup for us.”
Other facets of LSU’s style prove difficult matchups as well. Though USC has done a much better job of taking care of the ball, LSU leads the conference in steals per game (9.9). LSU also profiles closely with USC when it comes to grabbing offensive rebounds, but USC is dead last in league play with 20.8 defensive rebounds per game, meaning stopping LSU from scoring second-chance points is going to be difficult.
“We have to understand who we are and be able to play through our strengths,” Martin said.
One of those strengths is the recent play of 6-5 freshman Michael Carrera, who has led USC in scoring and rebounding in each of the past four games. Arguably his best game came at LSU, when he scored a season-high 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
“He will be the first to tell you he’s never in the right place offensively half the time,” Martin said. “But he’s got that sense of courage that you’ve got to have.
“He’s learning,” Martin continued. “He’s a freshman (and) you’re asking a freshman to perform like a senior. Emotionally, the desire is there. He plays every game like it’s the last he can play.”
Unfortunately for USC, Carrera’s four-game uptick in production has coincided with a four-game losing streak. Martin had to go way back in his memory to recall another time when a team of his faced such dire straits.
“My first year as a head coach, I was a junior varsity head coach. We were 7-2 and we lost seven straight games,” Martin said. “I was 20 years old at the time and I didn’t know how to handle it.
“But I’ve thought back to those days, going through that seven-game losing streak, and what I remember that I tried to do — and I have no idea why I did it — I stayed with our basics, our foundation, our teaching points,” Martin continued. “And never, ever did I dwell on a loss. To the contrary, I kept pushing our guys to never lower their expectations and we ended up winning our last four.”
In each of his first two seasons at Kansas State, Martin experienced four-game losing streaks. Both times, the Wildcats rallied to reach postseason play.
“I’ve been around for a while and it’s not a comfortable place to be in when you’re going through what we’re going through right now,” Martin said. “But at the same time, I didn’t show up to run a 50-yard dash and go home. This is a long race. There’s a lot of training and hard days in front of us that we have to go through so that we create the toughness, discipline and expectations I want our program to have.”