Men’s pregame: Vanderbilt presents next challenge

Commodores playing well despite lack of numbers

02/11/2014 6:35 PM

02/12/2014 8:48 PM

UPDATE - Game postponed until 4 p.m. Thursday because of winter weather.

Frank Martin doesn’t mind the winter weather. The last time it invaded Columbia, South Carolina won.

But it will take much more than a few snowflakes to contain Vanderbilt.

“I don’t know if any coach has done a better job in the country than Kevin Stallings,” Martin said during the SEC coaches’ teleconference on Monday. “To overcome difficult moments, you need guys that are confident in what they do and have experience. They’ve got that.”

The Commodores have that and much more – their us-against-the-world mentality is paying dividends.

“We feel OK about the way we’re playing,” Stallings said. “Hopefully, we’ll keep that up this week.”

Following a rebuilding season that Vanderbilt finished strongly, expectations were high for the returning group. But then Sheldon Jeter transferred, Kevin Bright decided to play professionally in Germany and Kedren Johnson was kicked out of school.

It got worse during the season – Josh Henderson tore his ACL eight games in and leading scorer Eric McClellan was booted from the team before conference play began. Stallings was trying to win with seven scholarship players, a situation so dire that he had to suit up manager Rob Cross so he could have 10 players for practice.

Yet, the Commodores began winning. They won four in a row before losing on a 3-pointer with less than three seconds left in their most recent game, and are hovering in the middle of the league standings, with a shot to finish in the top four.

Martin is rebuilding with seven freshmen, and the Commodores depend on one – the rest of them are experienced and able to guide the youngster through trying times.

It’s why Martin is not surprised that Vanderbilt is winning despite the hurdles, while the Gamecocks continue to struggle.

“Six of the seven have played major minutes for multiple years in their system,” Martin said. “They know what coach Stallings wants, he knows what they’re good at. The burden of winning and losing is not on the freshman. It’s on the other six guys.”

USC is facing an uphill battle to finish well, but this is the best chance to start the climb. While the Commodores have been playing well, the Gamecocks get the game in their arena, and match up well with Vanderbilt. They get another home game against struggling Alabama on Saturday.

Martin said that USC’s practice on Monday was enthusiastic and well-performed, something he wanted to see after the Gamecocks weren’t energetic at the start of their previous game, a loss at Tennessee. Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice continue to harness the leadership roles on the court and in the locker room, and the feeling remains that the corner is there to be turned.

Martin isn’t happy with the losing, but continues to say he likes his team and believes in it. The Gamecocks have been in the majority of their SEC games.

Yet they’ve won one of them.

“Patience is something I always talk about, and I’m learning it first-hand this year,” Martin said. “It’s made me reflect back. This year’s made me appreciate the freshmen I’ve had in the past, that I wanted them to do more, but I always had upperclassmen I could depend on.”

It’s a luxury that Martin doesn’t have this year. But the only way to get through it is to stay patient until his freshmen are the upperclassmen.


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