David Cloninger

Frank Martin’s Gamecocks ‘on a ride right now that’s unreal’

South Carolina’s Laimonas Chatkevicius said the Gamecocks are not focused on the hype surrounding their 15-0 start to the season.
South Carolina’s Laimonas Chatkevicius said the Gamecocks are not focused on the hype surrounding their 15-0 start to the season. tglantz@thestate.com

C’mon. How could they not pay attention?

South Carolina’s players swear they don’t listen to talk of rankings (No. 19 this week) or historical marks (two wins off the program’s longest winning streak). To even mention something like that, Mindaugas Kacinas said, means to start hydrating now because you’ll run later.

“(Coach Frank Martin) doesn’t pay attention to it and we’re kind of not allowed to pay attention to it. And we don’t really want to,” Laimonas Chatkevicius said. “Those first years, we never got any of that hype. We’re used to it now.”

Sure, yeah, OK. But now that students are back? Social media and pats on the back and posing for selfies at lunch? The student newspaper flashing “15-0” on the front page?

You ignore all that?

“Right now, we’re in a place where we’re not going to pay attention to the party. We’re going to go in the gym,” Martin said.

It hasn’t been tough so far, and it shouldn’t be in the future. The Gamecocks’ upperclassmen remember what it took to get here. It wasn’t the congratulations and national recognition they’re getting now.

“I was dreaming the whole time that one of those four years, we would get there,” Chatkevicius said. “The first years, it wasn’t good years for us.”

Chatkevicius, Kacinas and Michael Carrera were around that first season, signing to play for Martin despite knowing him as the successful coach at Kansas State, not South Carolina. They knew the guy could win … but they also knew the roster, full of freshmen and the holdovers from a 10-win team, wasn’t built to win.

“OK, if Year 1 was just a wash?” Martin said. “Our second year, we were in a bunch of games, but guys didn’t know how to do anything. It would be like us playing our five freshmen every game this year, playing with no upperclassmen to show them the way.”

Those seasons had 14 wins each. Each had the same theme – start out decent and fall flat in SEC play. Martin wasn’t overjoyed with losing, but he knew it was part of the process – there were no Michael Beasleys waiting for him in Columbia. Any real improvement would have to show up in Year 3.

Three of Martin’s four-man, third recruiting class were gone before the first game (Shamiek Sheppard returned from knee surgery to play seven games, but transferred after the season). They improved, going 17-16, but an injury-riddled year marred by another poor start in SEC play left them knowing they let a lot get away.

“We won more than we lost, but we also left five or six games on the table,” Martin said. “But we weren’t ready to win consistently in those hard-fought close games, like we did at Vanderbilt.”

It’s come around. While nobody expected 15 wins to start the season, the Gamecocks knew they had a full team for the first time in four years. They had old heads, bright young talent, depth and height.

“The system that coach Frank has, we needed good execution. I always felt the system that we have is great and we just needed to execute better,” Chatkevicius said. “We got to this point and it’s working out well.”

Martin was part of a team that was within three minutes of the Final Four. He’s won championships and tournament games and knows the atmosphere of big-time college basketball. He’s not final-stamping this season, but he’s very proud of what his team has gone through to get here.

“They’ve got me on a ride right now that’s unreal,” Martin said. “When I talk to you about the ride, I’m not talking about 15-0. Fourteen-and-oh wasn’t helping us in the middle of that Vanderbilt game. Who we’ve become over the past three and half years, that’s what helped us in the middle of that game.”

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