David Cloninger

Cloninger: Dozier-Martin dynamic takes another step forward

I admit, I was wondering how this Frank Martin-P.J. Dozier thing would go.

There’s no questioning the love each has for each other. Martin targeted Dozier long ago as a program-changing recruit, the kind of high-level talent that would really make the nation (and thus other big-time players) notice South Carolina. Martin made sure that Dozier knew, even as a high-school sophomore, that he was Priority Number One.

Dozier of course knew how good South Carolina could be for him because his father, uncle and as it turned out, sister, each went to USC and starred for some very strong teams. And when Martin sought him out, telling him he could change the Gamecocks’ fortunes, and stuck with him through a knee injury, that said a lot more than the other big boys (Louisville, Michigan, Georgetown) when they came around.

There was never any problem about Dozier choosing USC. I just wondered how it would be once he got here.

You have to understand the dynamic Martin has with his players. Those 40 minutes on gameday are the only time he’s like the guy on TV. I swear to you, every one of the kids who stick with him would run through a brick wall for him. Yeah, he may be a mean and nasty tyrant during games, but he’s their mean and nasty tyrant, knowhutImean? And those times are far trumped by the office chats and off-season talks at his house.

It’s amazing how much they care for Martin and how much he reciprocates, teaching them to be better men and fathers for when they take those steps after basketball. Of course it doesn’t always work out – you have rocky relationships with your family, too, and basketball, especially these days, is way too coddling for some high-maintenance egos – but there aren’t many, if any, who say a bad word about Martin even if they don’t end their career under him.

Dozier never had an ego in high school. He’s a great, down-to-earth, earnest kid. But as a player, he was used to being the star, running the show for his dad at Spring Valley, and he should have been doing that since he was the Vikings’ best player.

With Martin putting him at point guard on an upperclassmen-led team, that was where my eyebrows were raised. "How’s this gonna work," I wondered, "him being a big-time scorer from the point but these other guys with him who have busted their tails for two or three years working Martin’s system?"

It’s defense first, unselfishness second. The Gamecocks aren’t a team dependent on one player to score. Dozier is so athletic and so skilled – there aren’t a lot of 6-foot-7 point guards around, although LSU certainly has a 6-10 guy who is more than capable of doing it – but Martin wanted Dozier’s first job to be the director; the second, if he absolutely had to, to score.

You saw it through the first 23 games. They were still figuring each other out. Those one-hand dunks and flashes to the basket were indicative of what Dozier could do if given the green light, but Martin didn’t flash it very often. Most times, it was because he couldn’t – Sin Thornwell was hot, or Michael Carrera was open low or the most likely reason, Dozier was beside him on the bench after another hand-check foul.

The 24th game, Wednesday, was where Martin had no alternative. Ben Simmons couldn’t be defended without a foul and the Gamecocks’ front line was warming vinyl on the sideline. Even with Dozier in foul trouble, Martin gathered the team around, drew up the P.J. Package and told him to go.

He went.

Dozier’s teardrop floaters were bottoming and he showed no fear about going at Simmons from the top of the key or the lane. His bullet pass to Ray Doby – and the courage to throw it to a freshman who didn’t play most of the first half of the season – resulted in two more points and the Gamecocks were in control. Dozier out-dueled Simmons, making plays while Simmons had points, and USC won.

Just when the offense was becoming predictable, Dozier took over. It’s another weapon to add to the arsenal as the games start to have much more attached to them than a win or a loss.

Perhaps Martin may not have to call Dozier’s number the rest of the season.

But if he does, Dozier will be there to pick up.

Two more wins.

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