David Cloninger

Martin talks Selection Sunday agony, Gamecocks’ future

With his players in the back of the room, his administration in the middle, USC coach Frank Martin sat at the front and thanked everyone.

His team, for believing in him. His bosses, for seeing the potential. South Carolina, for returning the love he has for it with a pledge to keep him as basketball coach through at least 2022.

“When I got here, I thought I understand some of the challenges. I really didn’t,” Martin said on Monday. “I understood the basketball challenges on the court, I had no idea what the challenges were off the court.

“I couldn’t be happier with the progress that we made.”

Martin was rewarded with a contract extension last week, adding four years to the two left on his original deal. Not only did Martin raise the win total in 2015-16 more than double what it was before he arrived, he’s re-energized a local atmosphere that was starved for big-time basketball.

While this season didn’t end the way it seemed destined to, Martin pledged to keep the Gamecocks soaring toward that goal. That the goal should have been achieved this year led to a few other comments.

“My frustration is, if you take our team name away from our record, and you put that record in one of the other Power-5 conferences, that record gets you into the NCAA Tournament,” Martin said. “But, we got to win more. We obviously didn’t win enough.”

Martin was spot-on in his complaints. Since at least 2002, no Power-5 team with at least 24 wins had been left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks were seemingly punished for being in the SEC, long regarded as so weak a Power-5 conference in men’s basketball that smaller leagues routinely rank ahead of it.

They didn’t lose a nonconference game. It wasn’t USC’s fault that when it scheduled Memphis, Drexel and St. John’s, they had strong teams returning. Then key players for all of them left, leaving Martin to consider putting a clause in future contracts – if key players transfer after the contract is signed, USC can void the deal without a fee.

The future for the Gamecocks is finding a way to get over the SEC’s reputation, somehow schedule teams that will give them credit, win or lose, and take that final step into the round of 68.

That way, they avoid the agony of Selection Sunday 2016. While it seems clear that the selection committee didn’t think USC had done enough to put it in the tournament, an erroneous text message, then a leaked bracket before the official announcement, had Martin scrambling.

The immediate future has Martin recruiting to shore up a roster which will miss at least two underclassmen from a year ago, and to potentially firm an overseas exhibition game schedule. The plan is for the Gamecocks to take that overseas trip and take full advantage of the extra practice and game time.

Then come back and start the process of removing the sizable chip that’s been left on their shoulders.

“I’ve been on that proverbial NCAA bubble four times. I’m 1-3. It’s like playing blackjack in Vegas,” Martin said. “There’s no way we weren’t going to be in the tournament.

“Imagine if I was standing behind you, and you were watching the screen behind me, hoping that your name was coming up on the screen, and I’m standing behind you with information that’s saying that you are and information saying that you’re not,” Martin said of Selection Sunday. “Your job is to make sure you keep those people’s spirits in the right place.”

That he handled it, and how well he did, left USC no doubt that he was the right man to lead the Gamecocks into the future.

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