Josh Kendall

Ben Howland sees strides made by Frank Martin’s Gamecocks

Mississippi State's Ben Howland cheers his players on in the second half against South Carolina on Tuesday.
Mississippi State's Ben Howland cheers his players on in the second half against South Carolina on Tuesday. gmelendez@thestate.com

Ben Howland has won 409 games as a collegiate basketball coach.

He’s made bad teams good and good teams great.

“They are both difficult processes, to build and to sustain,” Mississippi State’s first-year coach said Tuesday night after an 84-74 loss to South Carolina that dropped his club to 8-11 overall and 1-6 in the SEC.

Howland is on the front end of his fourth collegiate rebuilding job. Frank Martin looks to be on the back end of his first.

“Building it is really difficult,” Howland said. “He came in here and his first two years were losing seasons, but you can see now they have a style of play.”

That style of play is best described as marauding. The Gamecocks are unreliable offensively, but unflinching in every area of the game that involves contact, and the result is now an 18-2 overall record and 5-2 mark in the SEC. Martin is in his fourth season and today marks the first time he’s been at 18 wins in any of them. And that’s before February begins.

The kind of milestones that Howland has been able to duplicate at three previous stops are the kind of milestones Martin’s team is achieving now.

Howland’s first Northern Arizona team won nine games. His last three won 21 each season. That turned into the Pittsburgh job in 1999. The Panthers won 13 games his first year, 29 his third and 28 his fourth. That turned into the UCLA job in 2003. Those Bruins won 11 games and then averaged 32.3 wins per season and went the Final Four three times in years three through five.

Martin’s only head coaching experience prior to coming to South Carolina was at Kansas State, where the job was maintenance and advancement. Martin took over a team that had 23 games the previous year under his former boss, Bob Huggins.

Martin excelled in that role, pushing the Wildcats to 29 wins in his third season. The Gamecocks needed rebuilding. South Carolina won 10 games in the 2011-12 season, precipitating Darrin Horn’s firing and Martin’s hiring.

“They are very well coached,” Howland said. “Frank has done a tremendous job of building this program to where that’s an NCAA team and a team nobody in the tournament is going to want to play come that time of year.”

South Carolina has some chinks in its armor, no question. The Gamecocks fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 and are ranked No. 44 nationally by Sagarin and No. 47 by KenPom despite their gaudy record.

Only three teams with as many wins (as counted by Sagarin, which does not count the Gamecocks’ win over Francis Marion) are ranked lower than South Carolina, and none of them are in a Power 5 conference (Saint Joseph’s, Evansville and UAB).

Nobody on the NCAA selection committee is going to be much impressed by a strength of schedule that Sagarin ranks No. 111 and KenPom ranks No. 154, but it’s not going to matter if the Gamecocks keep piling up victories. At this point, if the Gamecocks go just .500 down the stretch, they’ll be at 23 wins before the conference tournament even begins.

South Carolina would have to fall into a large hole somewhere between now and March not to play in the NCAA Tournament this year. The most recent projections have them in with room to spare (CBSSports.com and USA Today each projected the Gamecocks as a No. 8 seed this week.)

The road gets a little tougher from here on out. The Gamecocks haven’t yet beaten an SEC team with a winning conference record, but they’ll have six games against teams who currently have a winning league record in their final six contests.

“They’ll be a problem for anybody they face,” Howland said.

And he’s seen this movie before.

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