The head coach knew it. So did his assistants. So did his players.
In hindsight, Frank Martin’s drift from his team toward its opponents was apparent in his comments leading up to games against Florida and Georgia last week. He spoke in generalities about his Gamecocks while speaking in depth about the challenges his team faced before and after the 75-36 loss in Gainesville.
“We picked up on it,” senior forward Lakeem Jackson said Monday as the Gamecocks prepared for Tuesday’s trip to Kentucky. “We talked about it, and I think we kind of got everything squared away. I think we’re all on the same page.”
Martin was apologetic following USC’s 67-56 loss against Georgia, saying he had dropped the ball. He expanded on that Monday.
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“I talk all the time about not paying attention to winning and losing, paying attention to detail, paying attention to who we are, paying attention to culture,” Martin said. “We had been playing so good that I got wrapped up with the other team more than our own team.
“I’m asking our guys to fight every single day for the culture we’re trying to build. Well, they’ve never done that,” Martin continued. “For me to expect them to do that on their own right now is not fair to them.”
Martin said the last time he found himself in a similar situation was during his first year at Kansas State, when he was dealing with nine first-year players, including seven freshmen.
The difference? When that team’s culture and attention to detail broke down, Martin had a NBA lottery pick (Michael Beasley) and a second-round pick (Bill Walker).
“So even on the days that we weren’t as good as we needed to be, we had a Michael Beasley to save us from a difficult day,” Martin said. “We don’t have that right now so that means that we better be rock-solid at what we’re trying to be good at, which is our defense.”
Another issue with the Gamecocks remains confidence on offense. Martin said the Gamecocks have done a much better job of taking the right kind of shot but still allow themselves to be affected by misses.
“All you can do is continue to work, continue to get good shots, instill confidence in your players and understand that, as they continue to realize that we’re getting good shots, they’ll find the confidence to make them eventually.
“You miss a shot, you miss a shot,” Martin said. “You’ve got to be proud that you got the right shot and you got a good shot. You can’t let it impact you in a negative way.”
Getting the right shot at Kentucky likely will mean finding a way around freshman shot-blocker extraordinaire Nerlens Noel, who leads the SEC by a wide margin with 4.6 blocks per game.
Willie Cauley-Stein also is an interior presence and ranks fourth in the SEC with 1.8 blocks per game.
Martin said having two big men in the back of the defense allows Kentucky’s guards to be aggressive and take chances. Martin said if a Kentucky defender gets beat off the dribble, “you’re taking them right where you want them, to that shot blocker, which is the equivalent of stealing the ball on the wing.”
No matter the outcome at Kentucky, one thing is evident: Martin will be getting back to basics with the Gamecocks.
“If I don’t pay attention to detail, if I don’t hold them accountable, if I don’t fight for it every day, I can’t expect them to do it themselves,” he said. “We’re not there yet as a program.”
WHO: USC (12-9, 2-6 SEC) vs. Kentucky (15-6, 6-2)
WHEN: 9 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
RADIO: WNKT 107.5 FM
SERIES: Kentucky leads 46-10
COACHES: Frank Martin (129-63 in six seasons, 12-9 in first season at USC); John Calipari (505-152 in 21 seasons; 102-14 in fourth season at Kentucky)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Like Florida, the Wildcats have four starters averaging double figures in points, led by Archie Goodwin (14.8). A key battle will be on the glass when USC is on offense. The Gamecocks are third in the SEC in offensive rebounding (14 per game) while Kentucky leads the SEC in defensive rebounds (27.8 per game). The Gamecocks are last in league play with a field goal percentage of 39.3. Nerlens Noel leads the country in shot blocks (4.6 per game), and the Wildcats are second nationally as a team.
- Patrick Obley