In mid-October, long before Ole Miss and South Carolina played another close game, Rebels coach Andy Kennedy was asked about his Gamecocks counterpart and longtime friend, Frank Martin.
It was SEC media day in Nashville, the last stop on Martin’s honeymoon tour since leading USC to the national semifinals.
Come on, Andy, give us your best Frank story.
Kennedy, who goes back nearly 15 years with Martin to their days as Cincinnati assistants, wouldn’t give in.
“Too many cameras, bro,” he said, nodding to a semicircle of reporters. “Get me after.”
A follow-up interview never took place, but the message was clear: Kennedy and Martin know about everything there is to know about one another – from past social habits to preferred basketball strategy.
Ole Miss’ 74-69 win against USC on Sunday was the latest in one of the SEC’s more competitive series. Of the nine Kennedy-Martin meetings since 2012, seven have been decided by five points or fewer.
Kennedy is now 5-4 against his pal.
“We teach similar things,” Martin said. “So I think it would be like playing yourself in practice. Obviously personnel’s different and you tweak things to your personnel a little bit, but we work together, we spend a lot of time together in the offseason talking ball. And now we’ve coached against each other for six years.
“So he knows what I’m trying to do. It makes it hard.”
Kennedy, the dean of SEC coaches who’s won a school record 242 games over 12 seasons in Oxford, earned a split with the Gamecocks last year. His team overcame a 25-point effort from Sindarius Thornwell on March 5, 2017, to beat USC by five at The Pavilion.
Two days later, Thornwell was named SEC player of the year. Three months later, Thornwell was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers.
Kennedy on Sunday didn’t need to keep any conversations private. He knows what Martin is missing.
“Offensively, when you lose a guy like Thornwell, you need a guy at the end of the clock to make plays,” Kennedy said. “You need that guy. He’s still searching for that guy offensively.”
Such a storyline has followed these Gamecocks (9-4, 0-1 SEC) since the preseason. Martin’s 2017-18 bunch was to mix just a handful of returnees with eight new players.
“How do they handle when the lights come on and you’re in a difficult moment regardless of who you’re playing?” Martin said in Nashville. “Who’s going to take the bull by the horns? Who’s going to stand up tall when things get difficult?”
After Felipe Haase’s 3-pointer that cut Ole Miss’ lead to 65-63 with 3:43 remaining, the Gamecocks didn’t make another field goal. Their final six points came from the free-throw line.
Shot takers in crunch time were David Beatty, Wes Myers and Frank Booker. Chris Silva, USC’s most accomplished player who co-led the Gamecocks with 21 points, made his last FG with 11:32 to go. The junior’s two free throws trimmed the Rebel advantage to three with 1:16 left.
“Andy hasn’t won more games here than any coach in the history (of Ole Miss) because he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Martin said. “Andy was not going to let Chris Silva beat them coming down the stretch.
“We ran some stuff – they guarded it – but we also opened the court to try and drive the ball and get some 3s because of the score.”
USC is expecting to get back injured point guard Hassani Gravett on Wednesday when it hosts Missouri (10-3). Tip time from Colonial Life Arena is scheduled for 9 p.m.