USC Men's Basketball

Can USC recruit in-state basketball talent? The results are perpetually under scrutiny

Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. Score two for the Gamecocks.

Seventh Woods and Zion Williamson. Those two got away.

In-state basketball recruiting, and South Carolina’s success at it, has been a topic of debate for decades. As USC coach Frank Martin entered the discussion six years ago, so did an injection of local talent. He’s landed a few Gamecocks on the S.C. trail, but he’s seen others keep alive a tradition of finding more established paths elsewhere.

The Palmetto State is in the recruiting spotlight again with a group of renowned class of 2019 and 2020 prospects on USC’s radar.

Expect the debate to continue.

In March 2017, the Gamecocks, carried by two in-state stars, made the Final Four for the first time. Ten months later, Williamson, arguably the state’s greatest high school player ever, chose Duke over USC, Clemson and others. Earlier this month, Gray Collegiate Academy standout Juwan Gary committed to Alabama, leading to a message board discussion on TheBigSpur.com that was titled “Stop wasting time on in-state guys.”

Martin, never shy with a platform, has been outspoken in defending Carolina’s efforts with in-state prospects.

“I’m willing to put this on the table,” Martin said in June. “I’ve watched every one of those kids that made decisions to go somewhere else. I’ve watched them more than every other head coach in the country. They didn’t come. It is what it is. It doesn’t mean we can’t win. We still went to a Final Four. We’ve had four consecutive winning seasons for the first time since the ‘70s.”

Martin isn’t the first USC coach to fight these battles. He won’t be the last.

When Frank McGuire strung together the most decorated of his 14 straight winning seasons from 1966-80, he was powered by players from New York. Martin’s Final Four team had Lancaster’s Thornwell and Columbia’s Dozier, but also six international players.

At South Carolina, how much importance should be put on in-state recruiting? Where have the Gamecocks missed locally in the past, and how has that impacted the current state of the program? What has Martin done in his six years to target homegrown talent?

“I’ve said this from the day I got here,” Martin said. “Recruiting this state is very important to me.”

Hot and cold

Martin, seated against a garnet and black backdrop, grabbed the one thing that accompanied him at a table full of recording devices. He sipped through a green straw and then returned the chilled Starbucks cup to its original position. The sound of rattling ice cubes trickled out from the microphone.

“By the way,” Martin said before taking a summer news conference at Williams-Brice Stadium through a mini-detour, “one of the greatest things about living in South Carolina is that it doesn’t get too cold. So I can drink iced coffee year-round. It’s phenomenal.

“I don’t have to drink that hot coffee. It makes me sweat.”

The USC coach is approaching seven years of benefiting from a cooled caffeinated beverage on any day he pleases. Martin, a Miami native, is “adopted here,” he said on a 90-degree June morning in Columbia. Chilled liquids have helped, but he’s mostly escaped the scorching South Carolina heat by finding his way into local gyms.

Such travel — from the Upstate to the Lowcountry — has long been required by those in Martin’s position. When Darrin Horn took over for Dave Odom in 2008, he announced an intention to “put a fence up around the state of South Carolina” because “there is talent in our state. ... The best players in the state are going to be recruited to play at the University of South Carolina.”

Horn’s final USC team went 10-21 and finished last in the SEC. It featured five in-state players.

Shortly after Martin replaced Horn in 2012, he made at least two short visits — 60 miles north to Lancaster to see Sindarius Thornwell, and barely 15 minutes to Hammond School to see Seventh Woods. Martin, like those before him, recognized a need to attract the state’s top prospects.

“The talent pool here is something that we need to keep these kids home,” Martin said at his own introductory news conference.

Thornwell, then a rising senior soon off to Oak Hill Academy, and Woods, a rising ninth-grader already trending on YouTube, represented a new kind of in-state target that hadn’t been seen in these parts for a while. These were viewed as the future pros, the rare talents who could change the course of Gamecock history if Martin, a former Big 12 Coach of the Year with a national reputation, could convince them to wear garnet and black. Spring Valley’s P.J. Dozier and Spartanburg’s Zion Williamson created a similar buzz.

A month after his summer news conference, Martin was part of a less formal interview in his office attached to the Carolina Coliseum. He wore a gray USC hoodie and settled into a black leather chair. A few days earlier, Juwan Gary, a four-star wing from Columbia once considered a lock to stay home, pledged to play at Alabama.

It again sparked criticism from a fan base that’s already seen the likes of Woods head to North Carolina, Williamson to Duke, Tevin Mack (Columbia) to Texas, Jalek Felton (Mullins) to UNC, Aaron Nesmith (Charleston) to Vanderbilt and D.J. Burns (Rock Hill) to Tennessee in recent years.

“Good lord ... can we keep anyone in state?” was one Twitter response from a USC fan to the Gary news. “I’m seriously concerned about Frank’s ability to recruit, this is getting ridiculous” was another.

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Martin, though, hardly seemed frustrated. From his chair, he could spot images of South Carolina’s 2017 Final Four run on the walls, including a team photo from the stage at Madison Square Garden, site of the Gamecocks’ Elite Eight win over Florida.

Thornwell is clutching the East Regional championship trophy. Dozier is nearby, wearing a championship hat.

There was no iced coffee for Martin on this July morning, but he still managed a drink reference.

“Some people say half-full or half-empty,” he told The State. “I don’t care how you fill the glass — half-full or half-empty — the objective is to fill the glass. I’m always trying to fill the glass. That’s the way I view things. I don’t want the glass incomplete. I want to fill it.”

When it comes to in-state recruiting for University of South Carolina basketball, history has proved the process can be hot and cold.

“What I’ve learned is it’s not a short, quick turnaround,” he said. “It’s a long-term investment, because the program had grown to such depths that you’re not turning everything overnight, on the short.

“Can we get it one day where the in-state guys will tell North Carolina and Duke, ‘We’re not coming, bro, we’re staying here’? I guess we’ll find out. We’re not there yet.”

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History of what-ifs

Khris Middleton, back at his old high school after finishing his sixth NBA season, posed for a picture with a couple happy campers. The two boys were wearing green Milwaukee Bucks T-shirts.

“I remember the first time I had this camp,” Middleton said, “some kids didn’t know who I was. Now I see kids with my jersey on, which is pretty neat.”

Middleton averaged more than 20 points per game in 2017-18 for Milwaukee. He’s averaged double figures five consecutive years. He’s started 81 percent of the games he’s played in at the next level.

Yet it’s taken some time for the accomplishments to match recognition in his hometown. Middleton grew up in Charleston and attended Porter-Gaud, the location of his annual summer camp. Nine years ago, Middleton, a top 65 recruit, left here to play for Texas A&M.

“College of Charleston was one I looked at,” he said, “but it was a little bit too close at the time. South Carolina just wasn’t for me. Clemson was where I wanted to go for a while, but the coach at the time said I wasn’t going to fit. So that was that.

“I didn’t have a problem staying in state. If the program was going to be right, if it was going to fit me the way I needed it to and if the on and off the court stuff was right, I would have had no problem staying in state.”

Middleton, who went on to help the Aggies to two NCAA tournament appearances in three years, is one of several what-ifs when it comes to USC and in-state players, many of which predate Martin.

Carey Rich, a Columbia native and two-time captain for Eddie Fogler’s Gamecocks in the 1990s, has long been plugged into the local hoops scene. He contends that when top in-state players go elsewhere, it confirms that USC, even after making waved in March 2017, “still isn’t sexy enough” for recruits.

Becoming sexy, in this case, means generating success on a consistent basis. Pointing to an established history and asking a prospect to help add to it can be an easy play on the recruiting trail. When Martin’s Gamecocks beat Marquette to spark their Final Four run, the program had an NCAA tournament win for the first time in 44 years.

But what if Dalzell’s Ray Allen had chosen South Carolina in the early ‘90s? Would that have helped the Gamecocks become sexy? What if Mauldin’s Kevin Garnett held off on the NBA for a year to rock garnet and black? Columbia’s Jermaine O’Neal?

Rich can take this game back to 1987, when a national championship-winning AAU team from Columbia featured future Gamecocks like Joe Rhett and Jo Jo English, but also an LSU Tiger in Stanley Roberts.

“I think Stanley Roberts is the single most important player that, if he comes to South Carolina, he changes everything,” Rich said. “The tradition and perception of South Carolina basketball is different if Stanley Roberts comes here.”

In the era of dominant big men, Roberts was a 7-foot, 300-pound All-American from Lower Richland High who would battle the likes of Alonzo Mourning and Shawn Kemp on the travel and all-star circuits. His move to LSU, over strong pursuit from USC, coincided with Jim Childers going from Lower Richland head coach to Tigers assistant.

“He would have been the biggest recruiter for South Carolina,” Rich said. “But more importantly, kids that are 10, 15, 20 years later would remember him being at South Carolina. He would have resonated for that next group that had Derrick Carroll (Columbia native who went to Florida State) and them. And then, right after that, came Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal.”

Martin didn’t come around until almost three decades later. He couldn’t make up for USC’s less-than-appealing history, but his early moves showed growth.

“Sindarius thought I was sexy,” Martin said. “Seventh didn’t come here, but Seventh thought we were sexy.”

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Shooting 50 percent

The way Martin sees it, the Gamecocks are shooting 50 percent when it comes to landing the state’s best players since his hire.

“We’re 2-for-4,” he said. “You know what you call that in recruiting? Unbelievable success.”

Thornwell was ranked by 247Sports Composite as the No. 30 player in the country in the 2013 class. He picked the Gamecocks over offers from N.C. State, Ohio State and Syracuse.

“The love affair started with coach Horn and that staff, but coach Frank Martin and his staff did a great job,” said Lancaster coach Ricardo Priester. “We had about everybody in the country come to Lancaster to recruit Sindarius.”

Dozier was the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Gamecocks since Rolando Howell 15 years earlier. The son and nephew of former Carolina players picked USC over Louisville.

Williamson, the No. 5 player in the ’18 class, and Woods, once regarded as the “best 14-year-old in the country,” went elsewhere, but Martin is content with the progress the Gamecocks made with both.

“You gotta understand, South Carolina was not even in the conversation for Seventh Woods,” Martin said. “You’d have to ask him — I don’t want to give you his personal opinion — but I can speak for South Carolina. We weren’t even in his thought. The day before he made his decision, he couldn’t figure out us or North Carolina.

“Same thing for Zion. Zion as an eighth-grader, he had no interest. He didn’t even talk about South Carolina. We made it hard on him.”

Shortly after Williamson announced his commitment to Duke last January, Lee Anderson, Williamson’s stepfather, told The State that his son, who listed USC, Clemson, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas as his finalists, was flipping a coin the night before.

“Frank Martin at South Carolina did a heck of a job,” Anderson said. “When he left the other day, Zion said something to me, ‘He had a good presentation.’ ”

Mark McClam, who coached Woods at Hammond, can vouch for the traction USC gained on Woods over the years. He confirmed Woods’ restless night before pledging to UNC in November 2015.

“Frank did a great job of catching up with North Carolina,” McClam said, “because when Seventh showed up to Hammond in the eighth grade he always used to wear a blue ‘Go Tar Heels’ little bracelet. So he was always a Tar Heel fan.

“I thought Frank did an excellent job of selling not only Seventh, but his parents and everybody else on why South Carolina would have been a great fit.”

Martin’s main recruiting pitch is the same for any prospect he’s seeking. He tells them they’ll never be cheated during their time at USC, that they’ll be held to becoming a man and that they’ll be maximized as a basketball player and person.

The spiel is then customized for an in-state prospect.

“I tell them they have a big opportunity in a small state,” Martin said. “Most South Carolina kids, when you ask them where they want to live when they’re done playing, they want to live in South Carolina. Why? Because the roots of their family are from this state.

“They get to surround their heart every time they play a college game with the two most important names in their life, which is their family’s name on the back and the state name on the front. That’s strong stuff.”

From 2013-18, the state of South Carolina had 16 players fall in 247Sports’ top 200 composite rankings in their respective classes. The Gamecocks have signed three of them. (Justin McKie, a former S.C. Mr. Basketball who came to Carolina in 2013, was not ranked.) South Carolina has three players among the top 200 in the ‘19 class, but Hartsville’s Trae Hannibal, a Gamecocks pledge, is not one of them.

“Can we go get the highest profile kid in the state? Yes,” Martin said. “But staying home is not for everybody. And some guys, I’ve kind of encouraged to go away because I don’t think it would work to stay home.

“At the end of the day, it’s about them succeeding, it’s about that young person becoming a more prepared man to succeed.”

Martin’s success, with or without in-state products, stands alone. This past season’s 17-16 record made Martin the first USC coach to have four straight winning seasons since Frank McGuire, a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, did it nearly four decades earlier.

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Getting creative

Martin’s 2018 class lacks an in-state player, but Martin told The State it “might be my best class since I’ve been here.” The 2017 Final Four team featured “six international kids on the team,” noted former USC assistant and recruiting coordinator Matt Figger.

“The team that won 25 games the year before had five international kids on it,” said Figger, now the head coach at Austin Peay. “We had to understand going through the door that we weren’t going to get the same level of players that Kentucky and Florida gets.

“So you’ve just got to be really, really creative and you just got to evaluate. When we signed Duane Notice, Duquesne was his only other scholarship offer.”

South Carolina again went to Canada, Notice’s homeland, this summer to get A.J. Lawson. The four-star wing is the highest-rated recruit the Gamecocks signed in the ’18 class.

“A.J. Lawson’s a high-profile kid,” Martin said. “Every time I’ve called him, his mom, his dad, or texted them, they took my call or returned my text. I can’t say the same for the kids in South Carolina.”

Auburn won the SEC regular season championship last year with three Alabama natives on the roster. Kentucky, the SEC tournament champs, didn’t use a single scholarship on an in-state player. Clemson, Sweet 16 participants last season, had two South Carolinians.

“Kids are willing to get away,” said Corey Evans, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals. “The thing is, the travel circuit and all that, kids are traveling nonstop. They’re used to that stuff now. Before, it wasn’t the case. Some kids didn’t leave for hours from home. Now, they’re on the road every weekend. So they’re used to this stuff.

“And when they’re on the road, they’re developing these bonds and relationships and these friendships with kids from miles away, so there’s now a comfortability factor there of, ‘I’m away from home, but so-and-so’s with me.’ ”

Before 2017, the most celebrated USC team in recent memory was the 1997 SEC regular season champion team that was led by natives B.J. McKie, Melvin Watson and Larry Davis.

In changing times, Thornwell, Dozier and Justin McKie were a refreshing reminder of the past. But that trio doesn’t get to the Final Four without help from Notice, Chris Silva (Gabon), Maik Kotsar (Estonia) and Rakym Felder (Brooklyn).

“Nowadays, the way recruiting is, unless you’re a blue blood, you have to get the under-the-radar guy, you’ve got to get the transfer, you’ve got to get the JUCO guy, you’ve got to get the international guy,” said ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla. “You’ve got to think about maybe getting a grad transfer. It’s a whole other animal. It’s free agency more than ever and you just can’t say, ‘We’re going to have 12 South Carolina kids on the team.’

“And by the way, when you do, the four that aren’t playing are going to be unhappy. So it’s good to have a mix.”

Continued pursuit

After six seasons — tying for the fifth-longest tenure in USC history — Martin has come to some conclusions about his adopted home: “The good thing about when you’re in a small place is, you get to know everyone a lot sooner. The bad thing about being in a small state? At least, in my sport, a lot of guys want to go and find out what it’s like in other places.”

Past wins and losses behind him, Martin’s not changing much moving forward.

Scholarships have been offered to Dorman’s P.J. Hall and Myles Tate, 2020’s best in-state prospects, and USC is among the final nine for Porter-Gaud’s Josiah James, the state’s top player in 2019 who ranks among the top 15 nationally.

“We’re finally starting to see South Carolina produce high-level college basketball players,” said Dorman coach Thomas Ryan. “Now every recruiting situation is scrutinized more where, really, if you take a step back, I think coach Martin’s really doing a good job of recruiting the state, getting to know high school coaches, getting to know the players, the families.

“I think he’s going to start to see the fruits of that.”

James plays on the same AAU team (TMP) with Hannibal. During a recent game in Charleston, James wore a USC-themed bracelet around his wrist.

“I don’t know where Josiah’s going to go,” said TMP coach Antoine Saunders, “but the two state schools have done a great job at recruiting him. He’s fond of both of them. If Josiah decides to stay in state, I won’t be shocked at all.”

Landing James would likely make fans forget about Gary. All Martin’s got to do is beat, among others, Duke and North Carolina.

“We’re going to keep working,” Martin said. “When you thought I was going to ram my head against the wall, which I thought about a couple times, I didn’t give in.”

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In-state scholarship basketball players on SEC rosters during 2017-18 season

Texas A&M

10

Alabama

6

Arkansas

6

Georgia

6

LSU

6

Mississippi State

6

Missouri

5

Auburn

3

Tennessee

3

Florida

2

Ole Miss

2

South Carolina

1

Kentucky

0

Vanderbilt

0

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