The post-Christmas practice is rarely a thing of precision in college basketball. Any joy of the holiday season quickly wears off after a few hours of turnovers, missed shots and missed assignments.
Chuck Martin has developed these unfortunate memories over a two-decade career in the business.
“Usually that practice is not incredible,” the second-year South Carolina assistant, who’s previously worked at Manhattan, UMass, Drexel, St. John’s, Memphis, Marist and Indiana, said. “That is a bad practice because it’s sluggish, there’s no energy. The guys have been distracted for three days.”
The Gamecocks lost to Clemson on Dec. 22, completing a four-game skid that started with an eye-opening result at lowly Wyoming. They were 4-7, were down two starters to injury and ahead of them was a grueling 18-game SEC schedule. Expectations were low and morale was anything but high.
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Frank Martin put on a confident front — “I really, really like this team. I like the people on this team, I like the makeup of this team,” the USC coach said after the Clemson loss — but there some natural concern about where things were heading.
“We had four losses in a row and we were such a young team,” Martin said Tuesday, “we were dealing with some injuries. There was a lot of unknown because I had never been down that road with a bunch of guys on our team. So there’s a lot of unknowns.
“As a coach you’re trying to figure out, ‘OK, how am I gonna figure things moving forward with guys I’ve never been through it with?’ And I was also still searching to find more consistency out of Chris.”
Without another game until New Year’s Eve, Frank Martin had everyone get away for three days. Players and coaches could be with their families. They could let the festive spirit wash over the negative vibes that come with a losing streak.
A unique strategy, according to Chuck Martin.
“I thought it was brilliant by Frank that he allowed the kids to go home for three days,” Martin said, “because people in college athletics, men’s basketball in particular, do not get 72 hours for Christmas.”
The Gamecocks reconvened Dec. 26. The practice that immediately followed was referenced by Frank Martin after South Carolina beat Ole Miss two months later to take an upper-hand in the race for fourth place in the SEC. Martin talked about it again Tuesday as the Gamecocks head to the SEC Tournament as the No. 4 seed with legitimate postseason aspirations.
“We got back and those guys are jumping out of their shoes,” Martin said. “Their excitement, their enthusiasm, their competitiveness … They didn’t come back like a team that was scarred from losing four in a row. They came back like a team that couldn’t wait to get back on the floor and keep on taking challenges.
“I went home that night and I kinda felt good. I was like, ‘Wow.’”
Chuck Martin soon gained a new appreciation for post-Christmas practices. It was as if the USC players found energy in their stockings and spilled it out on the floor of the Carolina Coliseum.
“I just remember the team as a whole just being energized and enthused and moving hard and cutting hard,” Martin said. “There was just a really good vibe in the gym. Everyone on staff, we felt good about it.”
The veteran players noticed it, too. Senior forward Chris Silva, whose early struggles were a big reason behind USC’s slow start, recalls the Gamecocks being “locked in” as they prepared for a Dec. 31 game with North Greenville and beyond.
“We were ready for the next phase of the season,” Silva said. “So everybody kind of came to practice with a great enthusiasm.”
Silva, a first-team All-SEC selection, has averaged 16.5 points and 8 rebounds in the 20 games since the practice. The Gamecocks have gone 12-8.
“The break allowed us to really reflect on what we’re doing, what we were doing wrong, what we were doing right and how can we become a better team chemistry-wise and just perform better on the court,” said senior guard Hassani Gravett, the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year. “And I think, when we came back from that break, we all collectively just put all our effort into it and just turned things around.”
USC, which plays either Auburn, Missouri or Georgia on Friday at Bridgestone Arena, is one win away from making the SEC Tournament semifinals for the first time in 13 years.
“They came back that day,” Frank Martin said, “and I was like, ‘Ohh, this is gonna be fun.’ And it hasn’t stopped. It hasn’t stopped.”