Physical, unrelenting and old school.
Like college football’s triple-option offense, Frank Martin’s defense has a reputation unto itself. In an increasingly modernized sport, it’s not flashy and it doesn’t inspire many imitators, but it still commands respect.
The numbers are there — when South Carolina basketball advanced to the Final Four in 2016-17, it did so in large part on the strength of its defense, ranked third in the nation by KenPom defensive rating. In his 12 years as a head coach, the majority of Martin’s teams have finished in the top 50 nationally by adjusted defensive rating.
But beyond simply being good, there’s just something about how Martin coaches, and accordingly, how the Gamecocks play, that makes USC fundamentally different from other top defenses.
“Frank’s defense is as good as any in the country, it’s unique,” Florida coach Mike White, who has a 2-5 record against Carolina, said at SEC Media Day. “ ... They’re unique, they’re different than every defense that you play all year. So, it causes you to to play obviously a little bit differently.”
At the heart of that difference is the intense pressure with which South Carolina hits opponents — in 2016-17, the Gamecocks ranked sixth nationally in opponent turnover percentage, with opposing teams losing possession on more than a fifth of all possessions.
“They’re convicted in what they do. They’re tough as nails, physical, they cause disruption, they won’t allow you to run your offense real easily,” White said.
Granted, after that Final Four season, Martin and USC regressed somewhat. At one of its lowest points last year, South Carolina ranked 243rd in scoring defense, 161st in adjusted defensive efficiency. By season’s end, it was 71st in KenPom defensive rating, 203rd in scoring defense.
But one year’s results haven’t lessened the respect SEC foes have, even among players.
“(Martin’s) defense is one of the toughest in the SEC to play against because it’s so fundamental,” Auburn’s Anfernee McLemore said. “His players, they’re always in shape, I hear he does a good job getting them whipped up in practice a lot. It’s just being able to play 40 minutes and wear them down over the course of a game.”
“I knew coach Martin’s a very energetic coach. He likes to get up, he likes to hit first, he likes to deny,” Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith, a South Carolina native who considered the Gamecocks during the recruiting process. “ ... They’re a very defensive-minded team.”
And for coaches, because South Carolina’s defense is so unique, game planning can be a challenge — just like football’s triple option.
“It’s a different approach from a scouting report standpoint, and sometimes I feel like we underthink, and sometimes I think when we’re playing them, we overthink it,” White said. “And I think probably all of us, when you play teams like that, you have to find a happy medium, and a big factor is probably your current team and what the exact approach is as you prepare for that unique and really productive defense.”
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes is a good friend of Martin and has had plenty of experience over the past four seasons facing off against his defenses. And despite winning the last four of those meetings, Barnes said the experience doesn’t get any easier.
“You take a dose of Novocain,” preparing to face South Carolina’s defense, Barnes joked. “Because you know that’s what it’s going to be like. Every pass is going to be challenged, every dribble is going to be challenged. Everything you do.”
That defensive identity plays into Martin’s reputation for player development, and recruiting players for a unique system not typically seen in the top levels of basketball can be a challenge, Barnes acknowledged — much like recruiting for a triple-option system. But done right like Martin does it, he said, it can be a thing of beauty.
“Frank does a terrific job because he believes in what he believes in, recruits the kind of players that buy into that system and ... whether you want to call it a challenge, attacking you, whatever word you want to use, you just know that every pass, every dribble is going to be challenged,” Barnes said.