By John Vasington
It was 2012. The final buzzer sounded in the New Orleans Arena after a 57-63 loss to Alabama in the SEC Tournament, signifying the end of both the season and of coach Darrin Horn’s career with South Carolina. Gamecock fans were left scratching their heads, were they cursed? No matter how hard the University looked to find the right coaching fit in Columbia, with each new coach came a few losing seasons and their inevitable dismissal. This unfortunate pattern had become an expectation of every new Gamecocks’ hire and appeared to be a unfixable problem. Enter Frank Martin, the man who has changed that trend and brought South Carolina basketball back to relevance.
Fast forward four years to today… South Carolina is 21-4 coming off of a Top 10 win on the road at Texas A&M and a victory at home against LSU and freshman sensation Ben Simmons. They did suffer a loss Saturday, but it was to perennial SEC title contender, Kentucky. The program is certainly on the rise and could be headed to its first NCAA Tournament in twelve years. This is the same program that has not produced an NBA player since Renaldo Balkman. How have they done it? Simple, their play on the court has taken after their coach’s personality, fiery and resilient.
Frank Martin coaches a brand of basketball that many call “tough”. South Carolina doesn’t back down from anyone; they play an attacking style with a no layup mentality. The Gamecocks currently draw 24.5 fouls per game, most in the country. Their FT/FGA rate sits at 50.7, first in the nation according to KenPom. Additionally, over a quarter of their points are scored off of free throws (26.2%), which are very efficient shots. They are incredibly persistent on the glass as well, grabbing 38.8% of their misses and limiting their opponent’s offensive rebounding percentage to a mere 27.9%; both marks are top of the SEC. Defensively, they keep their opponents away from the rim, allowing only a 42.6% shooting percentage on two point shots. Due to this, only 41.2% of opponent’s points come from inside the arc, the lowest rate in the country.
Initially, Martin knew his teams weren’t going to be the most talented on the floor, so he constructed his recruiting classes based on value they could add to the team, not based on pure athleticism or talent. This resulted in a squad that flows well together and feeds off one another. They commit themselves to persistent defensive intensity, forcing turnovers so they can get out on the break and score. They force turnovers on 20.6% of opponent’s possessions, and play at a high tempo on offense; averaging 16.2 seconds per possession, a full second below the NCAA average. Following this scheme, Martin’s players aren’t forced to play a standard half court offense where they would have to win individual matchups against the likes of Kentucky and LSU’s athletes. This puts the Gamecocks in a position where they can compete and potentially win close games against teams that are considered “superior.”
The scariest realization for SEC opponents? Frank Martin’s South Carolina teams are starting to show an eerie resemblance to his Kansas State teams that only missed one NCAA tournament in five seasons and qualified for an Elite Eight. Each of those teams finished top six in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, and all but one finished top ten in fouls drawn. The missing piece? Three point defense. While in Manhattan, Martin’s successful teams were able to defend the arc; four of the five finished the season with an opponent three point percentage under 36%. This season the Gamecocks have allowed opponents to convert on 36.5% of attempts from deep, and that percentage increases to 38.4% when limited to games against SEC opponents. This season, teams are taking an average of 20.4 three pointers per game, but the Gamecocks are letting their opponents get up an average of 23.7 shots from behind the arc per game. As research from Nylon Calculus has shown, three-point defense is more a function of attempts than percentage allowed, and this trend of allowing a bunch of three-pointers may come back to bite them. In four losses this season, USC has allowed their opponents to make 5.2 (Alabama), 2.5 (Tennessee), 1.8 (Georgia), and 5.6 (Kentucky) more three pointers than those teams typically make in the average game this season-supporting the trend provided in Nylon Calculus’s NBA data. If South Carolina can find a way to limit the damage opponents can do to them from beyond the arc, then they will not only make the NCAA tournament, but they will surely be a tough out once there.
For any Gamecock fan who dares to look into the dark past that is South Carolina basketball, it is hard not to be proud of the height the program has reached today. In fact, only one person is unhappy with the current state of South Carolina basketball: Frank Martin himself. For him, this is only the beginning. On the recruiting trail he was able to convince PJ Dozier (ESPN #4 PG prospect in 2015) and Sindarius Thornwell (ESPN #7 SG prospect in 2013) to stay home in the state of South Carolina and play for him. If this season is any indication, those players clearly made the right choice and other recruits are taking notice and likely to follow. So look out college basketball, it’s time for a sentence you may have thought you would never hear: South Carolina basketball has risen to prominence, and doesn’t plan on falling back down to mediocrity any time soon.
*All statistics courtesy of KenPom, TeamRankings, and ESPN