Pandemic Profiles: South Carolina Men’s Basketball Looks to Get Better Each Day

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The University of South Carolina men’s basketball program had a tumultuous 2020-21 season, one that was unprecedented regarding its standard. Head Coach Frank Martin is apologetic for such. At the same time, he is unapologetically excited about what’s ahead.

After a Troubling Season, South Carolina Men’s Basketball is Excited for What’s Next

Days passed and dust collected on the gym floor. The squeaks of sneakers and loud demands for the ball no longer echoed to the rafters. The South Carolina student-athletes were confined to their quarantines, online learning, and digital social hours. Nothing felt the same, and outside their dorm windows was an even more unfamiliar world.

The campus was deprived of the bounce of eager students flocking toward classrooms and gatherings. Frank Martin was distant, lost without his customary patrol of the sideline during practices and games. The staggered unpredictable schedule, the looming ambiguity, and the struggle to maintain structure distracted the veteran coach.

Martin shared, “I’ve been a head coach for 29 of my 37 years, and last year was the first time, and I’m not saying that my players had a bad year, that I had a bad year. I struggled to do my job last year.”

The Gamecocks played in just 21 games last year, the second-fewest in the Southeastern Conference. It was Martin’s worst year of coaching in his career. Unfortunately, due to the severity of the global tragedy, it’s hard to forget.

Not-So-Normal Season

An overall record of 6-15, 4-12 in conference play, isn’t normal of late for a program like South Carolina, nor for a coach of Frank Martin’s status. He was hired by the university in 2012 to turn things around in Columbia, South Carolina. His first year, they finished 12th in the SEC. In 2017, the Gamecocks reached the Final Four.

2020-21 wasn’t normal for anyone, but South Carolina had it especially rough. The Gamecocks didn’t play the majority of December and half of January, COVID protocols prevented them from having a full roster at times and limited their practices to just five during that span, Martin himself tested positive for the virus twice, and the program was handed a two-year probationary sentence by the NCAA stemming from the actions of former assistant coach Lamont Evans. Even so, Martin was given an extension to stay in Columbia at least through the 2024-25 season.

“We’re coming off a really good six-year window of rebuilding this school,” Martin said. “I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I fully understand the people I answer to, and they believe in me.”

The pandemic didn’t just complicate scheduling or hinder the performance of the athletes; it affected everyone mentally as well as physically.

“This is a different animal we’re dealing with; this thing changes so rapidly. In May, we’re all happy, a month later, we’re all worried again. What I’m not going to do right now is do what I did last year. I was worried about all the ifs, ands, or buts. I’m managing this as if it is full systems go, and I’m going to ask the players to do the same, and we just need to be cautious about how we live life.”

COVID Issues

Within 41 days, South Carolina men’s basketball had to pause operations twice last season. The coaching staff struggled to prepare and the players weren’t capable of getting into a groove. The team ended the year losing nine of their last 10 by an average difference of 17 points.

Martin admitted, “As the season continued, our inability to sustain, to play with discipline, to play to our personality, led us to become a bunch of individuals out there, and we lost our confidence. When the confidence goes, you have no chance.”

Yet, without the structure of basketball and the distance from their friends and families, the athletes began to suffer more where it was most important: the classroom.

“We struggled academically as a whole. I mismanaged how to handle the whole COVID environment. Everything I do is based on structure and unity, and the thing we couldn’t do last year was provide structure or unity.”

It was incredibly difficult to adjust to the uncertainty that came with the pandemic. Martin faced his own challenges off the court, and the distraction filtered down to his staff and players. The coach absorbs all the blame, however. The bittersweet outcome from last year was that experience was gained in the most unfortunate of ways. Even though there’s no correct strategy to implement this early, there’s still a fresh foundation to build upon. One of the best attributes a coach can possess is humbleness. Martin accepted his poor performance at the helm, admitted his faults, and has now prepared his team for redemption.

Experienced Talent

The talk of the college world, or the most recent topic analysts have obsessed about, is the development of the SEC’s super-conference. Though football-based, Texas and Oklahoma will also strengthen a basketball league on the rise.

The SEC has always been good at basketball. They have the third-most conference bids in NCAA Tournament history with 283. Six schools made the Big Dance in 2021, Arkansas reaching the Elite 8. If Alabama knew how to make a free throw, they would have joined the Razorbacks. Since 2014, four different SEC programs have reached the Final Four.

Martin explained, “I got here nine years ago, and Auburn and South Carolina were at the bottom of this league. Nine years later, Auburn has been to a Final Four and South Carolina has been to a Final Four. That speaks to the level of strength of this league. With the consistency of the level of players that have been recruited along with the level of coaches, you have stability, and because of that, it makes the league really good.”

The conference is set to be loaded again, and possibly stronger than ever from top to bottom. South Carolina is in a good spot. Even though A.J. Lawson went pro, both Keyshawn Bryant and Jermaine Couisnard decided to return. The Gamecocks both lost and gained players in/from the transfer portal, but summer workouts have proven the squad is meshing well.

Center Wildens Leveque will look to work off the momentum of last season, and Erik Stevenson, a past Wichita State and Washington standout, hopes to find his fit in the Gamecock rotation. Also, James Reese V came from a North Texas team that made the second round in last year’s Tournament after upsetting Purdue, and A.J. Wilson brings his shot-blocking ability over from George Mason.

South Carolina Men’s Basketball Moving Forward

Among all the changes, the roster is full of experienced talent. There is an energy that surrounds the campus; it may be the students roaming the grounds once more, it may be the trust everyone affiliated with the school has in Martin and the program, or it could be a combination of both. Either way, there’s a buzz brewing on the court while most focus on what’s happening on the gridiron at the moment.

“What I like about this team is that desire to continue to get better, of getting along, of learning, of growing,” Martin said of his team. “At the end of the day, you either have good enough manpower or you don’t. I think our manpower is good enough, I think we’re extremely deep, I think we’re extremely competitive.”

He added, “Whether we play well or we don’t, whether we win or lose, if we get another day, it’s our job to be set on getting better.”

It’s not about mapping out expectations this season; it’s about progression and feeling good each day. There’s certainly a lot for people to be excited about in Columbia.

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