Like his career, Frank Martin has built South Carolina from the ground up

3 Comments

NEW YORK — It was after he finished watching South Carolina cut down the Madison Square Garden nets, after he had spent the better part of 30 minutes giving interviews on the court, after he was spotted by the CBS cameras, with a fist raised and tears pooling under his eyes, that the enormity of what he had just witnessed hit Darius Rucker.

“Gosh,” he said to everyone and no one in particular as he left the arena floor and made his way through the bowels of the Garden, “I can’t believe that just happened.”

The ‘that’ that Rucker, South Carolina’s most famous and, quite possibly, biggest fan, was referring to was a 77-70, come-from behind win over No. 4 seed Florida that jettisoned the seventh-seeded Gamecocks through the Elite 8 and into the Final Four. Prior to this season, the Gamecocks hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 13 years. They had been to four NCAA tournaments in the previous 43 seasons, and they had never won back-to-back tournament game.

As in not ever.

“We’re in the Garden, watching the Gamecocks play to go to the Final Four,” Rucker said. “If you’d have told me that ten years ago I’d have told you that you were on crack.”

That’s the program that Frank Martin inherited in 2012, when he left Kansas State following a falling out with his athletic director, John Currie. Like South Carolina, Kansas State was hardly considered a destination job when Martin was at the helm, but he was able to build off of a foundation created by Bob Huggins. Martin had been to four NCAA tournaments in five years with Kansas State when he made the decision to leave. Nothing is more important to Martin than loyalty. “He’s always had a core group of people that he’s counted on,” his agent, Bret Just, said, and Currie was not one of those people.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the 2012 NCAA tournament. Kansas State was a No. 8 seed, squaring off with No. 1 seed Syracuse when Martin was informed by Currie that Jamar Samuels, one of his best players, would not be allowed to suit up. The school had stumbled upon information that Samuels had received a wire transfer for $200 from his AAU coach, and he was going to be suspended.

And that was that.

Martin was off to South Carolina.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“It was a situation where we had to go,” associate head coach Matt Figger, who has been with Martin for the last decade, said, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest or smartest decision to leave. Most understood why Martin had to make the change that he made — he was offered a hefty raise and he had the chance to leave a place of employment where he did not get along with his boss — but it wasn’t as if Martin was climbing the ladder. If anything, South Carolina was a step backwards, as Martin took over a program with less pedigree and with a significant building job in front of them.

“I didn’t really know until I got into it. It was a much different deal. It looked easier on the surface than what it really was,” Figger said. “The best players transferred. Bruce Ellington, he’s with the 49ers now, he was the one guy that we could trust and he played football half the year. Couple of the guys that were the holdovers, I don’t think they believed in what our vision was. After a year, some of them left.”

“We had to start this from scratch.”

The process was slow in the early stages. Martin replaced Darrin Horn, who had won just 10 games and finished dead last in the SEC in his final season on campus, and didn’t post a .500 record until his third season in Columbia. Even then, that team went just 17-16. He won 15 SEC games in his first three years combined. After a late season swoon cost South Carolina a shot at the 2016 NCAA tournament, there was speculation that another year without a trip to the Big Dance could spell the end of Martin’s time with the Gamecocks.

“It was hard!” Martin’s wife, Anya, said. “You see he’s losing his hair. It’s all turning white. It was tough in the beginning. I had to ask him a couple of times, ‘Why here?’”

The easy answer is that it wasn’t Kansas State, but the truth is more complicated than that.

Martin is not a man that is afraid of a challenge. He’s not intimidated by a job that isn’t easy to do, not when you come from where he’s come from, when you’ve coached on the path that he has coached.

Martin got his first job when he was 12 years old, working at a Dairy Queen to help his mom pay the bills when his dad walked out on them. His coaching career started a year after he graduated high school, when he was just 19 years old.

“I tore my ACL the year before,” Martin said, “and my high school coach asked me to come help him, because the kids in the neighborhood respected me so much.”

He was nothing more than an assistant with the team at Miami Senior High School, helping out when and where he could, when the head coach of the JV team didn’t show up for work one day. Shakey Rodriguez, a legend in the Miami High School basketball community, told Martin he would be coaching that day, and he hasn’t looked back since.

“By his second season,” Martin’s mother, Lourdes, beaming as she held back tears of joy, said, “he was 22-0.”

Even as Martin was coaching, he was still working on the side, most famously as a bouncer in Miami’s nightclub scene. He needed a degree, so he took night classes at Miami-Dade College before enrolling part-time at FIU. His future was capped if he didn’t graduate.

“He made it out,” she added, holding on to her grandson to steady herself as the moment washed over her. “He had many, many jobs, and then God was up there and blessed him.”

Martin would go from the high school ranks to Northeastern, taking a paycut just to get his foot in the door. He spent four years as an assistant and met his wife — “My wife turned me down seven times to go out on a date,” he said. “Seven. Seven. And the day she made the mistake of going out on a date with me, I never let her go.” — before moving on to Cincinnati, where he joined forces with Bob Huggins, spending two seasons with the Bearcats before following Huggins to Kansas State. He replaced Huggins as Kansas State’s head coach a year after joining the program and just seven years after he joined the collegiate coaching ranks. He would take the Wildcats to more NCAA tournaments in his five seasons at the helm than they had been to in the previous two decades combined.

“Frank’s never steered away from a challenge as long as I’ve known him,” Anya said. “He’s overcome any obstacle in his way, just ‘I’m going to make it work.'”

“He’s a builder,” Just said.

And he’s done just that at South Carolina.

“I’m happy as any mom could be,” Lourdes said. “Speechless, but not all the way. I have to talk to him about my air ticket.”

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Martin spoke many times about the dream of leading this team to this moment, but he didn’t always believe that the dream of taking the Gamecocks to the Final Four was a realistic possibility.

“When we beat Duke, Frank said ‘Why not us?’” Figgers said, a motto that had become something of a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the East Regional. “That’s the first time we really talked about [winning a title].”

The team and the coaching staff weren’t the only ones that never really gave this possibility much thought. College basketball at large — the fans, the media, opposing coaches — all had the same thought: “South Carolina in the Final Four? The same team that put up 86 points in four overtimes against Alabama? Lulz.”

They showed us.

Over and over again.

South Carolina’s star guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the East Region, mentioned in every press conference this weekend that no one paid attention to or respected the program prior to this run. Martin ranted earlier this year about the lack of local media coverage his team gets, particularly when they play on the road.

At this point in the season, most players get burned out of the media attention they get, answering the same questions over and over and over again.

I don’t blame them.

On Sunday evening, after spending 25 minutes up on the dais for a postgame press conference, Thornwell was finally en route back to the locker room to celebrate with his team when he was pulled aside by a television reporter that needed just a couple more minutes of his time.

Thornwell, decked out in a East Regional Champs shirt and hat with the remnants of a net dangling around his neck, didn’t mind.

“You gotta talk a lot,” Thornwell said, “when you win.”

Myles Powell suffers concussion as Rutgers blows out No. 22 Seton Hall

Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Seton Hall star Myles Powell sat out the second half with a head injury, and Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr. had 18 points and six rebounds to help the Scarlet Knights beat the No. 22 Pirates 68-48 on Saturday in the Garden State Hardwood Classic.

Powell did not return to the Seton Hall bench in the second half.

“He has a pretty bad concussion,” head coach Kevin Willard said. “He got whacked. He took the charge and whacked his head on the floor and then him and Tyrese ran into each other. He asked me during the game, ‘Why are we practicing at Rutgers?’

“I didn’t see him get hit by Tyrese and I kind of looked at him because I was wondering what the heck he was doing out there. We sat down in the timeout and his eyes kind of rolled into the back of his head. It just hit him with a wave.”

Sixth in the country at 22.9 points per game, Powell didn’t score his first points until nearly 10 minutes into the game after six misses and a couple missed free throws. He finished with six points on 3-of-9 shooting, missing four 3-pointers. The loss came on the heels of Sandro Mamukelashvili’s fractured wrist at Iowa State.

Harper won the Joe Calabrese Award — named in honor of the late journalist who covered the rivalry for 38 years — as the most valuable player. He had two early alley-oops dunks. Akwasi Yeboah added 14 points and seven rebounds for Rutgers (8-3).

Rutgers led 14-0 start before Seton Hall’s Anthony Nelson banked a 3-pointer. Rutgers pushed the advantage to 21 in the half and led 36-23 at the break. Rutgers led by 22 in the second half.

Quincy McKnight led Seton Hall (6-4) with 11 points. They have lost two in a row.

BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: The Pirates struggled in their first full game without big-man Mamukelashvili and will likely fall out of the Top 25 after coming in the season ranked No. 12.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights finished a gauntlet four-game stretch 2-2. After coming into the season with the highest expectations in over a decade, they look like a team that can make the postseason for the first time since 2006, when they made the NIT. Rutgers holds the longest active streak for Power Five team not making the NCAA Tournament, with the last appearance in 1991.

SELL OUT

With the game selling out within hours of the tickets being released, the 8,329 packed inside the RAC made for the largest crowd at the Louis Brown Athletic Center since Feb. 23, 2002, when Rutgers beat Seton Hall 66-60.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: Host No. 4 Maryland on Thursday.

Rutgers: Host Lafayette on Sunday.

Brown’s 26 points leads Wake Forest past No. 23 Xavier

Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images
Leave a comment

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Chaundee Brown scored 26 points, Brandon Childress added 22 and Wake Forest beat No. 23 Xavier 80-78 on Saturday in the Musketeers’ first game this season on an opponent’s home court.

Xavier (9-2), which trailed the entire second half, had a chance to win in the final seconds, but Quentin Goodin’s 3-point attempt bounced off the rim as time expired.

Wake Forest (6-5) led by 13 points in the second half. But Childress missed the first of two free-throws attempts to give the Musketeers a final shot for a win.

Wake Forest won despite playing without 7-footer Olivier Sarr, who averaged 15 points and 10.9 rebounds off the bench in the previous seven games. Sarr is in concussion protocol after suffering a blow to the head in the Deacons’ Dec. 7 game against N.C. State.

Paul Scruggs scored 30 points for Xavier. Naji Marshall added 16 before fouling out with 3:45 remaining.

The Deacons never trailed after Ody Oguama’s basket put the ahead with 3:57 left in the first half, triggering a 14-4 run that gave Wake Forest a 39-30 halftime lead.

BIG PICTURE

Xavier: The Musketeers failed their first road test of the season, but almost pulled out a victory in a game in which they trailed for all but a few minutes.

Wake Forest: The Deacons picked up some needed momentum after losing their previous three, winning without Sarr. They have a week to recover before playing region rival North Carolina A&T.

UP NEXT:

Xavier: Host Western Carolina on Wednesday night.

Wake Forest: Host N.C. A&T next Saturday.

No. 13 Memphis lands rivalry road win against No. 19 Tennessee

AP Photo/Wade Payne
Leave a comment

Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax came off the bench to combine for 19 points, 12 boards and three assists, providing a major spark as No. 13 Memphis overcame a dreadful start to land a come-from-behind, 51-47 win over No. 19 Tennessee.

Memphis scored five points in the first 11 minutes. They were down by as many as 12 points in the first half after missing 13 of their first 14 shots. To be quite frank, they opened this game playing like a team that was starting five freshmen in a rivalry game.

Tennessee finished the afternoon shooting just 25 percent from the floor and 4-for-26 (16 percent) from three. They scored just 0.723 points-per-possession, the worst performance since an 82-55 drubbing Tennessee took at South Carolina in February of 2017.

Here are the three things we can take away from this game:

1. THIS WAS VERY, VERY IMPRESSIVE FROM MEMPHIS

I don’t think that I can say that enough.

There was so much that did not go the Tigers’ way in this game, and so many built in excuses for the loss.

It was played in Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, the first time a Memphis team starting four freshmen was playing a true road game against a top 25 team. It was the first time those freshmen were playing in a rivalry game, and they spent the first 12 minutes or so looking like a team that was overwhelmed by the moment.

And they were doing it while their best player and the potential No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft missed his seventh game due to a suspension. Should I mention that their best shooter, Lester Quinones, was also out as he continues to recover from a broken hand?

Oh, and the game was played at Tennessee’s pace. The Tigers want games to be frenetic. They want to be able to get out and run in transition. They want to force turnovers, get more possessions and have a chance to let their athletes avoid having to attack set defenses by playing on the break. None of that happened. This game had 65 possessions, which will go down as the fewest possessions in a game for this team this season.

And they still won.

I can fully admit that I did not think that Memphis had a win like this in them.

2. ALEX LOMAX AND TYLER HARRIS WERE THE DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

The Memphis freshmen are the guys that get all the hype and attention, but the two guys that changed this game on Saturday were Harris and Lomax. Harris provided the offensive spark in the first half, hitting a pair of threes and scoring eight of his 11 points in the final nine minutes to wake up a team that looked like they were still working their way through the itis.

Lomax was involved, too. He forced a couple of first half turnovers and he settled the team in the second half, making a couple plays in the halfcourt when it looked like Tennessee was on the verge of getting a critical stop.

Credit does have to be given elsewhere. Precious Achiuewa had 13 rebounds and two blocks and played with four fouls for the final five minutes of the game. D.J. Jeffries had a couple important drives down the stretch, including one where he found Damian Baugh for a three to give Memphis the lead back. Boogie Ellis was trapped in the corner in the backcourt with the Tigers up by two, less than 15 seconds on the clock and no timeouts left and found a way to get the ball out without committing a turnover.

This was very much a team effort, and an impressive one at that, but the catalysts were the two little guards that were relegated to Penny’s bench when he brought in a vaunted recruiting class.

3. TENNESSEE HAD SOME SERIOUS ISSUES ON THE OFFENSIVE END

The Vols shot 25 percent from the floor on Saturday. They were 4-for-26 from three. Josiah-Jordan James got off to a hot start to the game, but beyond that, their best offense ended up being post touches for Yves Pons and John Fulkerson.

The question that needs to be asked is whether this is just an off-night or if this is a sign of a larger issue for a program that is still working through how to replace Grant Williams, Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield.

Lamonte Turner was 1-for-11 from the floor on Saturday and did not make his first shot until there were four minutes left. Jordan Bowden was 2-for-10 from the floor. That is not normal, and they missed a number of good, open looks. They are Rick Barnes’ two-leading scorers, so I tend to think that this is the kind of thing where you just chalk it up as one of those nights shots didn’t go down.

The larger concern might be that the last time Tennessee played a tough, athletic and defensive-minded team, Turner and Bowden combined to shooting 7-for-24 from the floor and 3-for-11 in a loss. If anything, I think the answer is that the Vols need to find a way to score on the nights where two are off.

Balanced effort leads No. 16 Michigan State past Oakland

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Leave a comment

DETROIT — Michigan State and Oakland have one of the most lopsided rivalries in college basketball. It also is one of the friendliest.

With Saturday’s 72-49 victory at Little Caesars Arena, Tom Izzo and the No. 16 Spartans (7-3) are now 18-0 against Greg Kampe’s Golden Grizzlies, with all 18 games coming in the last 21 years.

“I love this game, but there’s nothing I love about beating a team 18 straight times, especially when it means beating a good friend,” Izzo said. “It’s just so good to come down here, because we get a great crowd of Spartans who don’t usually get to see us play.

“And it is great to see what is happening in this city.”

For Kampe, who started his Oakland (5-6) career when the then-Pioneers were still in Division II, a victory over Michigan State remains one unchecked box on his coaching bucket list.

“I’m not trying to beat Tom — that’s not what these games are all about,” he said. “This is about Oakland trying to beat Michigan State — one of the best programs in the country.”

The game was a defensive struggle, with both teams having offensive troubles. Oakland’s size forced Michigan State into 33 3-point attempts, while the Golden Grizzlies tried and failed to score in the paint.

“Taking 33 3s is a joke, but most of those were because of the way Greg guarded us,” Izzo said. “It was a good idea, because Cassius (Winston) went 1-for-9 and Gabe (Brown) went 0-for-5. We’re not used to that.”

Aaron Henry put up 10 points and six assists but was the only Spartan to reach double figures. Xavier Tillman added nine points and 13 rebounds.

“I never thought I’d lead us with 10 points, but that’s just how it was today,” Henry said. “We couldn’t hit any shots.”

Xavier Hill-Mais led Oakland with 10 points. The Golden Grizzlies, who have come close to upsetting their in-state rivals in past years with a high-speed, 3-point-heavy offense, shot just 26%, including 31% (7-22) on 3-pointers.

“We expected to have two of the top shooters in the country coming back this year, but they didn’t, and they left when it was too late to replace them,” Kampe said. “We’re not a good shooting team and we’re going to have to find a way to win without threes.”

Michigan State took control early, using an 18-3 run to take a 24-9 lead with eight minutes left in the first half. The Spartans led 34-19 at halftime, holding the Golden Grizzlies to 23% shooting, including 1 of 6 on 3-pointers.

The Spartans made only 21% (3 of 14) of their 3s in the first half but hit a pair on their first two possessions of the second half to go up by 21.

Kampe picked up a technical foul with his team down 52-30 midway through the second half, and his team struggled to keep the game from getting out of hand down the stretch.

Izzo put son Steven into the game for the final moments, and he delighted the crowd with three rebounds.

“Those rebounds didn’t mean much in the context of the game, but it meant a lot to see how the fans reacted to them,” Izzo said. “Memories last a lifetime and those memories will last two lifetimes.”

BIG PICTURE

Spartans: Although Michigan State was cheered by most of the 18,145 fans, it was officially a road game for the Spartans. MSU will play Oakland for the next six seasons, with the game alternating between the Breslin Center in Lansing and Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Golden Grizzlies: The first Michigan State-Oakland game opened the “O”-rena in Rochester in 1998, but the Spartans have never been back. All of Oakland’s subsequent “home” games have been hosted at the Palace of Auburn Hills or Little Caesars Arena.

A LOT OF COACHING EXPERIENCE

Kampe (36 seasons) and Izzo (25 seasons) have combined for 1,263 wins and 61 seasons in the only head coaching jobs they’ve ever held. Izzo, though, wasn’t thrilled when asked about the duo being at their schools for “70 years.”

“I shouldn’t even answer that question, because you made me absolutely terrible when you said I’d been here for 75 years,” he said. “We’ve extended the series contract for six more years, so I guess you’ll say we’ve been here for 90 years by then.”

KAMPE GRUDGINGLY PRAISES OFFICIALS

Oakland’s three post players — Hill-Mais, Daniel Oladapo and Brad Brechting — were a combined 8 of 34 from the floor. Kampe felt it was all due to the good officiating.

“The officials called a good, consistent game, which is what you want,” he said. “But they called a physical game, and we can’t beat that team in a physical game.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

A comfortable win on national television won’t hurt Michigan State’s No. 16 ranking, but Oakland isn’t a high-caliber opponent. The Spartans will be tested more on Wednesday when they face Northwestern on the road.

UP NEXT

Spartans: At Northwestern on Wednesday.

Golden Grizzlies: At Syracuse on Wednesday.

No. 1 Louisville bounces back 99-67 rout of Eastern Kentucky

AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley
Leave a comment

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville rebounded from a lackluster defeat that will end its stay at No. 1 with the offensive patience and accuracy that fueled its rise to the top.

Jordan Nwora scored 26 points, Steven Enoch had a career-high 23 and the Cardinals shot 63% in both halves to blow out Eastern Kentucky 99-67 on Saturday.

After taking their first loss Tuesday against Texas Tech in the Jimmy V Classic behind 34% shooting, the Cardinals (10-1) responded with baskets from all over the floor. They made 17 of 27 from the field before and after halftime, including 9 of 19 from long range, to pull away from their in-state opponent.

That wasn’t easy against an EKU defense that consistently pressed the Cardinals.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t just settle for the first shot or the quickest shot we could get,” Cardinals coach Chris Mack said. “We weren’t perfect, but thought we made some really good decisions.

Nwora had the hot hand throughout, making 6 of his first 8 to finish 10 of 14 and 3 of 5 from behind the arc. The junior forward certainly sought improvement after a 4-of-16 performance epitomized the Cardinals’ night against the Red Raiders in New York.

“My mindset was just being efficient, getting back in the gym and just continuing to get better,” said Nwora, who also had seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. “Games like that happen. You just have to move on to the next one.”

Enoch, meanwhile, made his first seven attempts to finish 9 of 10 and surpass his previous career best by a point. He was also 5 of 6 from the line, with his miss the only one by Louisville in 23 attempts.

Enoch also grabbed six rebounds as Louisville controlled the Colonels (3-7) 35-24 on the boards and 42-18 in the paint. Malik Williams made a pair of 3s for 11 points with six rebounds.

EKU began 7 of 13 from the field to stay close before several cold spells created a 20-point hole before halftime that steadily grew in the second half. The Ohio Valley Conference school shot just 37% — including 33% in the second half in losing their fifth straight.

Ty Taylor had 13 points, Tre King 12 and Jacquess Hobbs and Jomaru Brown nine each for EKU.

“They made shots and we didn’t shoot the ball well like we should have,” Hobbs said.

MILESTONE

Louisville senior forward Dwayne Sutton had 11 points to surpass 1,000 in his career between the Cardinals and UNC Asheville.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Though Louisville will fall from No. 1 come Monday, this win should minimize its drop in the Top 10.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels made nine 3-pointers, but those 18 misses along with struggles inside the arc led to Louisville scoring opportunities. Their trapping defense contributed to 16 turnovers, but their 14 miscues also led to 34 Cardinals points.

“We couldn’t capitalize off some turnovers we forced,” second-year coach A.W. Hamilton said. “We missed some shots we can make. They are hard because there is not a lot of room for error with them. If you make a couple of mistakes, they can go on a 10-0 run on you in a second.”

Louisville: After three games of 36% shooting or worse, the Cardinals got healthy against the Colonels. They worked the ball around for 22 assists, displayed better shot selection and went deep in their bench. They sometimes struggled against the trap, but figured it out often enough to get the ball in the hands of their top two scorers. Allowing 16 offensive rebounds concerned Mack, but his team handled the defensive boards 23-8.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: Visits Marshall on Thursday to complete a four-game road swing.

Louisville: Hosts Miami (Ohio) on Wednesday in its final game before Christmas and will have 10 days off before visiting rival No. 8 Kentucky.