With nine new players, the South Carolina men’s basketball team was bound to experience growing pains this season. But even after tough losses, head coach Frank Martin has consistently praised his squad’s hustle and spirit.
That changed after Saturday’s 71-63 home loss against Florida — the Gamecocks’ second-straight SEC loss and their third loss in four games. Martin said for the first time all season he found himself disappointed with his team’s effort, calling the Gamecocks passive and undisciplined, especially with how they attacked Florida’s full-court press.
The unforced errors, miscues and turnover-filled games can’t continue for the Gamecocks (10-6, 1-3 SEC) to have any chance of competing in the SEC. In his 10th year at the helm, Martin knows this as much as anybody. That’s why Sunday’s practice with his team took on a much different tone.
“Division and hate is spread through lies and deceit; unity and love is spread through truth-telling, and yesterday we had a truth-telling session,” Martin said Monday. “I’m still on edge today. I don’t enjoy when my team performs with the lack of discipline and effort that we performed with the other day.
“... And the guys were on edge, too. As a coach when I’m on edge, if the players are not on edge, that’s a problem.”
USC’s next test will come on the road against an Arkansas (12-5, 2-3) team that is 9-1 at home and is one of the top scoring teams in the conference, ranking fourth with 79.6 points per game. Senior guard J.D. Notae is tied with Vanderbilt’s Scottie Pippen Jr. as the league’s leading scorer with 18.8 points per game, but behind him the Razorbacks have four double-digit scorers and are a threat to score from anywhere on the court.
The Gamecocks will have to be sounder defensively than they were against a Gators team that shot 55% on Saturday. They also have their own kinks to work out on offense.
Martin was perhaps most displeased with his point guard play against Florida, with freshman Jacobi Wright succumbing to rookie mistakes and junior Jermaine Couisnard still shaking off the rust from an extended ankle injury. Martin said the lack of connectivity between him and his point guards hampered USC against Florida’s high-pressure defense.
Turnovers remain an issue. After three straight games of 20-plus turnovers, USC committed just nine Saturday, but those nine came in crucial moments and led to 10 Florida points. The team’s big men have scuffled lately as well, with starting center Wildens Leveque turning in back-to-back subpar outings after five straight games with double-digit points.
Whether the Gamecocks can resolve those issues in time for Tuesday’s matchup remains to be seen, but Martin expressed optimism in his team’s aggression in practice.
To avoid mounting losses, the team will need to lean on its veterans like Couisnard, Leveque, Erik Stevenson and James Reese. In recent games, senior Keyshawn Bryant has flashed, earning the starting nod at the 4 spot and earning praise from Martin for his leadership. As the team’s top returning scorer from last year, Bryant’s emergence could provide a boost.
Following the Arkansas game, the Gamecocks will host a Georgia team (5-12, 0-4) that currently dwells in the SEC cellar, but stiffer matchups against Vanderbilt (10-6, 2-2) and at Texas A&M (15-2, 4-0) await in a conference that has been unforgiving so far this season.
“We all overreact every time somebody loses in the SEC,” Martin said. “Our league is really good, and winning in our league is really complicated right now. You can play well and lose. There’s not an easy out in our conference.”
Next USC men’s basketball game
Who: South Carolina at Arkansas
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas
Watch: SEC Network