Frank Martin led South Carolina to a school-record 25 victories in 2015-16.
South Carolina is relevant in college basketball again and its success rests upon a defensive philosophy coach Frank Martin began forming more than 30 years ago at Miami High under his coach and mentor, Marcos “Shakey” Rodriguez.
Pressure the basketball. Trust your teammates. Have the courage to be unselfish.
Martin, in his fifth season at South Carolina, has built the program on those cornerstones by recruiting players who are able - and willing - to execute his principles. The Gamecocks are 9-2 entering the final week of nonconference action and looking to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004. They are sixth in the nation in scoring defense (58.1 points per game) and third in points allowed per possession (0.84).
How does a coach identify defensive talent in the often defenseless world of summer travel team basketball?
“You have to have all those conversations with the kids you recruit,” Martin said. “Honest conversations, point blank conversations, this is how we do it and this is how I want you to do it and this is what I don’t think you do well right now. And that way … like I tell them once they’re here, you picked the school, nobody forced you to come here. We had all these conversations and this is what you said. Now that you’re in it, don’t change your opinion on what you said.”
Martin steered Kansas State to a top-40 defense for five consecutive seasons. But at South Carolina in 2012 he inherited a squad that lacked the personnel necessary to play man-to-man defense at the level he demands. He and his staff used a variety of schemes from game-to-game to give the Gamecocks the best chance to win each individual game. But each day in practice they ingrained the concepts required to sustain success over the long haul.
Even now, Martin spends 65-70 percent of practice focusing on defense.
“The one thing we do every day is guard the basketball because that’s the key to our defense,” he said. “We have to be rock solid there.”
They’ve improved on the defensive end each season, from 230th nationally in adjusted efficiency that first season to top 40 each of the last three seasons.
“It’s really hard to get kids to play like that,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said last week after his squad escaped with a two-point victory in Columbia. “It’s extremely hard this day and age to get kids to compete as hard as they compete on every play defensively. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Martin led South Carolina to a school-record 25 victories last season. The Gamecocks fell on the wrong side of the selection committee’s bubble, yet Martin focused instead on the progress made by a senior class that started their career with consecutive losing seasons. The Gamecocks sprinted to an 8-0 start this season. They’ve dropped two of four since senior guard Sindarius Thornwell was suspended Dec. 4th, falling by five points combined to Seton Hall and Clemson. Thornwell will return at some point. Martin said his status will be re-evaluated this week.
Not only is he the Gamecocks’ leading scorer, he’s their best perimeter defender. Removing him from the floor hurts their ability to guard the basketball and disrupt an opponent’s halfcourt offense. It's a key component of their defense, according to Brownell, whose own teams are known for their defensive prowess.
“You just can’t run their normal offense against them, they’re just on top of you,” Brownell said after South Carolina held Clemson to 0.89 points per possession. “The way they play, they’re into your ballhandlers. You have to simplify what you do, you have to give guys space and your players have to have the ability to go make plays off the dribble. If you don’t have that it’s hard to beat South Carolina. Or you have to have a good post player that can draw fouls and make plays around the rim. To think that you’re going to come around and set a couple of screens, it’s just not going to work.”
The numbers confirm Brownell’s observations. Opponents have assisted on only 38 percent of their field goals, per KenPom.com, which is the second lowest rate in the nation. South Carolina also forces opponents into turnovers on 23.7 percent of possessions, which is 12th in DI.
The Gamecocks have flourished on the defensive end despite using a frontcourt rotation of three freshmen and a sophomore.
“They have to be able to understand how to move their feet,” Martin said. “How to step outside the paint and at the end to be able to provide rim protection.”
Teams have made only 41 percent of shots at the rim against South Carolina, per Synergy Sports Data, which uses video footage to track every possession.
And it all started with those lessons learned from Rodriguez, and later from Bob Huggins, who Martin worked for at Cincinnati and Kansas State. Five players working toward the same goal of making it difficult for the opponent to score.
“If you’re only concerned with your matchup, you can’t play in our defense,” Martin said. “You have to have the understanding I’m going to extend and guard the basketball. This guy might try to beat me, but I have to have the ability and courage to move my feet and trust that the guy behind me is going to help. Guys who struggle in our system either foul too much, or don’t go out there and guard.”
With fewer players fitting that description in the program each season, elite defensive teams should became a staple at South Carolina.