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January 28, 2013

Reflections on hoops: The ultimate goal



Frank Martin summed it up perfectly near the conclusion of his postgame press conference on Saturday after South Carolina's 75-54 dismantling of Arkansas at Colonial Life Arena.

The Gamecocks held the Razorbacks to 34.4 percent shooting (21-of-61), including 33.3 percent (12-of-36) in the second half when Arkansas was blanked (0-for-9) from 3-point range.

USC also dominated the boards, out-rebounding the Hogs by a 42-26 margin. The Gamecocks hustled their way to 13 offensive rebounds compared to 14 defensive rebounds for Arkansas.

All that is fine and dandy, insisted Martin, claiming only two statistics ultimately matter to him - field goal percentage defense and rebounding.

However, USC won its second SEC game (matching last season's conference win total) largely because of excellent shooting. Most of the time, a 57.7 shooting percentage from the field will produce victory, and Saturday offered us another illustration of that reality.

"You can play as hard as you want and you can be great defensively and rebound the heck out of the ball, but if you can't put that ball through the net, it's going to be hard," Martin said. "(Saturday), we put it through the net."

USC was remarkably consistent while managing to crawl out of an early "here we go again" 15-3 hole because of dead-eye shooting. The Gamecocks missed five of their initial six shots from the field until a layup by Eric Smith ignited a 40-11 run over the final 14:49 of the first half.

USC was 16-of-23 shooting (69.6 percent) during that stretch after the slow start.

"We missed some easy shots and it affected us running back (on defense)," Martin said. "That can't happen. The guys responded great. We as coaches understand our players better and I would hope they're understanding what we want better. I think we're playing better. Hopefully, that gives us some confidence."

The ability to put the ball into the basket against Arkansas represented a stunning and decisive turnaround from the previous home game when USC couldn't throw the ball into the Grand Canyon in a discouraging 58-51 loss to Vanderbilt.

Disappointed by their showing at Missouri, about six players worked on their shooting following a recent practice for more than an hour. The extra practice paid dividends.

"Our guys work at it and we've taken good shots," Martin said. "Against Missouri, we took real good shots. They played unselfishly and did what we asked them to do. They just had to come into the gym and work at it and have the courage to jump up and make shots. Plain and simple."

The Gamecocks shot a miserable 23.7 percent (14-of-59) from the field in that setback. In fact, prior to Saturday, USC's highest shooting percentage in an SEC contest had been 45.6 percent. Three of the five games had seen the Gamecocks dip below 40 percent.

Saturday, USC had three more field goals (17) in the first half against Arkansas than it did in the entire defeat at the hands of Vanderbilt.

But Saturday was different. The extraordinary shooting display produced the largest margin of victory in an SEC game since an 18-point win over Kentucky on Feb. 25, 2009. Additionally, the 21-point final margin was the first of at least 20 points in conference play since an 83-61 win over Mississippi State on Feb. 11, 2006.

The lack of a sturdy low-post player capable of taking the ball straight at the basket forces USC to take more shots from the perimeters and run the offense from the high-post area, Martin said.

"We don't have 6-foot-10, 260-pound, strong, low-post guys," Martin said. "We try to facilitate things for our bigs from the pinch-post area. We try to facilitate stuff for our guys through there and then cut them into post-ups. That way, they can create an angle."

No player represented USC's renaissance from the field more than Brian Richardson. The junior from Wilson, N.C., matched his career-high with 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting, 3-of-5 from beyond the arc.

Richardson was recruited by former coach Darrin Horn as a shooter, but his first 2 1-2 seasons would accurately be labeled as a major disappointment. Last season, he shot a miserable 29.9 percent from the floor en route to averaging a paltry 3.2 points per game.

Richardson's stellar outing on Saturday raised his season shooting percentage to 41.5 percent (56-of-135), an increase of 11.6 percent over last season. Most notably. his 3-point shooting percentage has jumped 17.5 points to 40.8 percent (29-of-71).

"With him, it's just growing up," Martin said. "I've been on Brian since the first day we worked out together. As a coach, I would like him to make shots. But I want him playing with energy, toughness, enthusiasm and discipline. He started missing some shots after the Mississippi State game (on Jan. 9) and started to play and practice without that discipline and enthusiasm.

"I've always gone back to him the way I always have. But then he would go out there and not have it, so I would take him out. I've told him that he has to give energy. The last two days, he re-engaged with that energy. In a sense, he was telling me, 'Get me back out there, I'm ready to go.' So, I called his number again and it was great the way he responded."

The Gamecocks perhaps discovered their collective shooting eye just in time. Road trips to Florida (Wednesday) and Kentucky (Feb. 5) beckon in the next eight days, sandwiching a home game against Georgia (Feb. 2).

"When your kids are playing as hard as our guys are, you get excited because that gives you a chance regardless of who is on the other side," Martin said.

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