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April 30, 2013

Cloninger: Martin takes steps to win next year

"Nice guys finish last."
---------------------- GREEN DAY

Frank Martin could have been the sympathetic coach, seeing that three seniors and one junior had been in the program for a while and "grandfathering" them in for another year (or two years) to his South Carolina basketball team. He wouldn't necessarily have to play them - he could simply honor their scholarships, sit them on the bench and be the guy who let them finish their careers where they started.

But how could he? He knows he's going to be judged on wins and losses, and after a first year where most everyone knew it was going to be a throwaway season (Martin received a six-year contract upon his hiring, when former athletic director Eric Hyman usually preferred to deal in five-year deals, because the forecast for 2012-13 was so gloomy), he has more losses than wins. No matter which way it's spun - could a schedule that he could have worked on, instead of inheriting it, made the team tougher and produced more wins in those early SEC games? If LaShay Page hadn't been ruled out before the conference season, would that have meant more wins? - it was a bad season, and the team that played that bad season was going to have a lot of players returning.

Martin knew it may look like an unpopular move if four players left, but what other choice was there? He had watched them, coached them, played them for an entire season and had not seen what he wanted to see. It was either let the players go somewhere where they could play, or hamstring himself by not filling out his roster with guys he knew that would embrace his system and use precious roster spots for guys that weren't going to get on the floor.

He previewed what was going to happen at a Gamecock Club stop in Florence, comparing any situation where a player transfers to a marriage. Sometimes, the person you met and began a relationship with two, three, five, 10 years ago is not the same person that's still around, and you have to separate. It doesn't mean that either is a bad person, it's just what's necessary for happiness.

"I had a team in high school with 18 players, because I never had the courage to cut a kid, to tell a kid, 'You're not good enough,'" Martin said then. "Sometimes, what happens, is the kids themselves, they realize that maybe, 'This is a lot more than I thought it was going to be here.' Everything's about being in a place that's healthy for everybody, including the young man. If it's not healthy for them or not healthy for the program … listen, we're all grown-ups."

So the Gamecocks will look extremely different next season. Only Brenton Williams and Bruce Ellington (with a maybe on Carlton Geathers) will return as players with more than a year in the program. The rest are Martin's guys, three that he recruited for last year's team, two that he added as walk-ons for last year's team, one transfer and seven freshmen.

The talent seems to be an upgrade, but that can't be judged until they're all on the floor together. What Martin is hoping to see is a fresh level of excitement and energy - in short, the biggest thing lacking from last year's team.

Last year's Gamecocks had some bright moments, but one of the key threads in several of their losses was the absence of passion and joy in getting to play basketball. Instead of picking each other up, the malaise of "Here we go again" seemed to settle in whenever the opponent threatened to break the game open. More often than not, the opponent did.

It's no coincidence that the two remaining active players that Darrin Horn recruited are two that Martin singled out several times over the course of the season. Ellington, Martin said, is a winner. He hated losing so much that he often played well above his limits to try and get a win. Williams had to be drawn out of his shell, but once he did, he became an often lethal scorer.

What next year's team has right away is a change in attitude. The new players are winners. Transfer Tyrone Johnson came from Villanova. Top recruit Sindarius Thornwell played at prestigious Oak Hill (Va.) Academy last season. Justin McKie never lost a game during his senior year of high school, as he led Irmo to a 29-0 state title season.

They won't have the downcast expressions in a tight game. They'll lose some games, sure, because Martin will challenge them right away against high-caliber opponents in order to toughen them up. But once they get their feet under them and begin playing the way that Martin wants them to play, which won't require any forgetting what they've previously learned in order to learn a new style, they should flourish.

Most fans have understood why there had to be a drastic change. Sometimes, a new coach coming in and significantly shaking up the roster doesn't go over well. After viewing the product this past year, there had to be a change made.

It doesn't make the four players that are leaving bad kids. They were never in trouble during their time at USC, and always very honest and open when they had to talk to guys like me after losses kept mounting on the schedule. It's best for both sides that the divorce happened.

It leaves Martin only looking ahead. Last year was in the rear-view mirror, never to be pondered again, as soon as the Gamecocks exited the SEC tournament. Ahead is the future that Martin planned on as soon as he was announced as coach.

"I get to wake up every day and try to help kids," Martin said. "I'm excited about that. My job is to help kids. The young guys understand the challenge that they've signed up for."

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