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January 30, 2014

Blog: Basketball program turns corner

The problem with broken records is that that sooner or later - usually sooner - you begin tuning out, turning off and looking for something else to do.

South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin must have felt like a broken record over the past month, as conference game after conference game after conference game came and went and all the Gamecocks had to show for their efforts was a six-game losing streak, tying the school record for worst start in the league since joining the Southeastern Conference for the 1991-92 basketball season.

At post-game press conference after post-game press conference, at teleconference after teleconference Martin repeated the same message in his characteristically direct manner: Don't give up on us. I haven't given up on us, the team hasn't given up on us and you shouldn't give up on us, either.

Sure, along the way there have been some heated moments, some language, some headaches. But also mixed in there were the seeds of a turnaround, the seeds of a program taking firm, unmistakeable root.

You don't know how to do something until you do it. This is a common fact of the human experience. Whether it's riding a bike, driving a car or winning a college basketball game in a high-major conference, until you see exactly what it takes, what effort level is required and what intensity of focus is needed you're going to do it poorly, if at all.

For a team with seven freshmen, five of whom are playing significant roles (Sindarius Thornwell, Demetrius Henry, Duane Notice, Desmond Ringer and Jaylen Shaw), the learning curve was going to be steep from the get-go, which is why Martin has also preached patience, patience, patience.

In those six losses before Wednesday, the Gamecocks learned invaluable lessons - how to weather another team's run, how to maintain discipline in a hostile environment, how to exercise patience offensively, how to trust the scouting report, how to not let one mistake become two, how to play to your strengths but within the system, how to, in short, win.

Wednesday night, the student section did not tune out, turn off or look for something else to do (unlike many season-ticket holders). Instead, they turned up, got loud and made a difference, something both Brent Williams and Martin made a point to mention after the game.

Martin described what the journey has been like with so many freshmen best perhaps when he said as soon as you get one player going in the right direction, another one hits a wall. Without a strong group of upperclassmen to lean on, Martin probably felt as much a firefighter at times as a head basketball coach, but that word - patience - has been key, as has his commitment to making them the best players they can be and not accepting anything less.

Against Texas A&M, the Gamecocks played as close to the best they can play for a full 40 minutes for the first time this season. Players such as sophomore Laimonas Chatkevicius, who has been up-and-down since he arrived, and Duane Notice, thrust into a starting point guard role he was never recruited to play, had career nights alongside standout performances from stars Williams and Thornwell.

Effort and execution are keys to success in any endeavor, and USC had them both in spades. Sprinkle in confidence and the energy drawn from a building super-charged by an electric student section that also was at its best, and it's a shame - or perhaps fitting - that only those most committed to this team were around to see the night they and this program turned the corner.

I'm not saying this team will win out or come even close to that. Looking at the schedule, however, I do think they can finish above .500 (6-5 would be my guess) the rest of the way and put a Frankenstein-sized scare into someone at the SEC Tournament if not make an outright run for the thing a la Ole Miss last year.

I've been a believer in Martin from Day One, and will continue to be through whatever short-term hardships may come this way because I can see what's being done, what's being achieved and what's being prepared for. On Wednesday, so did everyone else as that broken record skipped ahead everyone's favorite tune - victory.



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