Expectations are dangerous things.
Make them too small and they invite laziness and mediocrity. Make them too large and you invite resentment and anger when they're not met.
Right now, the South Carolina men's basketball program under Frank Martin is in its infancy. Should it crawl? Yes. It might even walk, might even take a few stumbling steps forward before falling, getting up, and falling again. But should it pole vault, high jump and clear the 100-meter hurdles? Nope. Getting mad if a baby failed to do that would be beyond ridiculous.
The 2013-14 South Carolina men's basketball season was never going to be one to be judged by a win here or loss there, the overall record or whether a postseason appearance was made. For close watchers of the program, the players and the league, none of those concerns were in play this season as Frank Martin is in Year One of rebuilding the program from the ground up.
I say Year One because last year was Year Zero. Martin was left one of the barest, most empty-of-talent rosters in major college basketball history thanks to the recruiting of Darrin Horn and his staff - before and after he was fired. Upset to be let go, some members of that staff took a scorched-earth policy with the program on their way out, actively making sure the two best players - Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris - transferred. I believe if Martin had either or both of those players right now, a postseason appearance of some kind would be on the table this year.
But they did transfer, and due to the timing of his hiring, Martin's 2012 recruiting class was a Chinese fire drill, with the two Lithuanians, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas, coming on board along with a steal of a player in Venezuelan Michael Carrera. Carrera played his butt off and the Lithuanians gave it all they had until hitting the wall of conference play. Coupled with the energy and effort of Bruce Ellington and the slow emergence of Brent Williams, the team did the best it could, never gave up and finished 14-18, 4-14 in the SEC.
With a roster that now included an amazing eight new faces - seven freshmen and Villanova transfer Ty Johnson - the process of program-building began all over again from scratch. No one has ever invented a way for freshman to understand the difficulty of winning a college basketball game until they go out and do it. On the SEC teleconference Monday, Florida coach Billy Donovan, who knows a good bit about success, said the most difficult thing for freshmen to understand is how good players at the college level really are, at how high a level they play and at what intensity they prepare. There is simply no shortcut to experience, no way to teach it besides allowing them to get it in dose after (sometimes painful) dose.
Forgetting the freshmen, Martin's other challenges alone this season would be more than enough for most fan bases to turn a forgiving eye toward. When your three sophomores are your upperclassmen in terms of experience and none of them speak English as a first language, communication itself is an issue, never mind leadership.
When of your two seniors, your best leader at the most demanding position (point guard) and the one you most desperately need as a calming influence and shining example of how to work on and off the court opts for the National Football League, you're in a pickle. Not many college programs have to deal with that. When the other senior has the disposition of a church mouse and can go into a shell quicker than a turtle on the interstate, getting the best out of him takes a kind of patience unnatural to most successful coaches. When your lone junior, an experienced veteran of the college game and a proven point guard, breaks his foot halfway through the season and is lost for the year, you're in an even greater predicament.
And yet, for all of that, South Carolina could be 4-4 in the conference, maybe 5-3, which would put the Gamecocks in the upper half of the league. Knowing they had Ole Miss (15-5, 6-2 and in second place in the SEC) beat twice and can play with anyone in the league home or away has given this team confidence that goes beyond what you can measure.
I'm close to a few people who are close to the players, and I can tell you their heads aren't in the sand, their hopes aren't in the toilet, their enthusiasm hasn't waned. If anything after Saturday's tough loss, the players and coaches finally understand how close they are to breaking through, how the value of the practices and game experiences they've had are beginning to pay off.
Does losing a big lead in the final minutes hurt? Of course, as it should. For a bit. Then, it's back to work to put those lessons into place and move this team, and program, forward.
The realistic expectations for this team - effort, improvement, competitiveness - are being met. One might even say they're being exceeded given the departure of Ellington to the NFL and Johnson to injury. This team is just beginning to play to its potential: 14-19 points a night from Sindarius Thornwell and Brent Williams, 8-12 from Carrera and one of the four other forwards - Kacinas, Chatkevicius, Demetrius Henry and Desmond Ringer - and 6-8 from either Duane Notice or a Jaylen Shaw.
What's missing is an inside scoring threat, and there isn't one on the roster right now. That will have to be recruited for. But patience will be rewarded. Babies don't stay babies forever, as any parent will attest. Look no further than Steve Spurrier's football program. It took five long and often difficult years before he was able to get the recruits he needed to to elevate the program as a whole, and he's Steve Spurrier, acknowledged genius and master of college football.
Frank Martin is in the same class of coach, has the same passion to win and will achieve the same level of results. It's not in his nature nor at any time in his career at any level has he failed to achieve the highest level of success.
Five years from now, we'll look back on this season and the story will not be how it hurt to lose that mid-season Ole Miss game, it'll be how this team grew up, how this program grew forward and how that patience South Carolina fans are known for far and wide has been, at long last, so richly rewarded.