According to Frank Martin, he has aged 7 years since November.
That's when he unveiled his 2013-14 team featuring seven freshmen and an eighth newcomer in junior college transfer Ty Johnson. In his second year in Columbia, Frank Martin was building from scratch all over again, and the patience required has accelerated the aging process, Martin joked.
"The eight newcomers make you age in dog years," Martin said. "It's difficult at times, but you know what? I keep my focus on the fact that we're trying to educate young people and make them grow. As long as I see them responding and getting better it keeps my focus where it belongs, and that's on the kids."
Winners of two straight before Wednesday night's loss in Fayetteville, the Gamecocks clearly have found an identity build around freshmen Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice. Until those two emerged as leaders in practice and in games, gaining the confidence and trust of both the coaches and players, progress was difficult to measure. With the recent success, however, Martin said he's seeing other players fall in line behind them.
"Those two guys for the last three weeks or so have been great," Martin said. "For a team as young as we were, our leadership had not been good. Here we've grown as a team because of Sindarius and Duane Notice. Those two guys have really taken ownership and have tried to set a table for how we want to play. That's fun to see young kids embrace jobs and roles and responsibilities and accept it and move forward with it.
"Mindaugas (Kacinas) is starting to understand who he is as a player. Michael (Carrera) has been better here for the last three weeks or so than he's been for a while. He's still not where he needs to be but he's been better. I think all that starts because of those two guys. Brent's grown tremendously as a player. There's a group of guys (now), and we're just better. Our team is better. Our team is growing, we've accepted challenges, we haven't run away from them.
"I understand that you look at our record and you say, 'Oh, they stink.' I get it. That's your opinion. Good for you. 'But those kids, myself who are in that room, practicing and challenging each other … I'm extremely proud of how much better we've gotten as a team and how much growth they've shown us as individuals."
Martin said having to start all over again with a brand-new team in his second year wasn't what he anticipated.
"On the rebuilding project, when you first get somewhere you really don't know some of the issues you have to manage and handle and deal with," Martin said. " A year-and-a-half in, almost two years, I've got a much better understanding. It's been challenging at times, but I see so many positives with our fans, our administration, our school, our recruiting, that I get more excited every day about what this program can become.
"We need some breaks to go our way in recruiting and in games and with players growing and balls going in the basket, and we all understand that. But we're extremely excited about what we can become."
Evaluating personnel with so many freshmen also is difficult, because you don't know how a player will react to adversity until adversity is in your face. With only one senior and no juniors left (Johnson's injury saw to that), there aren't any upperclassmen to turn to for guidance and leadership, guys who can calm down freshmen and shoulder the burden of responsibility. That's meant Martin has had to adjust his coaching style this season for the first time in his career.
"The challenge with so many young guys on our team (is) that I'm getting to know them, too," Martin said. "I'm getting to understand them as players.
"Every kid is different. Not every kid learns at the same rate. Not every kid learns the same way. It takes time as coaches. I don't care what kind of job you do in recruiting, you don't understand everything about the dynamics of a person's personality until you start going through things with them, and that's what the season does. It makes you see young people and what they're really about and how you can really help them. That's what we're learning as the season has gone on.
"I'm excited about our kids. Our kids, our will, our fight, our willingness to compete and grow has never been an issue. I'm proud of the fact that we had a good week. I have no doubt that we're a much better basketball team than we were a month ago let alone in November. When you consider the fact that we lost our two point guards, there's absolutely no doubt that we're better, and you don't get better unless kids buy in to carrying the same theme, the same heartbeat, the same vision that the coaches are trying to put in place."