Frank Martin is less concerned about how South Carolina (6-0) rose to No. 20 in this week’s Associate Press poll than he is on the long-range impact of last week’s impressive victories over Top 25 opponents Michigan and Syracuse.
After all, fickle media voters are not the folks Martin and his team are trying to impress. Instead, it’s the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, which places significant emphasis on a team’s non-conference schedule strength and, as we saw last March, the number of Top 50 RPI victories.
Based on this week’s polls, the wins over the Wolverines (61-46) and Syracuse (64-50) have clearly captured the attention of the college basketball world. But the larger and more important question is left unanswered until Selection Sunday in mid-March – Will the committee be impressed?
“Anytime you beat a team (Syracuse) that went to the Final Four last year and has a coach that has won 950 games and anytime you beat a team that went to the national championship game four years ago and returns seven starters (Michigan), your guys are doing something right,” Martin said Monday during his weekly press conference at Colonial Life Arena.
Since March is a long way off, Martin and the Gamecock players are proceeding cautiously, realizing a lot of basketball must be played between Thursday night’s home game against Vermont (6:30 p.m., SEC Network Plus) and the conclusion of the SEC Tournament in Nashville (March 8-12).
“Everything is about being in the right place in March as a basketball team,” Martin said. “I hope we get there (to the NCAA Tourney). I hope when March rolls around that we’re positioned to be the best we can be at the end of the year. Last year, I thought our guys did that. We still have to approach things like we’re a nobody. We have to stay on edge and stay on point.”
Memories of last season’s NCAA Tournament snub in the face of the Gamecocks going undefeated in non-conference play, compiling an 11-7 record against SEC foes and winning 24 games before the start of post-season play are still fresh in the mind of Martin and the players.
Indeed, those memories still sting.
“I’ve never seen a team get penalized for being undefeated in non-conference basketball,” Martin said. “It was like we committed the biggest sin in the world because we didn’t lose. It was unbelievable how that was held against us last year. What the rhetoric is going to be in March, I have no idea.”
Defensively, the Gamecocks are getting after opponents in the manner Martin demands. Through six games, USC is holding opponents to 32.3 percent shooting (101-313), including just 25.2 percent from 3-point range (31-123).
The Gamecocks have held four of the last five opponents to 50 points of less. Michigan shot less than 20 percent from the field in USC’s 61-46 victory on Nov. 23.
“I’m real proud of our guys and where we’re at as a team,” Martin said. “Not just because we’ve won, but the way they are learning to prepare and their fearlessness of opportunities and the growth we’ve shown from the first day of practice to where we are today. We’re excited about who we’re becoming as a team. The guys are fun to coach. We’re 6-0. That’s better than any alternative you could give me after six games. But it’s irrelevant for game seven.”
On the offensive end, the trio of Sindarius Thornwell (20.0 ppg), Duane Notice (10.5) and P.J. Dozier (10.2) have accounted for 40.7 points per game, 54 percent of USC’s scoring average of 75.5 points per game.
Even though they are undefeated heading into December, Martin insists the Gamecocks haven’t reached their maximum potential.
“I think we can be so much better,” Martin said. “We’re not even near what we can eventually become as a team. What does that mean? I have no idea. But I really like our guys. I liked them in the summer, I liked them in September and I like them today. Hopefully, we’ll stay connected to who we are.”
Thornwell averaged 18.5 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals in the last week’s wins over Michigan and Syracuse, and was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday.
“He is the most underappreciated good player in the country,” Martin said. “He is a top five defender in the SEC based on what other coaches say. He has played almost every position. He leads us in scoring and rebounding. He guards the best player on the other team. I’m ecstatic he has been rewarded.”
NEXT FIVE GAMES
12/1 VERMONT, 6:30 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)
12/4 FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL, 2 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)
12/12 vs. Seton Hall (at New York City), 9 p.m. (TBD)
12/17 at USF, 1 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
12/21 CLEMSON, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)