COLUMBIA — One of the most impressive things about Missouri to South Carolina coach Frank Martin is the Tigers’ offensive personality, whichMartin called “fearless.” And tonight, as the Gamecocks encounter their second and most difficult Southeastern Conference road game so far this season, against Missouri, Martin would like to see more fearlessness from his own players.
USC (11-6, 1-3) is coming off a 58-51 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday in which the Gamecocks shot 14 of 59 (23.7 percent). As they prepare to play the No. 22 Tigers, their first ranked opponent of the season, they will need to obviously shoot more efficiently if they are to have any chance of pulling off the upset.
But Martin is also looking for more intangible growth during the second half of this rebuilding year. He talked at length Monday about his memories of his assertive teams at Kansas State, where he was the head coach for five seasons before coming to Columbia after last season. He wants to see in his USC players the type of fire he noticed in guys like Jacob Pullen, Denis Clemente and Rodney McGruder.
“As long as the coaches’ voices are the ones that sound the loudest in difficult times, you don’t have a personality,” Martin said. “Your team doesn’t. We need players’ voices more than coaches’ voices. And that’s how you know when you’re building a program.
“Everybody wants to talk when things are going well. But when you’re in a difficult moment, who’s going to step up and make people do right? Who’s going to be the confidence in that huddle? Who’s going to be our Jacob Pullen, when you’re in a difficult moment and you need a defensive stop? (Who) is going to grab his teammates in that huddle, make me shut up and tell them what they’re doing?”
McGruder actually did tell Martin to pipe down, Martin said. It happened during a game last season when Martin was furious at another player in a timeout huddle.
“Rodney grabbed me by my shoulder,” Martin said. “And he said, ‘Frank, enough. Get us in the next play. Let it go.’ Rodney had to grab me and make me understand: ‘Yo, Frank, enough of that nonsense. I need you right now. You’re my guy. What do I need to do to help you win here?’ You need to have that.”
Martin said he would sometimes tell Clemente, his point guard, what play to run during a timeout, only for Clemente to reply, “No, we’re running this (other) play.” When Martin agreed and Clemente’s play worked, “(Clemente) would turn around (toward) the bench, like letting me know, ‘You better keep trusting me.’ And you better have that as a coach.”
Martin believes Missouri (13-4, 2-2) has that attacking, confident mentality in its ball screen-focused offense, because of point guard Phil Pressey. Martin has observed Pressey since he was in high school, and then Kansas State beat Missouri twice last season, when the Tigers were in the Big 12.
So Martin isn’t as down on Missouri as some observers are. The Tigers lost their most recent game, 83-52, on Saturday at No. 10 Florida. But that was their third straight game without 6-8 senior leading scorer Laurence Bowers, who averages 16.8 points and likely will again be sidelined tonight with a sprained right knee.
“I heard somewhere the other day (that) they’re a fraud and they’re no longer a top 25 team,” Martin said of Missouri. “Are you kidding me?”
Martin thinks the Tigers will be energized by their raucous home court environment at 15,000-seat Mizzou Arena. If nothing else, Martin at least doesn’t plan on backing down from it.
“Their student section is off the charts,” Martin said. “I’m sure they’re waiting for me with smiling faces over there. I can’t wait to get in front of them.”