COLUMBIA — Late in his first season as South Carolina’s basketball coach, Frank Martin said the rebuilding job posed more challenges than he initially thought it would. But he was OK with that challenge, and willing to meet it head-on.
The Gamecocks have nowhere to go but up.
Though they showed growth in Martin’s first season, it ended with a thud Wednesday night when they lost to undermanned Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference tournament. Since the beginning of last season, USC is now 6-30 against conference competition.
There are seemingly innumerous ways to quantify the sorry state of USC men’s basketball.
The Gamecocks have gone one and done in the SEC tournament for five straight years, and six of the past seven. In the other year, 2008, they won one game.
Since winning the National Invitation Tournament in 2006, for the second straight year, they have played one postseason game — in the 2009 NIT. They lost.
USC hasn’t won a game in the NCAA tournament since 1973, and went one and done in five appearances since. Every other current major conference team has won a game in the tournament since 1973 except Northwestern, which has never made the NCAAs, and Nebraska, which has never won in the tournament. Rutgers, whose last win came in 1979, is the closest to USC. While going 14-18 in Martin’s first year, including 4-14 in the SEC regular season, the Gamecocks finished with a losing record for the fourth straight year — something that had happened five times previously and not since 1991-92 to 1994-95.
The Gamecocks went 17-49 in the SEC regular season the past four seasons — a .258 winning percentage. Among their four-year runs of losing records, that is their lowest conference winning percentage since 13-43 (.232) in the Atlantic Coast Conference from 1957-58 to 1960-61.
The Gamecocks’ current struggles are magnified by the fact that their football team is at its apex, 22-4 over the past two seasons; its baseball team won national titles in 2010 and 2011 and was the national runner-up in 2012; and its women’s basketball squad is in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year and is 21-11 against the SEC over that span.
Martin understands that the only way to cure fans’ apathy about his program is to win, and the only way to win is to recruit more talented players than his current ones.
To that end, Martin’s Class of 2013 includes shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell, the No. 43 overall recruit in the class, according to Rivals. After next season’s first semester, sophomore point guard Tyrone Johnson, a Villanova transfer, will be eligible to play. He was the No. 52 recruit in 2011. Johnson played at Montrose Christian School with Michael Carrera, the freshman wing player who was one of USC’s few bright spots this season.
This summer will be important for Martin, as he tries to land potentially program-changing recruits. USC already has one commitment for 2014: point guard Marcus Stroman of Columbia. If all of USC’s current underclassmen return next season, which is far from a certainty, Martin will have three more scholarships available for 2014.
Though Martin has signed Desmond Ringer (6-9, 260 pounds) for next season, he likely will focus on getting bigger in the 2014 class. Lack of reliable size was a major issue for USC this season, when its leading rebounders were Carrera and senior Lakeem Jackson, who are both 6-5.
The Gamecocks have had five straight losing seasons once in program history, 1918-19 to 1922-23, though they never played more than 19 games in any of those seasons, the last three of which were overseen by three different coaches.
That was such a faraway era of college sports that in 1919-20 and 1920-21, USC was led by men who coached its football team the previous fall — Dixon Foster and Sol Metzger. They were surely industrious fellows, like Martin. But in this case, Martin would probably prefer not to be mentioned alongside them after next season.