COLUMBIA — Two four-word sentences uttered by South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin on Tuesday night perfectly summarized what had just happened in Mizzou Arena. Though Martin said them with disappointment on his mind, after a 71-65 loss to No. 22 Missouri, the words show how much the Gamecocks have developed in 18 games under Martin.
“They came at us,” Martin said. “We went at them.”
Yes, the loss dropped USC to 11-7 and 1-4 in Southeastern Conference play entering today’s home game against Arkansas and Wednesday night’s trip to No. 8 Florida. Yes, the Gamecocks must now close 5-8 in the SEC if they want to enter the conference tournament not having to worry about a fourth straight losing overall record.
But considering their recent lack of success against ranked teams, Martin had to like much about the way the Gamecocks performed in a difficult setting Tuesday, standing nose-to-nose with Missouri until the end, and not appearing intimidated by any of it.
It was Martin’s first game against a ranked team as USC’s coach. His predecessor, Darrin Horn, went 4-18 against ranked opponents during his four seasons at USC, including 0-6 last year.
Against Missouri, USC led by as many as 13 points, with 17:11 left in the game. Missouri responded and went up by five, but USC didn’t fold. The Gamecocks led by two until 2:01 remained, and the game was tied until 1:10 was left, when Missouri took the lead for good.
Yet USC couldn’t finish, just as it failed to close against Mississippi State and Auburn, which won by two and three points. In USC’s last home game, last Saturday, Vanderbilt won by seven. While four league losses by a combined 18 points will no doubt add some salt to Martin’s salt-and-peppered hair, they must also give him hope that this team can exceed the modest accomplishments of last season, when USC went 10-21 and 2-14 in the SEC.
A good chance to match last year’s SEC win total comes next Saturday at home against Georgia, which currently shares the league’s worst conference record with LSU, Tennessee and USC.
Of course, Martin would love to beat Arkansas (12-6, 3-2), which slugged Mississippi State by 26 in its last game, buried Vanderbilt by 23 and pulled out an eight-point double overtime win against Auburn. The Razorbacks lost by 18 at Texas A&M and by 12 at Mississippi.
One of the toughest challenges of playing Arkansas is coach Mike Anderson’s aggressive defense. The Razorbacks’ opponents average 18.2 turnovers, most in the SEC. Arkansas is tied for second in the league with 9.6 steals per game.
These Razorbacks are a dangerous opponent for USC, which averages 16.6 turnovers, second-most in the SEC. Anderson is still putting his stamp on Arkansas, in his second season there. In the 10 seasons since coach Nolan Richardson left, the Razorbacks have reached the NCAA tournament three times, 2006-08.
Anderson is already seeing progress from a team that went 18-14 and 6-10 in the SEC last season, returned its top three scorers and also brought back 6-7, 240-pound junior forward Marshawn Powell, who played just two games last season before sustaining a knee injury. He leads the Razorbacks with 5.4 rebounds per game and is second in points, with 15.3, to sophomore guard BJ Young’s 16.9.
Both will be able to return next season, just as USC can bring back every significant contributor from this season, except wing player Lakeem Jackson, who is fourth on the team in scoring. While neither USC nor Arkansas appears poised this season to challenge for SEC supremacy, Martin and Anderson can realistically believe, based on recent developments, that better days are ahead.