COLUMBIA — Frank Martin shouted, screamed, shamed and sat on the bench, his head buried in his hands. Nothing worked.
“I got really negative on the bench against Stetson, and I did it on purpose,” Martin said. “I was embarrassed and disturbed by how we took the court that day, and the score of the game had nothing to do with how I felt. After that performance, I needed them to know that that kind of performance isn’t going to be tolerated around here.”
South Carolina lost 63-56 to Stetson to close its non-conference schedule, a defeat as brutal because of the opponent (No. 316 in the NCAA’s NET rankings) and for how it immediately changed direction for the Gamecocks’ season. Everything was thought to be figured out, thought to be corrected after USC upset then-No. 9 Virginia on the road.
But as has been the case ever since the book closed on the 2017 Final Four run, the only consistency USC basketball has is inconsistency. Martin has proven he can get teams with underwhelming talent to play at a high level, but this team, with a lot more talent than an 8-5 record suggests, has strained his patience.
“When you’re young, you’re inconsistent,” he said. “This team, they’re good dudes. They haven’t let me down (in responding the right way).”
The Stetson loss was jarring, but taken in context with the rest of the country and particularly the SEC, it’s normal. There is no dominant team in the conference or nation, not after six different teams claimed the No. 1 spot before Christmas and every team in the SEC (save undefeated Auburn) has a bad loss.
Yet beginning Tuesday when Florida visits Colonial Life Arena to start SEC play, how much Stetson matters at the end of the season can start being defined. If the Gamecocks have a typical SEC season (six winning seasons in the league over 28 years), the Stetson game will glare.
If the Gamecocks take care of business in the SEC, the bad loss won't matter.
“Every game is a reset button,” senior forward Maik Kotsar said.
The weirdness of the entire college basketball universe gives USC confidence it can post its fourth winning SEC season in five years. A victory over Florida, which began the year at No. 6, quickly fell out of the Top 25 and is also struggling to find its way, can be the start.
With how close the series has been (Chris Silva received a 75-foot pass and dunked at the buzzer last year) and considering the Gamecocks will be playing Tuesday under a banner honoring their 1997 SEC regular-season championship (in a season that started 5-5 with dreadful losses to UNC Asheville and Charleston Southern), why can’t USC be the one left standing on top of a schizophrenic SEC?
“Last year’s team was searching for confidence. I think this year’s team has confidence, it’s just having the mindset to approach it the right way,” Martin said. “This team understands they can win any game they have left on the schedule. It’s a matter of staying mentally connected so we can come out and perform to the best of our abilities.”
Martin didn’t see that going into Stetson. The return from Christmas break was good, practice leading to the game was better, but on game day, nobody showed up ready.
“When you have a whole team who wasn’t interested in playing, there is no individuality,” Martin said. “I don’t think we had a single guy who got out of bed that morning who was excited to play. Not a single one.”
A.J. Lawson played horribly, causing Martin to keep him benched for most of the game, and while the Gamecocks cut a 13-point deficit to two points without him, they didn’t have enough to finish.
Martin bemoaned the lack of player leadership. He doesn't have a Silva or Michael Carrera-type who would call out teammates for not giving maximum effort.
Against Virginia, they didn’t need it. Against Stetson, they did.
Against Florida and for 17 other SEC games, they’ll need it far more often than not.
They feel confident that it will arrive, starting Tuesday.
Guard Jermaine Couisnard strained his back after the Stetson game and hasn’t practiced since, Martin said. His availability for Florida depends on how well he moved in Monday's practice.