COLUMBIA — Frank Martin said it best, as he always does.
“It’s just another basketball season at South Carolina,” he said.
USC’s eighth-year men's basketball coach had just downgraded the health of sophomore forward Keyshawn Bryant, an acrobatic dunker who became beloved as the team’s most explosive player last season. What started as a small cyst on the back of Bryant’s knee became a floating piece of cartilage within the joint, requiring surgery and probably a six-week recovery.
Throughout Martin’s tenure, and most notably since the Gamecocks wrapped the best moment in program history at the 2017 Final Four, the only consistency USC has had is a red cross beside half the names on the roster. It’s not even breaking news anymore.
It’s met with a shrug and an update on the constantly changing medical chart outside the locker room. Everyone figures it’s so-and-so’s turn to get hurt, so it’s no surprise when Martin makes another announcement.
“I wish I had the answer. I pray about it every single Sunday,” he said. “It’s one of the first things that when I’m in church, to give me patience, to manage whatever comes our way and to give our guys health, because it’s incredible. It really is.”
The team was relatively healthy during the 2017-18 season, with all of the injuries the Gamecocks had hitting at one spot. Point guards Kory Holden (hamstring) and Wes Myers (ankle) each went down for chunks of the season, and with Rakym Felder taking himself out of competition with poor off-the-court decisions, USC had to lump everything on then-junior Hassani Gravett.
Last season, Martin began the season with 16 players on the roster (Jermaine Couisnard and Jair Bolden would not be available as redshirts). The remaining 14 should have been plenty to get through the season, even with Evan Hinson playing football through the early season and walk-ons Nathan Nelson and Quad Borup providing practice bodies (but still available to play).
Justin Minaya (knee), Jason Cudd (knee) and T.J. Moss (ankle and foot) were all out for the season by the seventh game. Alanzo Frink missed eight games with nearly the same injury that Bryant now has. Maik Kotsar missed two with a concussion and A.J. Lawson missed three after spraining his ankle late in the year.
It’s a credit to Martin that he still guided what was mostly a seven-man team to a fourth-place finish in the SEC. But he’d love to have the full team he recruited able to repeat that this year, instead of half of it wearing a path into the hardwood on the way to the trainer’s room.
“It’s been since the day I stepped foot on this campus,” Martin said. “Pick the year, pick the team.”
When he was a high school coach, Martin used to roll basketballs on the floor and have two players dive for them, or take full-speed charges just to build toughness. With a playoff trip guaranteed, it didn’t matter if a few players were injured during the regular season.
Now he can’t do that since that could lead to a loss that keeps the team out of the NCAA tournament. And he hasn’t done it for a long, long time.
Yet the Gamecocks keep getting hurt.
“It’s in the water, I guess,” he said.
With Bryant, he’s hoping for the best. Everyone heals differently, Martin mentioning Felder was once told he would be out for eight weeks and came back in just under six.
Maybe there’s another miracle waiting. The Gamecocks have certainly trudged through the wilderness without one long enough.
“We just got to stay positive and keep encouraging, be in high spirits, pray for safety and safe health and be strong throughout the season, because those are unfortunate,” said Lawson, whose ankle likely caused USC two wins that would have meant the postseason last year.
Martin sat down a week before last season’s opener and revealed Frink had just suffered a knee injury. With USC beginning this season on Wednesday against North Alabama (7 p.m., Colonial Life Arena), Bryant’s out and four players have been dealing with a cold that’s seeped into the locker room.
The entire summer was the first Martin has had where everybody was available and healthy, which built the depth on his team.
All it took was the season to start for injuries to begin whittling it, one player at a time.