Changes abound for USC’s Martin as coach prepares for second season

South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin. (File photo)

Chris Lee

With the personnel decisions for his South Carolina basketball team complete, Frank Martin leaves Monday for a trip on which he’ll get to make a more unusual choice.

Martin is an assistant coach for the U.S. World University Games team, which means tryouts at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., starting Monday, and then a long flight to Kazan, Russia, for the Games, July 7-16.

“They say the popular dish over there is bear,” Martin said.

Martin isn’t sure if he’ll try it. If he gets the chance, he said he’ll wait to see where the moment takes him. For as wary as Russian cuisine might make him, Martin begins the trip feeling hopeful about what he leaves behind.

Since becoming a head coach in 2007 at Kansas State, he has never been away from his program for this long. He enters his second season at South Carolina preparing to debut eight players, including a transfer point guard, compared to six returning players, because four guys left in the offseason with eligibility remaining. Martin also has a new assistant coach, former Miami head coach Perry Clark, who replaced Brad Underwood, now the head coach at Stephen F. Austin.

With summer workouts underway, everything is in place for Year 2. But many questions remain about these Gamecocks as they try to avoid their fifth straight losing overall record and rebound from Southeastern Conference records of 2-14 and 4-14 the past two seasons.

Can highly regarded shooting guard recruit Sindarius Thornwell contribute immediately? What will point guard Tyrone Johnson, a Villanova transfer who will be eligible after the first semester, bring to the backcourt? And will the Gamecocks be able to rebound while playing rising sophomore wing Michael Carrera more on the perimeter, as Martin wants to do?

What’s clear to Martin, at the very least, is his team is longer. That was perhaps the most obvious part of USC’s recent individual workouts. Thornwell, who is 6-5, could add perimeter defense. Ditto for Johnson, who is 6-3. Three freshmen forwards also will offer length: Demetrius Henry (6-9, 210 pounds), Reggie Theus Jr. (6-6, 190) and Desmond Ringer (6-9, 260).

“We’re bigger,” Martin said. “It’s the first thing you notice when you’re on the court. That’s something that was important. You’ve got to have size, either at the rim or on the perimeter. Last year, we didn’t have size on the perimeter or at the rim. That’s a problem when that’s how you play. If you have size on the perimeter, then it helps protect the paint. If you don’t have size on the perimeter, then you’ve got to have size at the rim to compensate for lack of size on the perimeter. I think we’re longer, both on the perimeter and in the front line.”

Last season, USC ranked 11th in the 14-team SEC in rebounding margin during league play (minus 1.8). Carrera was by far the Gamecocks’ best rebounder. He ranked sixth in the league with 7.3 rebounds per game against SEC competition. Carrera, who is 6-5 and 212 pounds, performed admirably while fighting through a hip injury and playing against bigger men in the post, where USC needed him because of its size deficiencies.

Martin has said Carrera’s future is farther away from the basket, because it will be hard for him to endure the rigors of frequent post play for the rest of his career. To that end, Martin has noticed encouraging improvements in Carrera’s outside shooting recently, but he is still not yet a polished perimeter player.

“He’s got to learn, when he catches the ball on the perimeter, not to stand there and hold it with one hand, as you saw during the year last year,” Martin said. “You can’t be any good out there like that. Or put the ball over your head. He’s been asked to play out there, but he’s never been taught to play out there, which is a big difference. His ball handling is good enough to play out there. It’s not great. But his passing and his decision making and his perimeter defense have to get a lot better.”

If Carrera is USC’s most intriguing returning player and senior point guard Bruce Ellington remains the team’s leader, then Johnson is probably the most interesting newcomer, along with Thornwell. Johnson, a junior, must form a cohesive backcourt with Ellington and/or shooting guard Brenton Williams, who led USC in scoring last season, ahead of Carrera and Ellington — with 11, 9.9 and 9.9 points, respectively.

Johnson is not an elite perimeter shooter, and Martin wants him to work on developing a mid-range game, rather than slashing to the basket so often. But Johnson’s size is a welcome addition to the backcourt — Ellington is 5-9, Williams 5-11 — on defense, which has long formed the foundation of Martin’s programs.

“Ty understands angles,” Martin said. “He might not be the most gifted athlete from a side-to-side or speed (standpoint), but his mind allows him to get to the right spot most of the time. That’s what you’ve got to have.”