COLUMBIA — Frank Martin was an assistant coach under Bob Huggins at Kansas State. Duane Notice was in elementary school. Laimonas Chatkevicius was just beginning to play basketball. George W. Bush was president, the iPhone had yet to be introduced — and South Carolina scored its most recent victory over Tennessee.
That was nearly eight years ago, when Tre Kelley scored 23 points on Feb. 17, 2007, to help the Gamecocks beat the Volunteers and record their 100th victory in SEC play. The time since has been a Big Orange onslaught — 14 consecutive victories by Tennessee, South Carolina’s longest losing streak to any conference opponent, including Kentucky, since joining the league.
“I didn’t know that,” Martin said Monday when asked about the seven-year skid, which began in Dave Odom’s final season at USC. And the Gamecocks’ head coach didn’t want to dwell on the topic, either. “I’m going to act,” he added, “like that question wasn’t even asked.”
USC tries again to end the skid Tuesday, when the Volunteers visit Colonial Life Arena for a 9 p.m. game televised by ESPNU. Tennessee (11-5, 3-1 SEC) is off to a surprising league start under first-year head coach Donnie Tyndall, with a pair of victories over ranked teams despite depth and size issues stemming from a spate of early-season injures.
The Vols returned just one notable player, guard Josh Richardson, off the team Cuonzo Martin took to the Elite Eight last season before bolting for California. They were down to nine men until Jan. 9, when Tyndall gave a scholarship to a walk-on. While Tennessee doesn’t dazzle with statistics, it has two conference road wins — No. 1 Kentucky is the only other SEC team that can claim that — and relies on a matchup zone defense that generates over 17 points per game off turnovers.
“Obviously, we have a lot of limitations in terms of depth and physicality, or lack of it, on our front line,” Tyndall said. “We don’t have a true point guard, though Josh has been fantastic. So we certainly have some limitations, but one thing we aren’t limited in is how hard we work and how coachable our guys are.”
From a USC perspective, all of this can sound foreboding. The Gamecocks (10-6, 1-3) have proven particularly susceptible to zone defenses this season, going through prolonged scoreless stretches in each of their league games, and letting a five-point lead with under five minutes left Saturday turn into a three-point loss at Auburn. After entering SEC play on a seven-game win streak, Martin’s team is suddenly committing too many fouls, committing too many turnovers and getting beat on the boards.
That last one especially stings given that USC goes 6-11 and 6-9 along the baseline and regularly outrebounded opponents prior to conference play. The Gamecocks have been outrebounded in three of four SEC games thus far — all losses. “When I’m in my house watching film, I’m struggling with that one,” Martin said.
And yet, despite the poor start in league play, Martin can find positives, like the celebrating he heard coming from the Florida locker room Jan. 7 after the Gators won in Columbia, which let him know that beating his team meant something. “They’ve beaten us here before while I’ve been coaching at this university, and it was just another day at the office. Punch in, punch out. They came in here and were ecstatic about beating us,” he said.
That’s a little different for a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2009. “As we start winning games, we have to have guys who are willing to embrace that responsibility, and have guys willing to get a little stronger mentally, vocally and emotionally when things aren’t going your way,” Martin added. “That’s what we’re putting our arms around right now.”
And in the process, trying to end a losing streak to Tennessee which started when Notice, USC’s leading scorer, was in the sixth grade. Where was Chatkevicius, the Gamecocks’ leading rebounder, the last time South Carolina toppled Rocky Top? “I was, I don’t know, man,” said the 6-11 junior. “Probably the first time I started playing basketball seriously.”
Eight years is a long time ago, indeed.