COLUMBIA — Is one NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years good enough? Most Power-5 schools would say no.
Most Power-5 schools are not South Carolina.
It’s a small but vocal segment of the fanbase that is grumbling after the Gamecocks were left out of the NIT on Sunday, making it two straight years USC won’t be in the postseason following a Final Four appearance. They feel the Gamecocks should be better than that.
Before that Final Four run in 2017, USC hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 13 years and hadn’t won a tournament game in 44.
“I think South Carolina fans should wake up and be thankful that Frank Martin’s their head coach. He was able to deliver a Final Four two years ago, and he obviously has a team that’s been competitive in the SEC,” said CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein, a college basketball insider known for his knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport. “They were ravaged by injuries this year. For sure, they should be a lot more appreciative of the coach that they have.”
Martin inherited an awful situation. Then-athletic director Eric Hyman, a believer in capping contracts at five years, gave Martin a six-year deal because the program was so bad it was going to take at least three years to be competitive.
The Gamecocks were competitive by that third year and a terrific team in his fourth. It was only a universally agreed jobbing from the selection committee that kept them from playing in the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks were snubbed with a 24-8 record and finished 25-9 after two games in the NIT.
Then came the fifth year, when they made the NCAA field and knocked off Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida to reach heights they had never been. In that two-week stretch, Martin tied Frank McGuire as USC’s winningest coach in the NCAA Tournament — and considering two of McGuire’s four tournament wins were in consolation games after losing in the previous round, Martin is really alone at the top.
“I think one NCAA Tournament in seven years will suffice when it’s a trip to the Final Four. Does a fanbase that loves its college basketball deserve better? Sure,” said USA Today’s Scott Gleeson. “But not every coach can get a team all the way to the last weekend. That’s especially true when the team’s only been to one other tournament in the last two decades.”
USC fans wanted to believe their team had finally reached the realm of consistent great basketball, and by the bottom line (tournament appearances), one in seven years doesn’t cut it. Yet the Gamecocks have only been to nine tournaments in its 80 years of existence, an average of once every nine years.
“I think it’s a job that for all intents and purposes is viewed as a difficult job. It’s why it speaks volumes to what he’s done in his career,” Rothstein said. “He took South Carolina to the Final Four and Kansas State to the Elite Eight. People talk about going far in the NCAA tournament, Frank Martin’s done that in two places.”
“I think the view of the South Carolina job nationwide is that it’s tougher than some power conference jobs in terms of luring recruits and making a dent in the SEC,” Gleeson said. “But that’s why a gritty coach like Martin isn’t a bad fit.”
The last two years have been dogged by injuries. Following the Final Four season, when the Gamecocks lost 70 percent of their scoring, they couldn’t keep a point guard healthy and struggled to a 17-16 record. This year, Martin finished the season with eight scholarship players when he began with 12 (and lost a walk-on contributor when Evan Hinson returned to football full-time).
It was two amazing coaching jobs considering the adversity the Gamecocks have had, and this year resulted in a fourth-place finish in the SEC. As a program, USC has had six winning seasons in the SEC in 28 years.
Martin coached three of them.
Fans want postseason bids, they don’t want excuses, and Martin has never given them. With the core of his team returning next season, he will be in position to snap the two-year postseason drought.
Is the NCAA tournament a must next year? Administratively, no. For that small but loud segment?
Well, everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and they’re never shy to share them after a particularly galling loss.
“You don’t view make-or-break years for a coach when you take a school that has never gone to a Final Four to a Final Four,” Rothstein said. “South Carolina should give Frank Martin a 10-year contact if he wants it. You’re not getting a better coach than Frank Martin.”
Frank Martin at USC
Season Overall SEC
2012–13: 14–18 4–14
2013–14: 14–20 5–13
2014–15: 17–16 6–12
2015–16: 25–9 11–7
2016–17: 26–11 12–6
2017–18: 17–16 7–11
2018–19: 16–16 11–7
TOTAL: 129–106 56–70