COLUMBIA — The princes of the bluegrass may be descending upon South Carolina, but Frank Martin wants his team in a New York state of mind.
It was in the Big Apple when the Gamecocks last looked anything like a winning basketball team, pulling an upset over then-No. 9 Iowa State and extending a seven-game win streak that was the program’s longest in over a decade. The weeks since haven’t been pretty — four losses in five SEC games, including a disheartening 15th consecutive setback to Tennessee on Tuesday which wasn’t competitive in the second half until USC rallied late.
The team that had won seven straight games, upset a top-10 opponent, romped past Clemson and Oklahoma State and even received a handful of votes in the AP Top 25, seemed to get lost somewhere between Brooklyn and Colonial Life Arena. And USC’s head coach wants to find it again, preferably before Big Blue Nation invades the Midlands for Saturday’s sold-out noon game against top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky.
“I try to stay positive, but we’ve been no good since we got back from New York,” Martin said. “Our practices, our attention to detail, our enthusiasm, our energy, everything that we worked to create leading into that game in New York stayed in Brooklyn. Didn’t come back with us. I’ve tried to stay positive, I’ve tried to figure out a way to get guys to get back into that place we were at. But right now, we’re depending on selfishness and individual talents for us to win, and obviously you see the results that’s getting us.”
Martin’s frustration was evident immediately following Tuesday’s four-point loss to Tennessee, where USC trailed by 17 in the second half. “Practice all of the sudden is a drag,” he said then. “I go home with a headache every single day.” On his weekly radio show Thursday, Martin said the Gamecocks (10-7, 1-4 SEC) have had one practice he would term productive since returning from New York — and it was the day before their lone conference victory, against Alabama.
“We haven’t handled success very well,” Martin said on the “Carolina Calls” program. “I think our success kind of made everyone maybe create an overinflated opinion of themselves individually, and made them think they were so good they didn’t have to approach things the way they have. That’s what happens when you go through it for the first time.”
Guard Sindarius Thornwell didn’t disagree. “We just got complacent,” he said. “Everybody got comfortable with themselves instead of continuing to work. Me myself, I was making shots and figured I could stop going to the gym and shooting. I think it was more so everybody just got complacent and felt like they didn’t need to work, because we were winning. So I think right now everybody’s back to working out, coming in, watching extra film, and getting shots up.”
The question is whether it will be enough to pull another upset over Kentucky (18-0, 5-0), which has lost three of its last five games in Columbia — including last season, and in 2010 when the Wildcats were also ranked No. 1.
“It’s always a hard game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters this week in Lexington, Ky. “I can remember 2010 going down there. You know what, we got outmuscled that game. They roughed us up.”
Martin said this year’s Kentucky team is vastly improved from the one that came to Columbia last season ranked 17th. “It’s not even a competition, how much better it is,” he added.
But for the Gamecocks, the real opponent isn’t as much the visiting team as themselves, as this sophomore-laden group tries to rediscover both the off-court attitudes and the on-court performance USC last displayed nearly a month ago on a magical night in New York.
“When you go through adversity, you either come together or you fall apart. It’s one or the other,” Martin said. “Let’s see which way we go. Whether we play the No. 1 team in the country — which we actually do — or we play a junior varsity high school team on Saturday, we have no chance to win unless we fix our problems.”