South Carolina’s basketball season ended just hours prior to its SEC tournament opener against Arkansas. That’s when the call was made, amid the recent spread of COVID-19, to scratch all major conference tournaments, eventually leading to the cancellation of the NCAA postseason altogether.
The Gamecocks closed out the regular season at 18-13, earning a 6th place finish in the Southeastern Conference. With the season coming to an early halt, I started thinking about Frank Martin and how to evaluate his tenure as head coach at USC.
South Carolina was able to finish in the top half of the league for the 4th time in the last 5 years. It also closed the season above the .500 mark SEC play (10-8), which has been a bit of a rarity for the Gamecocks since joining the conference in 1992.
In fact, it’s happened only 7 times. Frank Martin led teams are responsible for 4 of those seasons.
Recent success within the league, however, has not necessarily translated to the postseason. Martin’s tenure has been filled with ‘what-ifs’ and inexplicable early season losses.
Last year, the Gamecocks missed the NIT despite finishing 4th in the league, due to losses vs. Wyoming, Stony Brook, and Wofford. This year was more of the same, with losses to Boston and Stetson overshadowing fantastic wins against Kentucky, Clemson, and defending national champion Virginia.
On the surface, some could look at Martin’s tenure here as a disappointment, having only made one NIT appearance and one NCAA Tournament appearance as Head Coach. Others would argue that he revived a dying program and has taken it to its greatest heights. Let’s take a deeper dive into the last 8 years of Gamecock basketball, starting with Martin’s first season in 2012-13.
The Early Years
In 2012, Martin took over a team coming off its worst season since joining the SEC, compiling a 2-14 conference record. Previous coach Darrin Horn was shown the door, and many of the players he recruited chose to follow suit. It was, in all senses of the word, a rebuild.
Over his first two years, Martin’s Gamecocks would go 14-18 and 14-20, respectively, finishing in the cellar of the Southeastern Conference standings. Those seasons should not be held against him, as he was coaching a shell of a team.
In 2014-15, though, South Carolina began to show some progress. The team would finish 17-16, earning its first winning season in five years. It also found a few players to build around, as Michael Carrera was coming into his own at forward, and Sindarius Thornwell was budding into a future star.
Carolina would take a huge step forward in the 2015-16 season, winning its first 15 games en route to a 25-9 overall record and a 3rd place finish in the conference. This team still has the most regular season wins and the highest SEC finish of any USC team in the Martin era. However, the Gamecocks were snubbed by the NCAA and sent to the NIT, where they’d be bounced in the second round by Georgia Tech. A tough end to the year, but progress nonetheless.
That brings us to 2016-17, the apex of USC basketball. Again, the team started quickly, going 19-4 in their first 23 games. They then stumbled a bit down the stretch, losing 5 of their last 8 regular season games before being eliminated in the first round of the SEC tournament.
Fans may have felt some angst stemming from the previous year’s snub but at 22-10, the Cocks were able to slip into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed. The rest is history, as USC beat Marquette, Duke, Baylor, and Florida on its way to the Final Four. The Gamecocks would lose 73-77 to Gonzaga, one game away from a national championship appearance, but they cemented their name in the history books.
With Thornwell and PJ Dozier off to the NBA, and another handful of Gamecocks being booted for disciplinary reasons, the 2017-18 season was a bit of a rebuild. Carolina returned only two major contributors from the year prior, and ended up finishing the season 17-16, a huge disappointment following the greatest season in the program’s history.
The 2018-19 season was much of the same, with a 16-16 final record, and the shine of that Final Four run had begun to wear off.
The Gamecocks now find themselves a bit in flux. This season would’ve almost certainly ended with a postseason appearance in the NIT, and the team returns a great core of young players. Martin believes he’s got as much talent on campus as he’s had at USC.
But he’s also set to lose senior leader Maik Kotsar, who led the team in minutes, rebounds, blocks, and steals, and possibly last year’s leading scorer AJ Lawson should he test the NBA waters.
Should Lawson return, next season sets up well for the Gamecocks. It would certainly be a disappointment in most fans’ eyes if Martin fails to get back to the Big Dance.
Let us know what you think about Frank Martin’s tenure at South Carolina. Does he deserve criticism for having only 2 postseason appearances in 8 years at the helm? Or has he righted the ship of a program that was dead in the water?
Leave your thoughts below.