First-year South Carolina coach Frank Martin owns the reputation of bluntly delivering sharp-elbowed and withering critiques of players if expectations and parameters aren’t to his liking.
Left out, though, in the summation of Martin, who arrived after five seasons at Kansas State, are shoulders wide enough to bear the criticism heaped on him when a poor performance stems from his own errors in preparation or in-game adjustments.
On Monday, Martin bore his burden of atonement after the Gamecocks (12-9, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) dropped games last week to No. 2 Florida and Georgia by an average of 25 points, shot just 33.6 percent and were smothered by the Gators in tallying just 10 points during the first half of a 39-point shellacking.
“I did a bad job last week,” Martin said Monday. “I did an absolutely awful job coaching my team last week, and we went out and played that way.”
Inheriting a thin roster from Darrin Horn, who was fired after a 10-21 record in his fifth season, Martin speaks frequently in his stentorian voice about reforming the culture around the program, which has gone nine seasons since its last trip to the NCAA tournament.
Noble and necessary as that might be, Martin lacks key pieces as the SEC makes the turn for the final nine games of the league slate.
Notably, three of the Gamecocks’ top four scorers left Columbia, and guard Bruce Ellington, who is averaging 10.6 points, wasn’t available until early January after winding down duties as a wide receiver for football coach Steve Spurrier.
Guard Malik Cooke, who led South Carolina at 12.3 points per game, graduated, and Anthony Gill took his 39.3 percent accuracy behind the 3-point line — not to mention 7.6 points per game — and transferred to Virginia Tech. Inside, Damontre Harris, a 6-foot-9, 226-pound forward, packed his bags for Florida, where he’s sitting out this season.
Reading between the lines, the losses to Georgia and Florida dismayed Martin further because he was bogged down in the grind that begins to take hold around February.
“I got too concerned with opponents and the next game last week than help our team fight,” Martin said.
In the process, though, Martin doesn’t want his group to lose sight of the ultimate end goal, either.
“I’m asking our players to fight for the culture that we’re trying to build every single day,” he said. “Well, they’ve never been asked to fight for that culture. If I’m not willing to fight for it myself and hold them accountable to fight for it, then I can’t stand back and say, ‘They didn’t play well.’ That’s not fair to the players.”
Dogged by criticism that it’s the weakest power conference in the nation, the SEC claimed a small measure of pride when Florida ascended to No. 2 in the AP poll Monday.
And the Gators (18-2, 8-0) continued to do it in bruising style, defeating South Carolina and then-No. 16 Ole Miss by a combined 53 points, prompting queries to coach Billy Donovan about what’s behind an average margin of victory holding at 26.5 points.
Of course, having a roster whose members average close to three years of experience tends to help, particularly in a season when SEC rosters skew younger. Of the 14 programs, eight rank lower than No. 200 nationally in terms of experience, including Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Kentucky below 300 out of the 347 teams.
“When you’ve got guys in your program that have been through the ups and downs, there’s an opportunity for growth and development,” Donovan said. “Our players individually have understood the importance of getting better and just how difficult it is to go through a league schedule.”
After a quiet start to SEC play, Tennessee sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes regained elite form in the past 10 days.
The Memphis, Tenn., native is averaging 17.3 points and 13.0 rebounds for the Volunteers (11-9, 3-5), including 18 points and 10 rebounds during a 73-60 loss Saturday at Arkansas.
Coach Cuonzo Martin credited the uptick to Stokes’ renewed vigor in workouts. And his work on the glass has helped Stokes generate looks close to the rim — without needing a direct post feed from the wing to initiate offense in the lane, either.
“It’s hard to get the ball in the post sometimes when teams have guys hovering around and doubling him,” Martin said. “What he’s done is go get offensive rebounds, and it’s opened his game up. It also helps other guys, like (forward) Kenny Hall, when you tip those balls and keep them alive.”
In early January, Tony Barbee trumpeted renewed optimism on the Plains after a 2-0 SEC start and competitive finishes against Illinois and Florida State.
Now Auburn (8-13, 2-6) hasn’t won in three weeks and, with rival Alabama (14-7, 6-2) and Kentucky (15-6, 6-2) on deck, it doesn’t figure to be a fun seven-day stretch for the Tigers.
Barbee seemed to take a positive tack Monday.
“You can get spinning any direction,” he said. “If you spin in a good direction, it just builds off itself. If it goes in the other direction, it’s hard to stop. We’re trying to find a way to get out of the funk we’ve been in. We’ve had some chances in some close games, and there have been some games where we haven’t given ourselves a chance.”
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