For the uninitiated masses in the Southeastern Conference footprint, South Carolina coach Frank Martin’s persona might inspire admiration among football-crazed zealots.
Oozing intensity, the hulking Martin dresses down officials, jams meaty index fingers into players’ chests, and can resemble an action-movie villain underling.
LSU coach Johnny Jones saw it up close in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament as coach at North Texas during a 20-point loss to Kansas State, Martin’s former employer.
Keen on knowing Jones’ assessment of Martin’s players?
“They’re going to adopt his personality or they aren’t going to be there long,” Jones said Monday.
Granted, Martin’s tone has been more dulcet in his first year trying to salvage the struggling Gamecocks, who arrive to face LSU at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center — a meeting between two teams hunting for their first Southeastern Conference victory after two tries.
Part of Martin’s lower decibel level stems from a team battling a propensity for turnovers and fouls in adjusting to a faster-pace offense and more rugged, risk-taking defense. It’s a transition that presents LSU (9-4, 0-2), an opportunity to curb an early tendency for prolonged scoring droughts caused by muddling through stilted half-court sets.
The Gamecocks (10-5, 0-2) turn the ball over 17.6 times per game, which is 10th-worst in the NCAA, allowing opponents to convert them into 17.7 points. Against Auburn on Saturday, Martin’s team had 15 turnovers, part of a string of recent performances where the Gamecocks reverted to form after improving ball security near the end of nonconference play.
“We battled that early in the year, and started doing a lot better job with that (in) the later part of December,” said Martin, whose team has committed at least 15 turnovers in 12 games this season.
“Then we go into Mississippi State and have 24 of them, and it’s hard to win (at) home, (on the) road, or if you’re only facing three guys when you do that.”
On the defensive end, a system reliant on tough guarding and an emphasis on getting into the passing lanes can lead to fouls when players rotate late on the perimeter, whistles denying post-entry passes, and free throws for contesting shots at the rim.
Opponents get to the free-throw line on roughly 42.1 percent of their field-goal attempts against the Gamecocks, which is No. 291 nationally according to kenpom.com, and score 15.1 points per game at the foul line.
“Fouling is never a good defensive play,” Martin said. “Getting guys to understand our defensive system and how we play it, which is a little more aggressive, (means) earlier in the year we tend to foul a little bit more.”
Translation: Martin’s squad gives up almost of half of its 68.5 points per game chasing down foes or watching helplessly as the flick their wrists for uncontested looks at the free-throw line.
“The way they play creates some foul opportunities,” Jones said. “They overplay a lot. Sometimes when you try to get to the rim, because of the rotation, they may get there a little bit late and foul you. You get into the foul count early and get into the one-and-one.”
Sounds like a sublime situation, right?
After Auburn and No. 10 Florida stymied LSU with zone defenses, limiting the Tigers to 34.8 percent shooting, any other alternative is preferred.
“We’re going to run and gun, and we don’t like to be slowed down,” LSU sophomore guard Anthony Hickey said. “Teams have been slowing us down more, and that’s something we’ve got to continue to work on. I’m glad that we’ll have that chance this game.”
And LSU possesses the personnel to force the action into the open floor against the Gamecocks, who have turned the ball over on 25.5 percent of their possessions this season. Hickey is second nationally in steals per game at 3.55, while LSU’s average of 10.5 ranks seventh.
Part of South Carolina’s issue has been the natural process of adapting to Martin’s style. Since 2009, his teams have ranked between No. 278 and No. 333 nationally in opponents’ free-throw rate. The past two seasons when he was at Kansas State, the Wildcats turned the ball over on roughly 21 percent of their offensive possessions, ranking 239th last season.
The issue is compounded now by trying to work senior Bruce Ellington back into the mix at point guard after he wrapped up the football season earlier this month.
The Gamecocks’ Michael Carrera has also battled a chronic hip injury that has him in and out of a lineup where four starters commit a turnover at least 25 percent of the time when a possession runs through them, according to kenpom.com.
Martin’s usually short tolerance is more lenient, though, because of the 14.5 points per game and athletic presence provided in the open floor by Ellington in SEC play and the nearly 16 minutes per game Carrera brings off the bench in a thin seven-man rotation.
Case in point, Ellington’s nine turnovers against Mississippi State in a 56-54 road loss in South Carolina’s SEC opener.
“Reintroducing them to what we do will take a little time to get them on the same page as everybody else,” Martin said. “But they also bring some special qualities we need as a team.”
In trying to re-acclimate, Ellington and Carrera might also prove short-term liabilities defensively and set up “a breakdown because a guy’s not sure about something; it puts you in a vulnerable situation,” Martin said.
It’s exactly what Hickey wants to hear.
“We need to attack the rim more as a team more and get our confidence back and get to the free-throw line,” Hickey said.