Coach Frank Martin and the South Carolina Gamecocks took to the floor for the first time as a complete team since the debacle that concluded their season against Mississippi State in the SEC tournament last season, looking to improve on the 14-18 (4-14) mark they achieved their first year under the former Kansas State coach.
Martin doesn't view last season as a failure, as others might. "You might view last season as a struggle, I viewed it as laying a foundation. Some people might say you're team wasn't any good, and I'm going to tell you I thought we were OK. If you want to judge me and my team based on our record, that's fine, you have that prerogative. We laid a foundation for what we're about - it's not about disregarding last year, it's not about disliking last year, it's about embracing last year and continuing to build.
According to Martin the goals for this team in the early going is to get the players to understand what the team wants to do. "This kind of speeds up a little bit now. This isn't as laid back and as slow as the summer maybe, the first 3-4 weeks were."
The initial practices are building off the work done this off-season. "We been throughout the summer and the first 4-5 weeks, whatever it's been, 2 hours a week, trying to teach the parts of the whole, then teach the whole, then connect those parts, and then hopefully a month from now resemble a basketball team."
The Gamecocks bring a young squad into the 2013-14 season, with seven freshman joining the four returning scholarship players, as well as transfer Tyrone Johnson. Martin described the squad as ready to go on day one: "The excitement comes like I said before from those guys that played last year, that sense of urgency. Here's what happens - all the guys that played last year, they have one less year that they can say they got college basketball left in their system, they have less games that they're ever gonna play, so that sense of urgency grows in them and it filters down to the first-year guys. And those first-year guys love to play so it's a heckuva marriage right now."
As Martin explained, "new guys is part of the business." However, dealing with roster rotation is a fact of life in college basketball, and the Gamecocks don't intend to use that as an excuse for how the season unfolds. "The part that makes the business easier to do year-to-year is the returning guys, and we have a core of guys that played major minutes last year that understand, they comprehend me, I comprehend them, there's direction now for those first-year guys where last year none of those guys had direction, I was trying to figure them out, they were trying to figure me out."
One of those returning guys is team leader Michael Carrera
, who had a big freshman season, and who according to Luke Winn of SI.com may be poised to breakout
with a huge sophomore year. Last year, Carrera put together a fine freshman campaign despite nagging injuries. Martin explained that when emotional players like Carrera get hurt, "that emotion tends to take you to places you don't want to be at. That's what happened to him sometimes last year - he couldn't sustain and then that emotion would lead to bad fouls, and he'd lose his focus on what we were trying to do and get wrapped up in his own moment. Based on what I've seen in one-hour practices - which is all we've done - he's way ahead of where he was at last year because he can sustain effort right now. So we'll see, what makes Mike special is that emotion that he brings to the table every day. That's also his weakness. As he continues to mature as a player, how he manages that will determine how good he can become."
Ultimately, the Gamecocks hope to find themselves building on the work they put in both last year and in the off-season. Martin once again noted the program faces a long climb from where it started when he arrived. "Listen, when I got hired here, we were in dead last place in this league. We weren't going from last to first in 3 months. It takes work, it takes building, it takes patience, and we're right in the middle of that right now. Last year was a great great thing to be a part of to make us appreciate how much work we have to do and how far we've come already."