Saturday, March 25, 2017

Back in Elite 8, Frank Martin determined to make most of second opportunity

Frank Martin returns to Elite 8 for first time in seven years, and is intent on changing ending with his South Carolina team as they stand on precipice of Final Four. (Photo by USA Today)

NEW YORK -- Frank Martin still scratches the seven-year itch, more so this weekend given the stage on which his South Carolina team prepares to take Sunday afternoon.

It was in 2010 that Martin, then the head coach at Kansas State, coached in his first; and to this day, only regional final, leading the Wildcats past Xavier in a double-overtime thriller and into a matchup against Brad Stevens and then-national sweetheart Butler.

What happened in between is something the 51-year-old, now in his fifth season at the helm of the Gamecocks, rues seven years later.

"We got back to the hotel at 2:30 in the morning and we were assigned the practice time," Martin began, retelling the tale of Kansas State's journey in Salt Lake City. "We could have chosen to practice at a different site, but we don't play at those other sites so I wanted to practice at the facility, and they gave us the time they gave us, and we found out that the Kentucky-West Virginia game was picked to be the game put on prime time. So then, they made our game the first game out of the chute."

"Less than 36 hours after we arrived at our hotel, we were back playing Butler," he continued. "We had to go play them, and we slept walked the whole first half, and I'll never forgive myself. That in-between practice, because of the time we got back, how soon we had to play, we went on the court and we did nothing but shoot balls and walk through things, and that's not the way we practice. I told myself if I'm ever in the same situation, I've got to practice our guys the way that we've trained for six months, not any way differently."

Martin has his chance at personal redemption Sunday, when he leads South Carolina into battle against Florida in the East Regional final at Madison Square Garden, the first all-Southeastern Conference regional final since 1986. Having split their regular season series with the Gators, who needed a Chris Chiozza buzzer-beater to get past Wisconsin, the Gamecocks have a greater understanding of the task at hand, one that Martin believes will offset any possible concerns of being overwhelmed by the atmosphere.

"We're playing a team we know," he reaffirmed. "We're not playing the moment. We're playing the Florida Gators, a team that we beat and a team that beat us, too. We'll be very confident in who we are. These guys didn't hide when we couldn't beat the chairs you're sitting on, (and) they're definitely not going to hide now that they have confidence that we're a good team."

Win or lose, Martin has seen his team take him on the ride of a lifetime, one he is cognizant of through the commitment he has both given and received to a program no one expected to even land on the same block as a potential Final Four appearance, let alone the doorstep.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you I never expected this to happen," he admitted. "I dream a lot, just to make me understand that I have to take advantage of that day in front of me. I just take advantage of the next day, and that's what I try to tell our players."

"I can't tell them this, but I'm in an unbelievable ride right now," he shared in Saturday afternoon's pregame press conference. "These kids have just refused to not believe, refused to listen to outside voices, and they have committed to each other. Because of that, we're in an unbelievable moment right now, and I owe it to them to give them every ounce of energy I have left. That's what happens when you invest as much as these kids have invested in it."

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