Friday, March 24, 2017

Frank Martin's defensive mindset leads to Elite 8 payoff for South Carolina

Frank Martin's defensive principles continue to pay dividends, as his South Carolina team dispatched Baylor Friday night to reach East Regional final. (Photo by The Sporting News)

NEW YORK -- Attitude comes first.

With those three words, Frank Martin instilled a focus on an aggressive, yet suffocating defense at South Carolina, one that has taken on a life of its own as the calendar drives deeper into the month of March.

"We've got to have guys that are going to believe in our mission," a soft-spoken but impactful Martin said in the wake of his Gamecocks' latest masterpiece, a 70-50 lockdown of Baylor inside Madison Square Garden that sent South Carolina to its first-ever regional final. "Once they believe, then we can teach them the technique. It all starts with our mindset. We've got guys that are completely bought into what we do."

The shared commitment to excellence on the defensive front was evident within minutes, as the Gamecocks engaged in a rock fight through the opening stages of the first half before slowly, methodically, putting the clamps on and subsequently tightening them. An 18-0 run turned a two-point deficit into a comfortable 16-point margin that never shrunk to less than 11, with a 14-3 spurt effectively icing the outcome along with a scant 30 percent shooting effort that the Bears were rendered into while conjuring difficult-to-watch visuals of the resident basketball team in this building, the New York Knicks.

"We pride ourselves on our defense," Sindarius Thornwell proclaimed, his 24 points getting cast aside for the more impressive team effort. "We know that's our bread and butter. We go out and guard. We know it's a 40-minute game and we know teams are going to make runs, but we can't take our foot off the pedal."

"We can't control if the shot goes in, we can't control the referee making calls, but what we can control is our hustle; our heart, effort, and how hard we are on defense," Duane Notice added. "We pride ourselves on our defensive schemes, and we want to implement them every chance we get."

The defense-centric style of the Gamecocks may not always be pretty, and for the first minutes of the opening stanza Friday, it was far from a Monet or Rembrandt masterpiece, but beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.

"It's beautiful to us, which is what matters," said Martin. "We love it, this is what gives us our edge."

And for Martin, who reached the regional final seven years ago at Kansas State and has vowed not to; in his own words, mismanage the practice between Friday and Sunday the way he did in 2010, it only took five games to see the potential in this year's group.

"When we played Michigan, I left that game and I said, 'this team has a chance to be the best defensive team I've coached.' That was my thought process when I got home and broke that film down."

South Carolina surrendered only 46 points to John Beilein and the Wolverines, who eventually reached the Sweet 16, on that November 23 night at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia. The front line that was tasked with the responsibility of replacing three four-year stalwarts in Michael Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius has overcome their question marks, with freshman Maik Kotsar providing the biggest contribution to stopping Baylor.

"My concern had been our big guys, because they're so young," Martin admitted. "But hopes are like tonight, Kotsar, he took on (Johnathan) Motley. That was his matchup, and I think he did a heck of a job of not letting Motley get going in the game."

But as for his team in general, now one win away from an improbable Final Four run fueled by taking no prisoners and playing with the same intensity their coach projects?

"It's the best defensive team I've coached in college basketball as a head coach," Martin firmly stated. "No doubt."

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