Fourteen years ago, first-time head coach Frank Martin took over the Kansas State men’s basketball team and coached without a contract.
Thrust into the role after Bob Huggins left for West Virginia, Martin had no job security, no safety net and very little margin for error. He also had a star freshman in Michael Beasley, who would help lead the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament in a decade. That postseason run landed Martin a contract, and he would go on to make the tournament three more times in four years.
Now, nine seasons into a head coaching stint at South Carolina, Martin says he feels in some ways like he’s back to Year 1 at K-State.
Rumors swirled about Martin’s job status for nearly a month after the Gamecocks (6-15, 4-12 SEC) ended a tumultuous season played during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though both Martin and athletic director Ray Tanner have publicly downplayed the nature of those negotiations, the two-year contract extension Martin signed speaks for itself.
There’s no raise, for either year. There’s no buyout in the extension either, meaning USC could terminate his contract without taking a financial hit. Martin’s buyout remains in place for the 2021-22 season, but the sides agreed to lower it from a maximum of $3.3 million to $3 million.
Put in other terms: This upcoming season is a prove-it year.
And that’s not something that Martin has shied away from. After signing the extension, Martin reflected on what he called a “crappy job” of coaching during the pandemic. He admitted the contract wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but he also talked about the excitement he had about starting fresh and hitting the “reset button.”
“I know what the things I don’t do right are, and I’m gonna fix them. And I know what the things our program needs because it’s my program, and I’m gonna fix them,” Martin said. “And does that mean we’re gonna win next year? No? Does that mean I’m gonna be the coach three years from now? No. It just means, like my first year at K-State, I’m going to do my job as hard and as well as I ever have. And I will take this day by day. It’s how I live my life, and it’s how I’ll live this next year.”
From three separate COVID-19 shutdowns, to losing a player for the season, to Martin testing positive for COVID-19 twice, the 2020-21 season was chaotic from beginning to end. And with the NCAA’s new transfer rules eliminating the one-year waiting period for student-athletes to play, the offseason has been equally chaotic across college basketball. More than 1,500 Division I players entered the transfer portal, including five Gamecocks.
While much can still change between now and November, that flurry of activity seems to finally be slowing, and the Gamecocks appear to have a core in place for next season. What will that roster look like? And will it be enough to get USC back on the winning track?
Frank Martin’s returning core
The Gamecocks will undoubtedly miss juniors A.J. Lawson and Justin Minaya, two key team leaders and lineup mainstays over the last three years. Lawson signed with an agent and declared for the NBA Draft, while Minaya transferred to Providence College. The Gamecocks also lost guards Trae Hannibal and T.J. Moss and forwards Jalyn McCreary and Trey Anderson to the transfer portal, all of whom played primarily off of the bench.
While Lawson, the team’s leading scorer, won’t return, Martin expects to return some offensive firepower in the form of forward Keyshawn Bryant and guard Jermaine Couisnard. Both players entered the NBA Draft process without signing agents, but Martin said he expects both to ultimately report to campus and play at least another year.
Bryant evolved into a more complete player and team leader as a junior, finishing just behind Lawson with 14.4 points per game and showing an improved mid-range shooting touch. Couisnard, meanwhile, shot just 30.2% from the field after a strong freshman season. Martin has consistently praised Couisnard’s leadership and said the guard’s play could have been impacted by the death of a close friend back home early in the season.
One of the most devastating effects of COVID-19 on last year’s team was the loss of junior big man Alanzo Frink, whom doctors ruled out for the season after playing only three games. His absence left USC thin and inexperienced in the frountcourt.
Martin said doctors are optimistic that the 6-foot-8, 264-pound forward should be able to return to action next season, and he figures to anchor a frontcourt that should also return 6-foot-10 forwards Wildens Leveque and Tre-Vaughn Minott. Both players had expanded opportunities to play in Frink’s absence and showed increased comfort near the end of the season.
Leveque finished with a career-high 14 points in the SEC tournament, after struggling in the year in his newfound starting role. Minott, a freshman signee out of Canada who joined midseason, was out of basketball shape after not playing for months and will need to tighten up his 280-pound frame. However, he showed an ability to score inside, earning him three starts at the end of the season.
The one wildcard for USC is senior guard Seventh Woods, who tore his groin at Kentucky to end his season. While eligible to play another year for the Gamecocks, Woods has not yet made a decision, focusing on his health first, Martin said.
New arrivals for South Carolina
There’s a common theme among the cluster of new faces Martin and the Gamecocks will welcome to Columbia this fall.
“Shooting was the No. 1 thing,” Martin told SportsTalk Media Network in a recent radio interview. “I thought we were not a very good shooting team the last two years. … So when scholarships became available, better shooting was something very important to me.”
The numbers agree with that assessment, as last season the Gamecocks finished 14th in the 14-team SEC with a 41.5% team field-goal percentage and 12th with a 30.5% shooting clip from beyond the arc.
Five new guards are expected to join the roster, each with outside shooting potential. Martin can’t help gushing about incoming freshmen Devin Carter and Jacobi Wright every time he talks about them, calling both “phenomenal players who can really shoot it.”
The son of 13-year NBA guard Anthony Carter, Devin Carter is a smooth athlete at 6-foot-4 with NBA genetics on his side. Martin has routinely called Wright, an in-state recruit at Legacy Charter in Greenville, one of the most underrated point guards in the class.
“No. 1, they’re really good,” Martin said. “No. 2, they’re my best recruiters.”
During the offseason, Carter and Wright have both reached out to USC’s transfer targets, helping to mold the team and build chemistry before even stepping on campus.
The Gamecocks coaching staff added four veterans through the transfer portal — three of them guards with outside-shooting feel. Washington 6-foot-3 guard transfer Erik Stevenson had been on Martin’s radar since he saw him in action two seasons ago, while playing for Wichita State. Stevenson scored 19 points to lead the Shockers to a 70-42 win over the Gamecocks in November 2019.
He’ll compete for minutes in the backcourt with Columbia products Chico Carter Jr. (Cardinal Newman) and James Reese (A.C. Flora), who transferred from Murray State and North Texas, respectively. With the Gamecocks unable to find consistent point guard play last season, Carter could enter the starting conversation. He caught fire at the end of the season for Murray State, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 37% from the 3-point line in his last nine games.
“One’s a point guard, one’s an off guard. They both play with a tenacity and with athleticism,” Martin said. “Those two guys are going to bring tremendous toughness, character, talent, shooting. I’m excited for both of those guys, along with being local kids. Both at the end of the day, their dream was to play at South Carolina.”
And neither player hesitated to commit to the Gamecocks, even while Martin’s job status was up in the air.
“I wasn’t really worried about the rumors,” Reese told The State. “Because obviously USC has been to an NCAA tournament. They got the formula. Coach Frank Martin’s got the formula. He knows how to get there. It’s just having the players, and he can get there. So I just feel like that’s where we come into play. We’ve got to make something happen.”
The Gamecocks added depth to their frontcourt, as well, with the addition of George Mason graduate transfer forward A.J. Wilson, a defensive specialist who could provide much-needed experience inside. TaQuan Woodley, a 6-foot-7 forward out of Camden, New Jersey, is the team’s third freshman signee, and Martin said he brings rebounding chops and physicality.
Who are the real Gamecocks?
Nothing was normal about the Gamecocks’ 2020 season. Even Martin’s demeanor and coaching style differed from years past. Known for his fire and emotion, Martin was noticeably subdued and calmer. He said former players like P.J. Dozier, Sindarius Thornwell and Chris Silva would see him sitting silent on the sideline and later call Martin, asking him, “You OK, man?”
Sapped of energy by his second bout with COVID-19 in January, Martin said he likely would’ve opted out of the season if not for the duty he had to his players. Clearly, the condition took its toll, and the team itself lacked the spunk and the edge that are generally characteristics of Martin’s teams.
“They’re not playing ‘Frank Martin Basketball!’” Silva said in a text to The State in late February.
The Gamecocks were far from the only team in the country dealing with those issues. ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla watched similar storylines play out across the country, including for eventual national champion Baylor.
“I know Baylor’s program, quite humbly, better than anybody because I’ve been around it for 18 years,” Fraschilla told The State. “But the team that went into COVID protocol for three weeks, eight guys with the virus, was not the team that we saw for most of the season — until late March. It took them a month to get back to where they looked like Baylor.
“Schools like South Carolina, who were devastated by COVID, it’s not fair to judge their program or coach Martin on this particular year. Now, you could judge him over the long term of his career at South Carolina, including a unique Final Four run, but at the same time any coach whose program has been ravaged by the COVID virus this past year I think deserves a little bit of flexibility, because we went through what was an unprecedented, once-a-century pandemic.”
The Gamecocks haven’t made the NCAA tournament since Martin led them to their first-ever Final Four in 2017, and that dry spell has contributed to a growing restlessness in some segments of the fan base. But Martin is quick to defend his Gamecocks tenure and South Carolina’s status as a winning program. In the five years before the 2020-21 season, USC ranked third in the SEC with 51 conference wins, and the team’s six consecutive non-losing seasons were the most since Frank McGuire coached the team in the 1970’s.
Now, following the tweaks to his contract, it’s up to Martin to prove 2020-21 was an aberration and not the beginning of a trend — a mission he seems to embrace with gusto.
“Every day I get out of bed, I got a chance to do what I do, I’m ecstatic,” Martin said. “I don’t need a contract that gives me peace of mind. Peace of mind comes from the people you’re with, the people you work for, the people you work with, and your health. I’m healthy. I love what I do. I’ve been here nine years.
“I’m not gonna allow the efforts that everyone has put into building this program to end the way last year did. It’s not going to happen.”