Martin must re-focus team, turn Arkansas setback into a positive

Frank Martin
Frank Martin

Sindarius Thornwell could see this coming.

So could head coach Frank Martin.

The No. 21 South Carolina Gamecocks fell to SEC foe Arkansas 83-76 at Colonial LIfe Arena Wednesday night, losing a second straight home game for the first time in two years.

Yet this game was lost at practice on Monday. Martin knew it. So did Thornwell, the team's senior leader and best player.

That's why Martin, the fiery head coach who has led South Carolina to 20 wins this season, walked out of practice on Monday.

He walked out of practice for only the second time in his 33 years as a head coach. Martin figures he has coached more than 3,300 practices in those 33 years, and he's only walked out only twice.

USC stumbles against Arkansas

He did on Monday as South Carolina prepared to play 18-7 Arkansas.

"That should tell you how discouraged I was with where we were at as a team," Martin said Wednesday night.

Martin could tell on Monday that his team's mindset and focus were not where it should be. He walked out, he said, so he would not add to the negative vibe he felt, possibly dragging his team down even more.

"Our spirit and mindset has not been good," he said. "I walked out of practice because I wasn't going to be negative. Those kids have laid it on the line to help us be a good team. But it was so bad and so lackluster and lacking in competitiveness and spirit and enthusiasm that I just left after an hour and a half. I was going to become negative, and I wasn't going to do that.

"They had been real good, so I tried keep 'em in a good place and positive, and obviously that didn't work."

That's what bothers Martin most about his team's sixth loss of the season, one that knocked his team out of a tie for first in the SEC with Kentucky and Florida.

"It's not the loss, it's our team's mindset right now that is disappointing," he said.

Thornwell, who had another outstanding game Wednesday and is a leading candidate for SEC Player of the Year, could feel it, too. He was not surprised that his team played poorly against an Arkansas team that entered the game fifth in the SEC and 4-4 on the road.

"It was our preparation. We didn't have the best practices we could have had coming into this game," Thornwell said. "We didn't prepare like we have been. Our focus wasn't there coming into this game. … I kinda know how the game is going to go by how practice goes, and our focus in practice wasn't there."

Despite a strong start, South Carolina blew a 14-point lead in the first half and allowed a 25-2 run that gave Arkansas a 39-32 halftime lead. The Gamecocks shot just 37 percent in the first half and 43 percent for the game.

But the most troubling aspect of the loss was the absence of the team's vaunted defense. The Gamecocks have held opponents to 38.7 percent shooting from the field this year, but Arkansas shot 53.6 percent. The Razorbacks made 7 of 14 three-point attempts against the best three-point defense in the country.

To Martin, such a setback is all about effort, toughness and focus.

"To play the way we play, you have to play with unbelievable enthusiasm, toughness, discipline, and we've done that for most of the year," he said. "We have not done that here as of late. It's unfortunate, unfortunate that somehow we have lost the one thing that we control, which is our mojo, our enthusiasm for what we do, we have lost that right now."

What concerns Martin most, and has to frighten Gamecock fans, is the sense of deja vu they must be feeling.

The Gamecocks went 25-9 last season, a school record for wins, but missed the NCAA tournament by losing five of its last eight games. With its second loss in three games — and two straight at home — Gamecock fans have reason to be worried. They all must be thinking the same thing: "Uh oh, here we go again."

Martin understands.

"We lived this road last year," he said. "So all the guys who were on the team last year, it's not their first rodeo. They understand what happens at this time of year. Our focus right now should be better than it was in November and December. Unfortunately, it's not."

So what does Martin and Thornwell, the senior team leader, do now? Martin's has challenged his players to step up and regain their focus. And he's challenging team leaders like Thornwell to lead the comeback.

An old-school coach, Martin knows what he would do if he were a player.

"If I had a uniform, I promise you, people would have it back," Martin said. "There would be a couple of guys who wouldn't be real happy with me if I were their teammate. Actually a whole lot of guys. But, I don't wear a uniform.

"… We, us, coaches and players, we have to reconnect with who we were for four months, not who we have been for the last eight days or so. Guys on the team have to take ownership of that. They took ownership most of the year. That's why we were good. We're still a good team … but, as of late, it hasn't been there."

Martin, the coach, will do his part by trying to restore the focus and enthusiasm and find a way to get his team to reconnect and turn a negative experience into a positive.

"I'll be a miserable human being for the next 12 hours at my house staring at the ceiling," he said. "It's my job to figure out between now and the time we walk on the court tomorrow how to impact this team in a positive way."

**Story by Jeff Owens/Photo by Allen Sharpe**