FAYETTEVILLE — South Carolina has struggled under coach Frank Martin for most of the season, entering the week tied with Mississippi State for last in the 14-team Southeastern Conference with a 3-9 record.
But Arkansas coach Mike Anderson has been around Martin enough to know what type of challenge Arkansas will face against the Gamecocks on Wednesday.
“His teams are going to be intense, physically aggressive,” Anderson said. “We know it’s going to be a physical ballgame.”
South Carolina, which started 1-9 in SEC play, has relied on toughness to enjoy some success after beating Vanderbilt and Alabama over a three-day span last week. It has helped the Gamecocks improve to 3-9 in SEC play, put together their second win streak this season, and enter Wednesday’s game at Arkansas with confidence.
It’s no surprise to SEC coaches like Anderson, who know Martin’s track record while at Kansas State. Physical basketball was a staple for the Wildcats under the intense Martin, who was once a bouncer before beginning a full-time coaching career.
It’s starting to bleed over at South Carolina.
“They’re a physical, bruising, I would say, a Big 12 basketball team,” said Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy, whose team suffered an 80-52 loss at South Carolina. “Frank’s done a good job in a short amount of time of getting his guys to buy in to how he likes to play. They’ve got some nice, young players. They’re going to do a good job on the offensive glass. They’re playing their best basketball at the right time of year.”
The process hasn’t been easy for South Carolina, which was 5-21 in SEC games under Martin until its recent two-game success.
The Gamecocks have eight first-year players on the roster this season. Twelve of the 14 players who have appeared in at least one SEC game are freshmen and sophomores. So there have been growing pains, but Martin has stressed improvement and toughness as he molds the young group.
“I’ve never coached according to our record,” Martin said. “We could be 36-0, and I’m going to coach according to the mood of our team. It’s just the way we do things. I rarely speak to our players about records. I rarely speak to our players about the previous game, whether we won or lost. I speak to them about things that we’re doing right, things that we’re doing wrong, things we need to get better at.
“I try to keep my focus on the present day and the next challenge.”
It begins with guard Sindarius Thornwell, who has established himself as one of the best young players in the SEC this season. The 6-foot-5, 206-pound guard is averaging 17.3 points in SEC play, using his strength and athleticism to score.
Thornwell has improved as a shooter as well, knocking down 34.9 percent of his three-point shots in conference play (15-for-43). But toughness is his calling card.
“That’s why he’s taken the leadership role of our team,” Martin said. “He and I, we’ve connected and he believes in what I believe in. And I believe what he believes in. And that’s why he’s having the success he’s having as a player.”
South Carolina’s next challenge is breaking through on the road, where it is 0-9 this season and 1-18 under Martin. The closest the Gamecocks came to a road victory in conference play this season was during an eventual 75-71 loss at Ole Miss.
Martin said “everyone is in good spirits” with the recent success, but the Gamecocks know it will take toughness to keep its win streak intact at Arkansas.
“You can go into Arkansas with the Lakers and you better have a great night to try to figure out a way to win,” Martin said. “It’s one of the great homecourt environments. … It’s going to be extremely hard for our guys. But you have to be excited about those challenges. If you’re not excited about the opportunity, about the possibility of going in there and doing everything you can to figure out a way to win, if you’re not excited about that, then you’re not going to be any good as a competitor. Is it a hard challenge? Absolutely. But we’re excited about it and we’re going to go out there and do everything we can to figure out a way to score one more point than Arkansas.”
Anderson said forward Moses Kingsley remained “day-to-day” after suffering sitting out the LSU game because of a hip injury.
“(Sunday) was an off day so we’ll see (Monday),” Anderson said. “It’s going to be a day-to-day prognosis on him. It’s a day-to-day situation. So hopefully we’ll find out here in a little bit if he can do anything.”
Kingsley suffered the injury in last Thursday’s loss at Missouri. The Razorbacks leaned on Bobby Portis, who played 35 minutes, Coty Clarke, Alandise Harris and Jacorey Williams in the frontcourt without Kingsley on Saturday.
Kingsley is averaging 4.4 points and 3.6 rebounds a game this season.