If you follow South Carolina basketball, you know that Frank Martin is never completely satisfied.
He’s always pushing his players to do more, especially his young players. But he’s proven his tough love approach works, especially in 2016-17, when he took Gamecock basketball places it had never been before.
“What he was able to do here with the run to the Final Four in 2017 is incredible. It’s like my daughter going to the moon,” said North Alabama head coach Terry Pujol, whose team fell to Martin’s Gamecocks in their season opener Wednesday night.
Martin is introducing his demanding style to a host of talented new players this season, and though he admits there’s a big learning curve they face, he is intrigued by what he has seen so far.
Four newcomers played big roles in South Carolina’s 77-55 win over North Alabama in the season opener. The Gamecocks host Wyoming at Colonial Life Arena Sunday at noon.
Point guard Jair Bolden, a transfer from George Washington who sat out last season, had 14 points, eight rebounds and no turnovers in his Gamecock debut.
Guard Jermaine Couisnard, a redshirt freshman who missed last season due to academic issues, had nine points, four rebounds, two assists and hit a big 3 in the second half.
Two freshmen also played big roles. Forward Jalyn McCreary had nine points and four rebounds off the bench, while point guard Trae Hannibal had five points, an assist and two steals. A third freshman, 6-11 Wildens Leveque, was impressive in the team’s exhibition game but missed the season opener with a minor toe injury.
Martin evaluated each of the newcomers after the game, challenging them to improve in critical areas but also expressing confidence in the young group.
Bolden, he said, needs to be more aggressive, especially in handling the ball and running the offense.
“He’s got a bad habit that he wants to play at his own pace and he’s gotta … it’s part of his learning process, he’s got to get out of that. He’s got play at our pace.”
Couisnard is a talented scorer and has also been the team’s best perimeter defender in practice. But he did not demonstrate that tenacious effort on defense against North Alabama.
“First game out, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “… He’s a really good player and he’s the toughest, most consistent guard on our team and he’s got to play that way.”
Though they both struggled at times, Bolden and Couisnard also made big 3-pointers in the second half as the Gamecocks put together a 14-0 run to pull away.
“When we kinda popped the game open, who were the two guys who jumped up and made 3s?” Martin asked. “They are going to do that for us as the year goes on. Jair has got to understand the pace I’m asking him to play at and Jermaine has to understand how to put those things together.”
McCreary also showed flashes of being a big-time contributor for South Carolina. He eight points late in the first half — four off offensive rebounds — to spark the Gamecocks to a 10-point halftime lead.
Martin loves McCreary’s energy, work ethic and attitude. He even compares him to a young Chris Silva.
“He has no idea of anything that we’re doing, none. And I’m trying really, really hard to get him to understand,” he said. “But he’s a great kid who cares. He calls me everyday and says I need to come see you because I don’t understand. I tell him … ‘Jalyn, here’s the deal, you are going to get confused, I understand, it’s part of the deal, all freshmen go through this. What you can’t do is not play with that aggressiveness that you possess. When you see the ball, go get the ball. When we shoot, go rebound. Defensively, work your tail off and understand what we are trying to do. And as you grow, you will keep playing because of those things.’
“That’s why you saw him out there. … He’s going to help us win games. He’s an unbelievable kid and I’m going to keep playing him and I’m going to keep aging in dog years in the meantime, but that’s OK. It’s all worth it, I signed up for the job.”
Martin faces the same challenges with Hannibal, a high-energy point guard who scored 62 points in a high school playoff game last year. Hannibal has also struggled adapting to Martin’s system but has shown flashes of being a productive player. In one two-minute stretch in the second half Wednesday, he had two steals that he converted into baskets, including a crowd-stirring dunk.
“I tell him every day, he has to learn what we are doing,” Martin said. “The days of just gambling and going for a steal and breaking your team defense down, you can’t do that anymore. Offensively, not knowing what structure we are running, ‘just give me the ball, I’m going to do my thing,’ it doesn’t work. You think that is going to work against Kentucky and Tennessee and all those guys? He’s got to mature that way.”
But, like Couisnard, Martin likes the tenacity the freshman point guard shows on defense.
“The one thing that he did do, he’s the one guard that actually put up a fight and guarded the ball,” Martin said. “So he created some loose balls for us. He went out there and said you are not going to screen me and you are not going to beat us off the dribble. He gave us life. Credit him that he was able to do that.”
To Martin, Hannibal is similar to most talented freshmen.
“He’s like all young kids, they are worried about the YouTube moment instead of making the right play, and that’s where his growth has to come,” he said.
Martin believes the mistakes his young newcomers are facing are merely a matter of maturity and learning to play at the major college level.
“Immaturity has different phases to it and the immaturity our team struggles with is the learning part, the mental discipline and command to learn so we can get better,” he said. “We think that the stuff we did in high school can work here and it’s not going to work here.”
But he’s also intrigued and excited about what he sees.
“I’ve got some really good dudes,” he says.
Pujol, a former South Florida high school coach and close friend of Martin’s, was impressed with Martin’s young players and believe the head coach will take them a long way.
“I like his team. His team is very deep,” he said. “… If you know coach Martin, he is going to get those guys right. … His depth is going to be hard to deal with.”