By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
Frank Martin admits he had Chris Silva all screwed up.
Silva, South Carolina’s first-team All-SEC forward, got off to a terrible start this season, struggling with his shot, not rebounding and even struggling to play the type of rim-protecting defense that made him the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year last year.
And with its big man lost, the Gamecocks struggled as a whole, slogging through an ugly 5-7 non-conference schedule.
“I messed him up,” Martin said.
Martin watched Silva emerge as one of the best players in the country last season, but he wanted more from his 6-9 senior forward. He wanted him to lead, too. And the mild-mannered big man from Gabon is a bit too shy and timid to be the type of in-your face leader Martin was looking for.
“Chris is as loyal a kid as I’ve been around and all he wants to do is please,” Martin said.
Martin had watched Siva grow by leaps and bounds in his first three years at South Carolina, playing a key role on the Final Four team in 2016-17 and then emerging as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder as a junior. He expected even more from him this season and when Silva got off to a slow start, he pushed him to step up his game and do more.
But the approach back-fired as Silva scored in double figures in just two of South Carolina’s first seven games and was constantly in foul trouble — an old problem that reared its ugly head again.
Martin couldn’t understand why his star forward was suddenly playing his worst basketball since his freshman year.
“He’s never flat-lined, never dipped. I expected that to continue and I put too much pressure on him,” he said. “In reality, he had improved so much it was time for him to kinda settle down a bit and I was trying to get him to keep going and he wasn’t comfortable with keeping going and that created confusion for him.
“Then I started pressing him to do more and I finally realized, ‘Frank, you are not helping him,’ because now he’s not doing the things that he’s really good at, which is guarding ball-screens, which is rebounding, protecting the rim, getting to the foul line, playing like a hoss around the basket. He’s not doing those things because I’ve got him spooked.”
So Martin and Silva had a heart-to-heart talk.
“That’s the great thing about coaching. You get to a place with players where you can have real conversations with them and they are honest with you and tell you stuff,” Martin said. “That’s kinda what we did. I told him, ‘Chris, I messed this whole thing up. Let’s hit stop and start again.’ And then I told the whole team that. And it gave Chris some credibility that I’m the one that screwed the whole thing up and I think he respected that and the players respected that.”
Silva’s game has started to return in the past month. In his last four games, he scored 18 points against Clemson, 21 in a win over North Greenville and then 18 — including the game-winning dunk — at Florida. He followed that up with an 11-point, 12-rebound performance in a win over No. 14 Mississippi State Tuesday.
“He’s really playing well right now,” Martin said. “He’s playing at a high, high level again.”
And so are the Gamecocks. After upsetting Florida on the road, Carolina played its best basketball of the season Tuesday to start 2-0 in SEC play. And its two big men led the way, with junior forward Maik Kotsar complimenting Silva with a career-high 25 points and nine rebounds.
Martin also had to work his coaching magic on Kotsar, pushing him to be more aggressive and play with confidence. It worked as he scored six of his game-high 25 points in overtime to lead the Gamecocks to victory.
“I hope that this gives him confidence because now when teams really want to focus in on Chris, it gets real hard to have to deal with both of them in there,” he said. “Hopefully, it is something he can continue.”
With Silva playing better, it has allowed him to become a better leader for the team’s young players. Martin compares him to former Gamecock star Michael Carrera, who became Carolina’s senior leader once he started playing better and earned the respect of his teammates.
“As soon as I showed Chris the right way, Chris has just taken over,” Martin said. “Chris is remarkable in what he is doing right now, in practice and demanding of his teammates. … Chris has kinda gotten that. He has been real good with that.”
So have Kotsar and senior guard Hassani Gravett, who have both followed a similar pattern. Gravett has also developed into a similar leader and has given the Gamecocks a consistent scoring threat from the perimeter. He had 17 Tuesday as South Carolina had five players in double figures.
"Kotsar killed us," Mississippi head coach Ben Howland said Tuesday night. "Their guys that played on that Final Four team all stepped up and had big games for their team."
“Those three guys, I was real hard on them last year to lead and they weren’t ready,” Martin said. “All three have taken big steps in that direction this year, especially in the last three or four weeks.”