COLUMBIA, S.C. — Frank Martin stared out onto the court, eyes bulging at who-knows-what mistake one of his players just made, then dropped his head into his hands in exasperation.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
In a way, the scene was all Martin — intense, emotional and always entertaining. But in the past, he’d be flanked by a frenzied swarm of purple-clad fans at Kansas State’s Bramlage Coliseum with his defensive-minded team — built completely in his image — feeding off his anger and passion.
Instead, Martin was watching his South Carolina team get hammered 90-68 by Missouri in a half-empty building in late February. And for all his prodding, there was nothing he could do about it.
“We have to upgrade our talent level,” said Martin, who left K-State for South Carolina last March. “We need to instill the kind of program that we want to be, just the culture you’ve got to have.
“We spent six years building that at Kansas State, and it was at the point where the players were starting to hold each other accountable. We’re still trying to create that peer pressure to have … the work ethic, attention to detail, the pride and passion and all the things you’ve got to have to build our program.”
It has been a tough first season for Martin, whose Gamecocks are the No. 12 seed in the SEC tournament after finishing the regular season 14-17 overall and 4-14 in the conference. They will play No. 13 seed Mississippi State in the first round at 6:30 Wednesday night in Nashville, Tenn.
But Martin, who was 117-54 in five years at K-State and led the Wildcats to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, doesn’t regret his decision.
“I’m extremely happy where I’m at,” said Martin, a Miami native. “I’ve got more access to my family and my wife has more access to her family during the course of the season compared to what we used to have.”
Martin said it’s much easier for his 14-year-old son who lives in Florida to visit on weekends. When Martin coached at K-State, the trip could take six to seven hours each way.
“He gets on a flight and an hour and 20 minutes later, he’s in town,” Martin said. “It’s just a lot easier for our family to get to us and for us to get to them.”
Still, Martin has managed to keep a watchful eye on this year’s Wildcats, who just completed a 25-6 regular season and won a share of the Big 12 title, their first conference regular-season championship since 1977.
“I check up and watch them anytime I can,” Martin said happily, his voice rising in earnest. “Sometimes it gets difficult, because I’ve got a professional job to do … I’ve got to prepare my team, watch my team on film as much as I can and I’ve got to watch the next opponent, and you get consumed with the job. If I paid more attention to the Kansas State team than the guys I have now, I’d be cheating my guys, and I can’t do that.
“But anytime I get to step away and be a fan, I love watching those guys play. It’s a great group of kids.”
The group Martin inherited at South Carolina has a long way to go, but he does see some positives. Start with the play of junior guard Bruce Ellington, a receiver for the football team whose numbers aren’t gaudy (9.7 points and 2.8 assists per game) but brings the level of toughness Martin likes.
“He’s one of those guys who’s a rarity,” Martin said. “To have somebody that’s such a gifted person, that’s got a strong will and incredible personality … and to be able to do what he’s doing at a high major school in two different sports, there’s not too many people who can do it.”
Martin also singled out freshman forward Michael Carrera, who averages 10 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds.
“Michael has no idea what he’s doing, he’s just a freshman,” Martin said with a laugh. “But he’s an awesome kid. He wants to do right, but he doesn’t understand how to do right yet. But he’s got tremendous spirit.”
And spirit, in a way, has yet to come back to South Carolina basketball games. Colonial Life Arena has a capacity of about 18,000, but the Gamecocks have been drawing about half that for the better part of the season.
But while Martin’s current home-court advantage doesn’t compare to the frenzied atmosphere he left behind in Manhattan, he’s optimistic that one day opponents will fear coming into Columbia in a similar way.
“We’re not there yet,” Martin said with a laugh. “But it’s happened here before. You couldn’t get a basketball ticket here back in the ’70s, ’80s. … It was known as one of the most difficult places to play in, the old Frank McGuire Arena. …
“But football is 85,000 every single game. Baseball is standing-room only, 9,000 and change, every single game. And those programs put out championship-level products, so as we upgrade our program and reconnect with our fans, I have no doubt those fans will come out the way the used to come.”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, send email to email@example.com or call 816-234-4489. Follow him at Twitter.com/TerezPaylor