There were dark days early in Frank Martin’s South Carolina tenure.
The first season in 2012-13, the Gamecocks lost to Elon and absorbed a 39-point drubbing at Florida.
Martin’s second season featured a cringe-worthy loss against South Carolina-Upstate, capping a 2-5 start to the campaign.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and, it turns out, neither is success in college basketball.
“There were struggles before I got here, so you should expect there to be struggles once you arrive,” Martin said. “Heck, there are struggles when you arrive in a successful program.”
Martin’s teams won only 14 games in each of his first two seasons with the Gamecocks, going 28-38 overall and 9-27 in the Southeastern Conference.
It wasn’t until the third season that Martin — who was 117-54, including a 50-32 record in Big 12 play during five seasons Kansas State before going to South Carolina — started to see the fruits of his labor.
The Gamecocks, who play host to Missouri at noon Saturday on the SEC Network, finished 17-16 last season — above .500 for the first time since 2008-09 — with a flurry at the SEC Tournament, reaching the quarterfinals for the second straight season.
Still, it was impossible to foretell that No. 19 South Carolina would rattle off a 15-game win streak to start this season before Wednesday’s loss at Alabama.
What changed? Not much, except the roster Martin started building four years ago with players such as forward Michael Carrera, 6-foot-11 Lithuanian center Laimonas Chatkevicius and his countryman, forward Mindaugas Kacinas, was allowed to mature.
“They’ve come in every day and gone a long way from losing games as freshmen,” Martin said. “We weren’t very competitive, but they didn’t run away from losing close games as sophomores … (or) last year when we were a borderline top-25 team and then didn’t start well in conference play.”
Instead, Martin stuck with a plan, South Carolina stuck with him and the program finally appears to be on solid footing again.
“If you’ve paid attention to our team, you realize that those seniors have grown tremendously as people first and as players,” Martin said. “They’re the leaders of our team right now. … You have to believe who you are every day and trust what you’ve built with one another. Our guys did that, and I’m real proud of them.”
The Gamecocks now are competitive every night, victorious most and poised to return to the NCAA Tournament for only the second time since 1998.
“We’re still not a finished product,” Martin said. “We’re still a work in progress, but that’s where our focus is at.”
Does South Carolina’s example provide a road map (or least a ray of hope) for Missouri fans, enduring an even more arduous and difficult rebuild?
“I’ve actually talked to Frank a little about this, about building a program, and that’s certainly a great model to follow,” said second-year Tigers coach Kim Anderson, who is 17-31 at his alma mater. “I thought they were pretty good last year. I think they’re real good now. … The key ingredient for him is they’ve continued to pretty much improve every year from year one to year four. I hope that we can continue to improve.”
It’s easy for Missouri fans to feel deflated, especially after the second-worst home loss in program history on Tuesday against Arkansas and the announcement Wednesday that the program faces sanctions as the result of an NCAA probe.
A long, dark night for the Tigers’ program, which featured a depleted roster when Anderson took over, surely feels longer and darker this week.
Martin presumably never had an NCAA investigation hanging like a cloud over the program during those early struggle-filled years, but maybe there’s still something to learn from South Carolina’s success.
“I’m thankful that I get the opportunity and privilege to work at such an unbelievable university that believed in me and gave me a chance,” Martin said. “I don’t ever worry about failure. I worry about doing my job, so I can help young people become better and find success.”
Eventually, the results followed.
Missouri’s coaches and players believe it can happen for them, too.
“I’m really excited for the future here, and I came here because I wanted to win,” freshman forward and Blue Springs South graduate Kevin Puryear said. “That’s my only mission. … My mind has never changed. I’ve always wanted to be a Missouri Tiger, so I’m always going to play my heart out for this school.”