Frank Martin was in casual wear Wednesday, his untucked white short-sleeved short hanging over the top of his black slacks.
The South Carolina coach winced when his 51-year-old knees had to squeeze their way underneath a tiny high-top table in the corner of a crowded room in the Omni Hotel.
“Bad knees,” he muttered to himself. “Bad knees.”
Once settled, Martin, reflecting his attire, delivered a relaxed half-hour question-and-answer session with reporters. It was SEC media day, and the last to carry the league flag a season earlier wasn’t flinching.
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He didn’t care that the Gamecocks, coming off a Final Four run, were picked by media members to finish 11th in the SEC preseason poll.
He lost 73 percent of the scoring from the historic 2016-17 squad, but said he’s about to lead the “best shooting team” in his head coaching career, five years at Kansas State included.
He doesn’t have any preseason All-SEC selections, but he was quick to note he didn’t have any last year, either. “And last time I checked, the coaches voted (Sindarius Thornwell) the unanimous player of the year,” Martin said, recalling last year’s postseason results. “The media voted him co-player of the year.”
So expectations might be low around the Gamecocks, but Martin is confident his guys can once again succeed. He has a track record to prove it.
“I could care less where we rank,” Martin said. “I might be happy if we’re 11th because the league is so good. But I know this: I’ve been a coach 10 years, we’ve been in the postseason seven of the 10 years.”
The SEC sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament last season and another three to the NIT. Martin’s been to both while in charge of USC, a feat that’s not lost on his peers.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Mississippi State coach Ben Howland, a three-time Final Four participant with UCLA. “He started from the very bottom there taking over. Their first three years were very difficult years. And he really turned it in his fourth year, just missed the NCAA Tournament.
“And then in Year 5, his first year going to the tournament, they go to the Final Four.”
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy goes back a few decades with Martin. The two worked together at Cincinnati. When the South Carolina job opened in March 2012, Martin reached out to Kennedy for advice. He helped sell his buddy on Columbia.
“I vetted it for him and told him that I think it’s a job with tremendous potential and I thought he was the right man to get it done,” said Kennedy, the dean of SEC coaches.
“I know we all have doubts as we go through the process of building, but to see it culminate in that fantastic run, to do something historic, man, I was so excited for him and so happy.”
But can the celebration continue through this season?
Thornwell’s gone, as is P.J. Dozier and Duane Notice, among others. The media voted the Gamecocks to have a down year. Coaches are saying otherwise.
“I think South Carolina’s gonna be really good as long as Frank Martin’s there, period,” Howland said. “He’s got a system, a style that is built to sustain itself over a long period of time. So they’re going to be very good here as long as Frank’s the coach.”
Kentucky’s John Calipari, the man behind the league’s most talented roster on an annual basis, spoke with a touch of fear Wednesday upon learning of Martin’s early evaluations of the USC offense.
“Frank,” Calipari said, “he and I talked about his team a little bit, and he just said it was the best shooting team he’s had. You know they’re going to defend, you know they’re going to be tough – now they can shoot the ball, you know they’re going to be good.”
Martin – and his players – agree.
“We’re just kind of building on the foundation that he’s set since he’s came to the school,” said junior guard Hassani Gravett.