Yusuf English exhausted himself over the course of two hours Saturday afternoon. The Hartsville High School basketball coach wasn’t just guiding the Red Foxes to a win against Nation Ford, he was all but playing the game with them.
English did short sprints when Hartsville got in transition offense. He got down in a stance when the Foxes matched up defensively.
When it was all over, English, voice hoarse and black polo covered in sweat, shook hands with the state’s leader in sideline animation.
“The fact that Frank Martin is actually here is huge,” English said. “Whether he’s here to see my guy or somebody else, the fact that he’s in the gym is a definite plus.”
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Martin is eight months removed from taking South Carolina to the Final Four.
The run last spring was a peak moment for USC. The Gamecocks not only won their first NCAA Tournament game in 44 years, they won four of them and nearly squeezed in a national championship appearance.
Martin was put on a platform he had never been on in his coaching career. He used it to cheerlead, sure, but the former high school math teacher also wanted to educate.
“I’m trying to build basketball in our state,” Martin said on the nationally syndicated Dan Patrick Show before the Gamecocks beat Baylor in the Sweet 16. “Our state has some great high school coaches that have done it for a long time, but never got the recognition for it because our university hasn’t had postseason success. … Because of that moment, that tournament in our state, we can grow basketball in our state. It makes it easier for us.
“There’s young kids right now that want to be Sindarius Thornwell, that want to be P.J. Dozier, local kids that stayed on board and are making unbelievable things happen.”
At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Martin will lead USC (8-2) against Clemson (9-1) in Littlejohn Coliseum. The 168th renewal of the state’s top college rivalry gave an excuse for a reporter to ask Martin how he’s seen South Carolina develop its basketball culture, revisiting what the sixth-year Gamecocks coach told Patrick.
“I don’t know if I have an answer there,” Martin said last week at Colonial Life Arena. “I spend a lot of time with high school coaches in the state. I know (Clemson coach) Brad (Brownell) tries to do the same. We support all the AAU teams in the summer. We go up to their games. Brad’s there and I’m there.
“We try to recruit the kids in the state, but I don’t know. I really don’t know how it’s progressed. I think you’d have to ask some of the high school, travel ball coaches and see if they think our effort in building our programs and trying to do our part in giving back to basketball at the grass roots level, if that has impacted their programs a little better.
“I don’t have an answer there.”
English’s best player at Hartsville is 2019 point guard Trae Hannibal. In front of both Frank Martin and USC assistant Chuck Martin, Hannibal scored 23 points, grabbed nine rebounds, recorded six steals and made five steals as Hartsville beat Nation Ford by 12.
Hannibal has an explosive skillset that’s made him attractive to the likes of Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Wake Forest. But it’s only USC that Hannibal sees a piece of every day in practice.
“I saw a story where Frank puts a treadmill in practice,” English said, “so guess what I did the next day? I put a treadmill in practice. And since then, the kids don’t mess up because they don’t want to get on the treadmill.
“You take ideas and stuff from people here and there. Frank’s influencing me without even knowing it because I never met him until today. I knew his assistant coach from coming to practice, but I never met him until today.
“I’ve become a fan of them because of the way they play. And I think the kids are as well.”
Chuck Martin (no relation) was hired by Frank Martin in June. Chuck Martin’s past coaching stops include Indiana, Marist, Memphis and St. John’s. He only entered South Carolina for the occasional summer AAU event.
He’s sitting in gyms now that he previously never had on his radar.
“Whether it’s done purposely or not, the practices that I’ve been at, defensively it looks like they’re trying to be like South Carolina,” Chuck Martin said. “Like really hard ball pressure, kind of playing the way we play, which is really neat to see. It’s usually a sign of respect. We respect your program so much that we’re trying to emulate some of the stuff that you’re doing. That’s what it seems like to me on the outside looking in.”
From 2008-12, Cypheus Bunton served on Darrin Horn’s USC staff. He’s now an assistant at Spring Valley High School, the place where Dozier became a McDonald’s All-American before helping the Gamecocks to the Final Four.
“From the time we came in until now, it’s been a dramatic change,” Bunton said of South Carolina basketball. “There’s more kids that I think are capable of playing at a high level at a big-time college.
“I think Frank Martin is doing an extremely good job of keeping these kids here in the state, which you have to. If it’s a state school, you have to do a great job of keeping these kids here.”
After Frank Martin watched Hannibal on Saturday, he went to Cardinal Newman-Gray Collegiate Academy to spot other noted ’19 prospects Juwan Gary and Chico Carter Jr.
Tuesday – on the eve of football’s early National Signing Day – he teams with Brownell to keep the state promotion going.
“Frank and I both have a ton of respect for each other,” Brownell said. “We’re both not natives, so we both knew what we were getting into. And it’s a little bit of an adjustment, but it’s something we’re both certainly passionate about and want to improve.”
Who: USC (8-2) at Clemson (9-1)
When/where: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson
How to watch: ESPN2