Frank Martin was rolling, but he paused a few times for interaction.
“When’s the last time a No. 3 team in the country came into South Carolina for a nonconference game?” he asked a group of media members. “When’s the last time an ACC school other than Clemson came to this building for a nonconference game?”
After a brief silence proved no reporter could answer the questions off the top of their heads, Martin carried on with his point.
“We’ve worked real hard to make those things happen,” he said.
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There were two stories stemming from USC’s 69-52 loss to No. 3 Virginia on Wednesday night at Colonial Life Arena. One, the result itself – a predictable overwhelming by a team that’s 41-3 over its last 44 games. The Gamecocks were within four points of the Cavaliers at the 18:23 mark of the second half, but trailed by double-digits from the 15:27 mark on.
The second story was hardly a sidebar. Sparked by a question that referenced why Carolina was snubbed from the 2016 NCAA Tournament, Martin went on a defensive rant about his scheduling strategy and how the media’s framing of his current team has impacted attendance.
“We need to change the (rhetoric), we need to change the wording of what we’ve done,” Martin said, “so our fans get excited, so they understand I got a bunch of young bucks that are fighting their tails off to give us what we deserve.”
The 2018-19 Gamecocks are 4-6 and on a three-game losing streak entering Saturday’s rivalry clash with Clemson (8-3) at CLA. This is USC’s worst 10-game start in five years. A variety of factors have led to this, including injuries, attrition, inconsistent play from an All-SEC forward and a challenging schedule.
The Gamecocks faced the undefeated Cavaliers on Wednesday without four scholarship players who have combined for 113 career starts. Don’t expect to see a return of Jermaine Couisnard (sitting for academic issue), Maik Kotsar (concussion), T.J. Moss (high ankle sprain) or Justin Minaya (knee injury) on Saturday.
Can some promising freshmen – A.J. Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant, Alanzo Frink – combine with tested veterans like Chris Silva and Hassani Gravett to give Carolina a much-needed win? That’s a question that’s asked ahead of this Clemson matchup – but will also likely surface when the Gamecocks get into SEC play next month. That’s the reality of this particular season.
“You want to say I don’t know what I’m doing this year,” Martin said Wednesday, “I get it. We stink. We’re not playing well. But for anyone to refer back to the work that’s been done with a negative (connotation) … that’s not my deal.”
South Carolina is averaging 10,168 fans for home games this season. A visit from the Tigers as well as nine SEC teams should boost the numbers, but the Gamecocks haven’t finished a season with average attendance below 11,000 since 2013-14.
A season-high 12,291 showed up Wednesday, though Martin felt there was a pro-UVa vibe.
“We continue to speak on that negativity, and it’s hard for me to overcome,” Martin said. “That’s why we got more Virginia fans than South Carolina fans in our game today. This reminded me of my first year here, when we’re out-numbered.”
Martin was named the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year in 2017 after leading Carolina to the Final Four for the first time in program history. When USC went 17-16 a year later, it meant the Gamecocks had four straight winning seasons for the first time since 1977-81.
Such success, Martin said, is what allowed USC an opportunity like Wednesday’s.
Answering Martin’s previously unsolved mystery, Virginia was the first top 3 nonconference opponent to come to Columbia since No. 2 Ohio State on Dec. 17, 2011, a season before Martin arrived. The Cavaliers were the first ACC foe not named Clemson to play a regular season game at CLA since Boston College on Jan. 1, 2011.
This is the first time the Gamecocks are playing ACC opponents in consecutive games since a North Carolina-Clemson combo in December 1996.
“When we scheduled the game with Virginia, when we agreed to the game, they were No. 1 in the country when we agreed to this home and home,” Martin said Thursday on his “Carolina Calls” radio show on the Gamecock Sports Network. “To be able to get the team that was No. 1 in the country at the time to start a series here in Columbia is an unbelievable thing and something we should all be proud of.
“Now we gotta follow that up with (Clemson).”
Clemson (8-3) at South Carolina (4-6)
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Colonial Life Arena
KenPom prediction: Clemson 74, South Carolina 71
Radio: 107.5 The Game in Columbia area
Series: South Carolina leads, 90-78
Last meeting: Dec. 19, 2017 — Clemson won 64-48 in Clemson
Projected starters: Clemson — G Clyde Trapp 6.3 points per game, G Shelton Mitchell 14.5, F David Skara 8.1, F Aamir Simms 11.2, C Elijah Thomas 13.9
South Carolina — G A.J. Lawson 13.6, Tre Campbell 5.0, Keyshawn Bryant 8.3, Felipe Haase 6.2, Chris Silva 11.1
Note: Clemson guard Marcquise Reed, the Tigers’ leading scorer at 19.4 ppg, has an “outside chance” to play Saturday. The senior’s missed the last three games because of a knee injury.