Frank Martin has done some very good things as a college basketball coach. The latest of those is making South Carolina relevant once again and on the verge of NCAA Tournament contention, something that continues as non-conference play is winding down.
The Gamecocks completed another 2-0 week with a 65-69 win over Clemson in Greenville on Friday night, improving to 10-0, their best start since 1933-34. They are the only undefeated team in the SEC at this point, and although all non-conference schedules are not created equal, this is the latest sign of progress under Martin. That’s also not to cast their record in the wrong light, because it’s not like they have only beat up on teams with RPIs north of 300.
South Carolina doesn’t have a great NCAA Tournament resume right now; they have yet to beat a team that is a lock for the NCAA Tournament. But that’s not the point. They have actually played a sneaky-good schedule, putting together an RPI of 39 entering the week having knocked off Oral Roberts (entered the week with an RPI of 31), Tulsa (RPI of 45) to win the Paradise Jam, and Hofstra (RPI of 63). They don’t have a single win over a team with an RPI north of 300, in fact. A few of those wins might well look better later on if teams like Oral Roberts and Hofstra win their conferences.
Martin has always been about defense first, and the Gamecocks have bought in. He loved what he saw even before the season began, but you never know how that will translate. Well, it’s translated into opponents shooting 38 percent from the field and an SEC-leading rebounding margin of 10 per game, although the latter is something Martin noted after Friday night’s win. Clemson had 15 offensive rebounds in the game, and that helped them try to get back in it. Martin said defensive rebounding might be the reason why they lose a game later in the season if they don’t fix it.
When Martin took the job, it seemed an odd choice for a guy who had seemingly found a home at Kansas State given the success he had there. South Carolina has had plenty of success before, but is the odd case of an SEC school smack in the middle of ACC country. The SEC of late has come to be dominated by Kentucky and Florida, with other schools having splashes of success but hardly coming out of the shadows of the Wildcats and Gators. Martin, however, has always taken a great interest in the entire athletic department at schools; when he started his college career as an assistant at Northeastern, he got close to other coaches in the athletic department and loved to pick their brains. When one would leave for another job, it was not easy for him. At South Carolina, he joined an athletic department that had a national championship baseball program, a football program with legendary head coach Steve Spurrier (who recently retired) and a woman’s basketball program with one of the biggest names in its history in Dawn Staley. You have to think he looked at this and saw a world of potential, both for himself in terms of growth and for the program given their success in other sports.
Three non-conference games remain for South Carolina, with a non-Division I game sandwiched between a trip to Connecticut to play St. John’s and a visit from Memphis. Being 10-0 means this team has more confidence, along with already having more talent. It wouldn’t be shocking if they entered SEC play at 13-0, or at least 12-1. Martin has improved the talent base, and every year they have knocked off a top team or two, proving that they can compete. This season, the Gamecocks look ready to do more than just compete, and a good spot in the SEC is very much there for the taking.
A power outage delayed the start of the game, but once they got going, Ole Miss ran out to a 12-point halftime lead and held on for an 85-79 win over cold-shooting Memphis. The Rebels had five players score in double figures to overcome a 29-point outing from Ricky Tarrant Jr. and 21 points and 14 rebounds from Dedric Lawson.
Only days after a nice home win over Syracuse, St. John’s was routed at home by a relative newcomer to Division I. Incarnate Word, who has scored some good wins in its two-plus seasons of Division I, broke away in the second half for a 73-51 win over the Red Storm.
San Diego State lost another game at home on Friday night, this one a 52-45 decision to Grand Canyon, like Incarnate Word currently in its third season in Division I. Keonta Vernon had a big double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Antelopes. The Aztecs, meanwhile, are 7-5 and have Kansas coming to town on Tuesday night.
Joel Bolomboy continued a terrific season thus far for Weber State with another stat-stuffer on Friday. In Weber State’s 92-82 overtime win over Portland in the Far West Classic, the senior big man had 18 points and 17 rebounds for his tenth double-double in 11 games this season, a feat that only Georgia Tech’s Charles Mitchell can rival thus far with nine double-doubles in nine games.
Southern Illinois continued their best start in a while with an 88-73 win at Murray State, improving to 10-2 on the season behind 22 points from Anthony Beane.
Ohio State will finally get freshman forward Mickey Mitchell on the court when they face Kentucky on Saturday. Mitchell was cleared by the NCAA after being forced to sit out ten games during an investigation that reportedly was not related to academics. Mitchell’s playmaking abilities should help the 5-5 Buckeyes as Big Ten play looms.
Anton Beard will finally get to take the court for Arkansas on Saturday after serving a nine-game suspension due to his arrest on forgery charges during the summer. An SEC all-freshman selection last season, Beard started the final 16 games last season, but the point guard spot now belongs to senior Jabril Durham, who is second in the country in assists. Beard should only help, and the two might well see time on the court together. Arkansas takes on Mercer in North Little Rock on Saturday.
The Mountain West Conference will keep its tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas through 2019, and given the success it has had there, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they re-up there again for more years later on. The bigger news is that starting in 2017, the conference will now only have its top eight teams compete in the tournament, which means the bottom three teams won’t be heading to Sin City. It makes a certain amount of sense for many conferences to only give their strongest teams an opportunity to snag the automatic bid that comes with winning their tournament, although the Mountain West in recent years has been a consistent multi-bid conference, meaning they have had strength a ways down their ranks.
With final exams over, we’re now in a busy stretch during which a number of teams play multiple games right before Christmas. Saturday is a very busy one, with some of the best games coming early on.
- The top team in both polls, Michigan State, travels to Boston for a tough matchup at Northeastern.
- Utah takes on Duke in the Ameritas Insurance Classic at Madison Square Garden.
- Virginia may be home to the two best matchups on the day: Villanova visits Virginia at noon, then at 4 p.m. a little down the road, VCU hosts Cincinnati.
- The CBS Sports Classic is at the Barclays Center and has North Carolina taking on UCLA, followed by Kentucky taking on an Ohio State team that could use a quality win.
- In the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana takes on Notre Dame, then Butler takes on Purdue.
- Arch-rivals meet in Athens as Georgia hosts Georgia Tech.
- Louisville looks to continue their winning ways early on as they host Western Kentucky.
- LSU tries to build off their defense-oriented win over Gardner-Webb as they host Oral Roberts.
- Oklahoma looks to stay undefeated as they host Creighton.
- Northwestern looks to go to 10-1 as they take on DePaul at AllState Arena.
- Miami hosts a College of Charleston team that has been a pleasant surprise with a 7-2 start.
- Xavier looks to stay undefeated as they host Auburn in a matchup that may be better than many expect.
- In the Hy-Vee Big Four Classic in Des Moines, Drake takes on Iowa, then Northern Iowa battles Iowa State.
- Oakland always plays a tough non-conference schedule, and their latest test is a visit to Washington.
- Maryland hosts a Princeton team that is off to a 6-2 start.
- In the Orange Bowl Classic in Sunrise, Florida, Oklahoma State meets Florida.
- An old Big 12 matchup is on tap later as Baylor travels to Texas A&M.
- Coming off a loss to Arizona State, UNLV travels to take on the Sun Devils’ arch-rival, Arizona.
- Three more games late at night are worth checking on: Tulsa takes on Oregon State in the Far West Invitational in Portland, Tennessee meets Gonzaga in Seattle, and Stanford hosts Texas.