COLUMBIA, S.C. — On the morning of Feb. 15, 2013, Frank Martin heard his cell phone ring. The first-year coach at South Carolina snatched his iPhone and heard his longtime friend, Buzz Williams, on the other line. Martin figured Williams, then the head coach at Marquette, was calling to talk hoops. But Williams had a different conversation in mind.
The night before, Williams had watched Martin's Gamecocks suffer a 64–46 loss to LSU on national television. He saw South Carolina drop to 2–9 in SEC play, after which a dejected Martin compared his players to zombies during his postgame press conference. Martin, who'd come to the SEC after four NCAA tournament trips in five seasons at Kansas State (171–117), wasn't used to losing this often. So Williams had called to ask his friend a simple question: Are you O.K.?
Martin laughed, assuring Williams he was fine. But Williams pushed back. "'I saw your game last night. No, you're not,'" Martin remembers Williams saying. "And I said, 'What do you expect when you're getting your head bashed in every night?'"
At the time of Williams's call, South Carolina had lost five straight games, and Martin needed no reminder of his new program's futility. The Gamecocks were nowhere near contending in the SEC, but Williams implored his friend to abandon the most basic of coaching instincts: Don't focus on winning at this point, Williams advised. Instead, determine which players will define the program's future, and develop them.
Before hanging up, Williams offered one more piece of advice: Go fight for what you want South Carolina to be. "I hung up the phone," Martin says, "and that registered with me."
Three seasons later, Martin has made South Carolina what he wants it to be. The Gamecocks are 17–1 overall and 4-1 in the SEC, good for second place. They started the season 15–0, earning their highest ranking in the AP poll (No. 19) since 1998. With its 77–74 overtime victory at Ole Miss on Tuesday, South Carolina has already matched its win total (17) from last season. Now Martin has the Gamecocks testing their own historical boundaries; the program has reached the NCAA tournament just once since '98, and it has only one SEC regular-season title ('97) to its name.
Soon South Carolina must answer the question that confounds the rest of the SEC: Is this team for real?
Frank Martin didn't understand the confusion. He didn't understand why anyone would question his choice, in March 2012, to leave Kansas State and replace Darrin Horn at South Carolina. Sure, Martin had enjoyed a solid run with the Wildcats, averaging 23.4 wins per season, reaching four NCAA tournaments in five years and earning an Elite Eight spot in '10 on the heels of a school-record 29 wins. Meanwhile, South Carolina hadn't had a winning season since 2008–09.
But reports alluded to a rift between Martin and Kansas State athletic director John Currie, a relationship that had grown tense due to issues like pay for assistant coaches and visions of the program's overall image. When South Carolina introduced Martin in March 2012, the coach flatly denied those rumors, instead commending Currie and the Wildcats' administration. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks' then-athletic director, Eric Hyman, had pulled a full-court press in recruiting Martin to Columbia. "I get invigorated by a challenge," Martin told reporters during his introductory press conference.
It wasn't long before Martin realized just how much of a challenge he'd inherited. On Nov. 11, 2012, South Carolina hosted Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Martin's first regular-season game at Colonial Life Arena, which boasts a capacity of 18,000. The coach emerged from the pregame tunnel to see no more than 3,000 loyalists dotting the cavernous arena. The home-court atmosphere was so deflating, Martin and his players could hear the entire phone conversation, word for word, of a fan seated across from their bench during a timeout.
At halftime, South Carolina ventured to the locker room facing a 15-point deficit. Before addressing his players, Martin collapsed in a chair in a corner of the locker room and buried his face in his hands. A lifeless crowd, an inept roster, a lengthy rebuild ahead—the sudden weight of his new job almost smothered Martin, who feared he'd made the wrong career move. What have I gotten myself into? he thought.
During Martin's first two seasons, South Carolina amassed a 28–38 record, winning just nine of 36 SEC games. It never ranked higher than 115th in either adjusted offensive or defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. The Gamecocks suffered losing streaks as long as six games during both years. But most disconcerting to Martin was the level of complacency that permeated the program, both inside and outside the locker room. "This program was broken," he says. "It was irrelevant on our own campus. So how can we expect anyone outside our own campus to think we're any good?"
At least one person within South Carolina's basketball offices understood Martin's challenge. Women's basketball coach Dawn Staley arrived in Columbia in 2008 to take over a program that had gone 20–60 in regular-season SEC games during the previous five seasons. Staley, who'd been to the previous five NCAA tournaments as head coach at Temple, mirrored Martin with losing seasons in her first two years at South Carolina. But she eventually broke through with a Sweet 16 run in her fourth year, and today the Gamecock women are 17–0 and ranked No. 2 in the country after enjoying a trip to the Final Four last season.
Staley and Martin clicked almost immediately. They shared adjacent offices in Colonial Life Arena prior to a move by the women's staff, allowing Staley to evolve into a valuable advisor for her older counterpart. She'd stop in to offer support and serve as a sounding board for Martin's rebuilding strategy. Staley routinely sent encouraging texts to Martin following tough losses; during road trips, her name was the first to pop up on his phone after a long flight. But more than anything, Staley reminded her friend to trust in his own process, never allowing himself to succumb to self-doubt. "You pull your hair out," Staley says. "You think you made the wrong career move. But what it does as a coach is, it teaches you how to be patient. It teaches you how to lose."
On March 1, 2014, near the end of Martin's second season, unranked South Carolina beat No. 15 Kentucky, 72–67. Those Wildcats went on to win 29 games and play in the national championship against Connecticut. The Gamecocks finished 14–20 on the year, but they closed with four wins in their last six games, a finish sparked by their marquee upset over Kentucky.
By the end of that season, the fruits of Martin's recruiting were beginning to bloom. His first signing class featured four forwards: Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius, Mindaugas Kacinas and Brian Steele. A year later the coach inked guards Justin McKie, Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell. All are still with the program, and every one but McKie is a regular contributor. Early on, though, Martin had nothing tangible to sell his signees; instead, he asked them to weather the storm and trust in his staff's process for a turnaround. "You think about it and you're like, do we really have a shot?" says Thornwell, who signed with Martin despite the team's 14–18 record when he was a high school senior. "He told us there would be some rough times. Now it just shows the sacrifice and commitment we all put into the program. It's all paying off."
Last season South Carolina posted its first winning record (17–16) since 2009. It entered the summer with momentum, an intact core and a signing class that featured McDonald's All-America guard P.J. Dozier. Dozier's signing was a watershed moment for Martin; the Columbia native and the state's 2014–15 Gatorade Player of the Year picked the Gamecocks over power programs like North Carolina, Louisville and Georgetown. Martin made a late in-home visit that helped seal a commitment from Dozier, whose father, Perry, and uncle, Terry, both played for the program. Dozier's sister, Asia, is also a wing on South Carolina's women's team.
Even with Dozier's arrival, the Gamecocks' roster included most of the same players from the year before. The difference was a renewed level of focus. "You had more guys staying for the summer, more guys working on their game," Thornwell says. "It was more of family—playing more pickup, getting into the gym as much as we could."
That sense of camaraderie exists off the court, as well. Thornwell uses his spare time to take on Carrera, his roommate, in Madden 16 matchups on PlayStation 4. From meals on campus to trips to the mall, the Gamecocks are rarely without each other's company. "At the end of the day, you don't spend time with people you don't respect," Martin says. "If I don't respect you, I'm not spending any of my personal time with you. That told me they respect each other. If you have that, it's hard to fail."
That recipe sparked mild expectations surrounding Martin's fourth season in Columbia, and the Gamecocks wasted no time surpassing them. They started the season 6–0 by winning the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, beating DePaul, Hofstra and Tulsa en route to the tournament title. And they kept winning, entering the New Year undefeated.
On Jan. 2, South Carolina beat Memphis, 86–76, to finish its nonconference schedule 13–0, its best start since 1933–34. As the wins piled up, Martin's players began to recognize what felt like a special season. "It really hit us after the Memphis game," says the junior Thornwell, who leads the team with 12.1 points per game. "Were like, dang, we're really undefeated in nonconference play." A bond began to form between the program and its fans, as well: The Gamecocks have averaged 14,493 fans in their last three home games, and players wear warmup shirts sporting the words "EIGHT OHHH THREE", a nod to Columbia's area code.
The Gamecocks soon began to notice an evolving vibe of acceptance on campus. Chatkevicius, a lanky 6'11" Lithuanian, used to lament when passersby snapped pictures of his walks to class. He knew no one cared about South Carolina basketball. "I just felt like they were taking pictures because I'm tall," Chatkevicius says. "That would make me mad." But now, as hoops has taken ahold of campus, the senior Chatkevicius, who averages 10.8 points and 4.9 boards a game, has felt an uptick in attention, hearing shouts of Great job, keep it up! daily, rather than weekly. Now those camera-happy students aren't as much of a nuisance. "They can take all the pictures they want," Chatkevicius says.
South Carolina suffered its first loss of the season on Jan. 13 in a 75–50 setback at Alabama, halting its unbeaten start at 15–0. The Gamecocks had committed 18 turnovers and shot a dismal 36% from the floor against the Crimson Tide. But Martin and his players wouldn't allow a deflating loss to undermine their next game; instead, they beat Missouri 81–72 and followed that with the overtime road win at Mississippi. How the team rebounded from disappointment is one of the more telltale signs of growth. "In the last couple of seasons, this would've been, like, an eight-game losing streak," Thornwell said after the Missouri game.
Learning to win—or more importantly, how to manage success—has positioned South Carolina as a team poised for SEC contention. The Gamecocks' next task is getting the country to believe they can maintain their new trajectory. They currently rank first in the SEC in rebounding margin (plus-9.5) and fifth in scoring (78.4 points per game), up from 10th last season. They boast a balanced offense, with four players averaging between 12.5 and 10.5 points per game. But South Carolina has yet to notch a head-turning win this season. Its 69–65 victory over Vanderbilt on Jan. 9 serves as its highest-rated victory, per kenpom.com, but the Commodores are a seven-loss team.
Martin, a veteran of four NCAA tournament runs as a head coach, knows South Carolina has yet to prove it belongs in the Big Dance. "We've still got a ways to go," he says. "We can't be worried about Elite Eights, Sweet 16s, first round, 12-seeds, five-seeds. Heck, we haven't [reached the tournament] since 2004. We haven't won a game in the tournament since 1972. We're not there yet."
But in some ways, Martin's job is half-finished. Conference foes can no longer ignore South Carolina on the SEC calendar. That's why Dawn Staley no longer needs to offer that same therapeutic support she used to. To Staley and those most familiar with the program's history, Martin, finally, has built South Carolina into what he wants it to be.
"I don't text Frank as much anymore," Staley says. "I don't want to jinx them."