Michaux: Gamecocks now a serious player in SEC sports

 

The athletics director called him the “right person” and the football coach called him a “winner.”

Eric Hyman and Steve Spurrier may very well be proven right in the win/loss column about South Carolina’s newest men’s basketball coach Frank Martin. Similar things were spoken of Darrin Horn and Dave Odom as well, and still Martin was called upon to fix the deteriorating Gamecocks program.

But while we don’t yet know if Martin will turn a cellar-dwelling Southeastern Conference program into an NCAA-caliber squad overnight, we can make some very strong assessments about what his hiring means in Columbia.

And what the snagging of the successful Kansas State coach says to me is that South Carolina is a serious player in SEC sports. Martin’s hiring is yet another progression in the sea change of perception of an athletics program that was once considered “cursed.”

These aren’t your father’s Gamecocks anymore. Heck, they aren’t even your older sibling’s. The last couple of years have transformed the school’s reputation from outside by building a solid foundation within. Martin represents an opportunity to shore up the last major unsightly piece of the puzzle.

Spurrier has delivered championship-caliber football to a program that had long been yearning for it. He’s set the bar where an underachieving season can count 11 wins.

Ray Tanner has turned the baseball team into a national power, bringing home back-to-back NCAA titles with a record-setting run through the College World Series.

Dawn Staley took the women’s basketball program to its first NCAA Tournament in nine years and led them as far as the Sweet Sixteen.

Now Martin – who averaged more than 23 wins per season in five years at K-State while leading the Wildcats to the NCAA regional finals in 2010 and the third round this season – has the tools and the personality to make the Gamecocks a factor in the SEC and the NCAAs.

South Carolina is sure enough of his credentials that it ponied up $12.3 million over the next six years and paid a $1 million buyout to lure him away from Manhattan, Kan.

“Our league will miss him,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who is working the Final Four again this weekend representing a state that knows a little something about basketball.

“Our league just got better,” texted Alabama coach Anthony Grant to Martin upon the news of his hiring.

Whether this Frank and his famous stare can restore the Gamecocks to the glory days of another Frank – the legendary McGuire – is a long way from being determined. But just by stealing him from another established major-college program says something. Hyman didn’t have to go the mid-major route (Horn) or pick up an ACC retread (Odom). He opened his wallet and made a big-time coach believe that coming to South Carolina wasn’t a step down or a stepping-stone on the career food chain.

Martin has a tall order building confidence in a team that went 10-21 last season and has lost 24 of its last 27 SEC games. The Gamecocks lose leading scorer Malik Cooke and might still have to share point guard Bruce Ellington with football next season.

But the son of Cuban immigrants – who worked his way through the high school coaching ranks before apprenticing under Bob Huggins at Cincinnati – isn’t scared of a hard challenge. In a conference with outsized personalities like John Calipari and Billy Donovan, Martin will not be a shrinking violet.

He’s already committed to rebuilding a fan base that has largely given up on basketball.

“We will put 18,000 in this place every game,” Martin said of the Colonial Life Arena that has been mostly empty for too long.

While it’s not a given that Martin can do that in a region where football still reigns, the difference is that for once it doesn’t seem impossible in a program that keeps changing for the better.

 

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