COLUMBIA — South Carolina basketball has a new coach in fiery Frank Martin and perhaps a new on-court leader in transfer LaShay Page.
Martin was hired in March to right the free-fall of the past four seasons under former coach Darrin Horn. Martin believes his inexperienced team will develop savvy and toughness from Page, a senior who left Southern Miss to spend his final season closer to his hometown of Dillon.
Page helped the Golden Eagles reach the NCAA Tournament last season, where they fell to Martin’s Kansas State club.
“The best part about it is having the opportunity to play in front of my family and having my friends come down,” Page said.
Page understands he’s a new face on the club, but hopes he can teach the younger Gamecocks how to play hard in the pumped up Southeastern Conference. Page, a 6-foot-2 guard, averaged more than 11 points and three rebounds last season at Southern Miss. He shouldn’t have much trouble adapting to Martin’s style because Page played for coach Larry Eustachy, who joined Colorado State this past offseason and shares Martin’s bent for intense defense and maximum effort.
“Just hard-nosed coaches who preach offensive rebounding, defending rebounding,” Page said.
Page welcomes the chance to make an impact in the locker room. “It’s different players, a different staff, but the same me,” he said. “My leadership, leading the younger guys. I really look forward to that.”
The Gamecocks will need some direction. They went 2-14 in SEC games last season to finish at league bottom. They were picked 13th in the SEC this year, predicted to finish ahead of only Mississippi State in the new 14-team league.
There was plenty of upheaval on the Gamecocks after Horn’s dismissal and Martin’s hiring. The team’s top two rebounders from a season ago transferred, Damontre Harris to Florida and Anthony Gill to Virginia. Second-leading scorer and starting point guard Bruce Ellington chose to return to football after announcing before Horn’s firing he’d concentrate on only basketball.
Only six of the 15 players on this year’s roster saw significant minutes a year ago. That hasn’t dampened their desire, Martin said, to improve from last year’s 10-21 mark.
“The players have been great. I couldn’t ask for them to be more excited, more enthusiastic, to compete as hard as they compete,” he said. “They’ve been phenomenal.”
Martin wouldn’t guess about the season’s record – “What was that lady who came on TV and made all those predictions? Miss Cleo? She got paid to make predictions and she got put in jail,” Martin says – only guaranteeing that his players would go hard on each and every possession.
If they don’t, get ready for the famed Martin glare – a laser-like mix of disappointment, anger and understanding that you’ll get it right next time.
“We’ve seen it throughout the preseason,” guard Eric Smith said. “I think everybody can handle it. It just keeps us going hard.”
Martin said Ellington would not rejoin the club until football season was complete, including the Gamecocks’ likely bowl game. Last season, Ellington played a handful of games in December between the end of football season and the Capital One Bowl.
Martin, as he did in five seasons at Kansas State, will build the Gamecocks on defense. “Our foundation, who we are, who we’ll be every single time we take the court, is the aggressiveness with which we play defensively,” he said. “We have to be sharp there.”
Once those tenets take hold, Martin believes the offense will follow.
Count on Page to pick up the scoring slack left by last year’s top scorer, Malik Cooke. Sophomore Damien Leonard, a highly regarded shooter who chose to stay after the coaching change, believes the team will surprise people with their intensity and talent.
“(Martin) pushes me every day. Even if I’m right, he’s still going to have something to say,” Leonard said, grinning. “I like it.”
Martin’s pleased with Page’s help in improving the Gamecocks. But “I can’t place the responsibility of leadership on someone who doesn’t want that job,” Martin said. “He’s kind of evolved into that himself.”