Earlier this week, I wondered whether Frank Martin was regretting his decision to leave K-State.
It wasn't because he was inheriting a young squad that had just posted a 2-14 conference record (10-21 overall) - the worst season for USC since we joined the Southeastern Conference - and which was undeniably the worst team in the league. Martin knew that going in.
Nor was it the fact that he wouldn't retain the services of graduating senior SF Malik Cooke - indisputably the best player on an otherwise lousy team [and the season statistical leader - by a wide margin - in minutes played (960), points (380), steals (51), field goals made (127), field goals attempted (310), free throws made (97) and free throws attempted (121) - not to mention tied for first in defensive rebounds (86), tied for second in offensive rebounds (60) and overall rebounds (146), and also second most in assists (51)]. Martin knew that going in, too.
And it certainly wasn't the way that fan support for hoops was at an all-time low at Carolina - whatever the "official" numbers we reported to the conference and the NCAA, the actual attendance at the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena averaged around 3,000-4,000 throughout the season (except when Kentucky, and to a lesser extent Ohio State, came to town with hordes of visiting fans). He definitely knew that going in as well.
Any of those things would be bad enough, but Frank Martin had more than a few reasons - $11.9 million reasons over the next six years, in fact - to sweeten the bad taste these problems would certainly leave in anyone's mouth. He had to know that 2012-2013 was going to be very much a touch-and-go proposition, and possibly his first losing season as a college head coach (heck, his first sub-20 win season as a college head coach). Daunting, to be sure. But as the fourth highest-paid coach in the league, he could stomach it until he had the opportunity to effect a turn-around - and get the most out of Darrin Horn's kids in the meantime. Or so he must have hoped.
No, what made me worry about whether Martin rued the move from Manhattan, KS to Columbia, SC was that in the weeks following his March 27 introduction as USC's new head coach, he had to watch as the team's three top returning scorers - Bruce Ellington, Anthony Gill and Damontre Harris - all announced in succession that they were not going to be there for the start of the 2012-2013 season (Ellington to play football, and Gill and Harris to transfer).
The defections of Gill and Harris seemed particularly painful - at least from the outside looking in. Most Gamecock fans likely felt that Martin could build around these two highly-talented underclassmen, who were both consensus 4 star players out of high school and our most-heralded signees in Darrin Horn's 2011 and 2010 recruiting classes respectively.
Without Gill and Harris, however, what was shaping up to be a tough 2012-2013 campaign now had all the makings of a Titanic-like debacle. As Connor Tapp asked on these pages: "How comfortable do you feel that a starting lineup featuring Brenton Williams, (intermittently) Bruce Ellington, RJ Slawson, Lakeem Jackson, and Carlton Geathers is capable of improving upon the disaster that was last year's record?"
David Cloninger put it this way: "[Frank Martin] has no go-to scorer, no major post player, no guy he can turn to and say, 'You have to be the leader/shooter/producer, because nobody else can do it.' He has a collection of spare parts and no engine. While he may find a diamond in the rough in these last precious days of the signing period, Martin's main task is to find bodies to fill the roster - anything he can find from the junior-college ranks or from the dregs of the high schools will be better than the alternative."
After all, how could Frank Martin possibly be expected to bring in enough new talent in the spring recruiting session to fill the gaps? Spring recruiting is a notoriously hit-or-miss business, since most of the top prospects tend to make their pledges in the fall recruiting period. Moreover, would Gill's and Harris' defections be seen as a huge no-confidence vote in Martin? Would the handful of recruits we seemingly had a shot at reeling in to Columbia suddenly become dismayed that an already-bad team was now getting even worse before they arrived, not better? Would Martin pay a price in the recruiting wars - as some strongly suggested - by forbidding Harris from attending North Carolina State?
And why in Heaven's name did it seem like Martin was making very little effort to retain Harris, and apparently not talking to Gill, either? Hadn't Coach said: "When I said yes to this job, I understood that I would have to re-recruit the guys who were here. Where was the recruiting of GIll and Harris? Had he tried and failed? Or, worse, was there no hope?
When you looked at how the situation had gone from bad to untenable, couldn't Frank Martin be forgiven if he were to have cast a longing eye back to the program he built at KSU's Bramlage Coliseum? Were all the naysayers right about South Carolina?
Then came the last thirty-six hours. Four hoops recruits have committed to USC in two days - Thaddeus Hall (6'5" G), Mindaugas Kacinas (6'7" PF), Laimonas Chatkevicius (6'10" C) and Tarik Phillip (6'2" PG). While Phillip is a bit of an unknown quantity, Hall, Kacinas and Chatkevicius are all legit 3 star players who were on Coach Martin's boards at K-State and who likely would have been going to KSU if Martin had stayed, and who could probably have signed with almost any D-1 school in the country.
To say this recruiting haul is unheralded is an understatement; we've never seen anything like this happen before at Carolina - not so many decent players committing at one time on the word of a coach whose been at Carolina just over a month. Cloninger's fear that we'd be lucky to find warm bodies looks to be unfounded.
What an amazing turn of events. We might as well all brush up on our Lithuanian because with the acquisition of Kacinas and Chatkevicius we've just signed the first true post tandem in ... what? ... a decade? Longer? We'll be forever leaving behind the Horn-era teams which seemed like five mostly interchangeable swing-men on the court at any one time, incapable - either by lack of size, lack of skill or lack of heart - from banging down-low in the paint with the SEC bully boys. Hall and Phillips can't be any worse at hitting jumpers from the perimeter, either - and maybe will be an improvement over Damien Leonard's and Bruce Ellington's anemic shooting .
And with at least one scholarship to give, Martin isn't done with recruiting yet.
Do you think Frank Martin is going to miss Anthony Gill or Tre Harris? Think again. Now does it make sense that he didn't waste time trying to keep them from transferring? Completely. And hasn't he just shown that he has a national recruiting reach that goes far beyond what Darrin Horn could muster? Absolutely.
Martin has just proven that he is the real deal. He is already re-building this team along the lines of his great K-State squads. He has not just banished but utterly demolished any notion that he regrets coming to USC - he couldn't have reeled in these young men on a promise of future success without believing in it with all his heart. Frank Martin has just shown his mettle.
It would be unfair not to applaud Eric Hyman at this time, also. Was it only a few short months ago when we were worried that our Athletic Director would retain Darrin Horn either out of mulish pride or lack of ready funds? Wasn't there a time when we fretted that he would never be able to lure a top-notch, elite-level coach to South Carolina? Weren't we walking on eggshells at how the search was proceeding without anything concrete emanating from the Athletic Department? If you answered 'yes' to these questions, you certainly weren't alone.
I remember writing that I hoped Hyman treated the hiring of Darrin Horn's replacement as part of his legacy at South Carolina. I had my doubts that he would.
I don't anymore.