Frankly, it was only a matter of time. Although the 2012-2013 Gamecock roundballers showed improvement over the 2011-2012 team where it mattered most in the overall win-loss column, first year USC Coach Frank Martin's club displayed a lot of the same problems that plagued Darrin Horn's teams (after the departure of Devan Downey and Zam Frederick, that is) - poor shooting, anemic defense and general wilting under pressure.
And when Frank Martin is both the unstoppable force and the immovable object in the hoops program, you knew that "the something that had to give" was likely going to be a slew of Darrin Horn-era holdovers.
Well, right on cue, we receive word today that rising seniors Eric Smith (PG), Brian Richardson (2G) and R.J. Slawson (F), along with rising junior Damien Leonard (2G), have all "requested their releases" from USC - which is a nice way to say: "have been told to clean out their lockers."
Coming on the heels of six recruiting 'gets' in both the fall and spring signing periods like Sindarius Thornwell, Demetrius Henry, Duane Notice, Reggie Theus, Jr., Desmond Ringer and Justin McKie - not to mention two more likely to join the team (Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson and expected signee Jaylen Shaw of Hartsville) - it's clear that Coach Martin is cleaning house and that all starting slots will be open for competition next year.
The number of new signees practically compelled the mass exodus by virtue of 'simple math' observed Anderson Independent-Mail writer Brad Senkiw.
Will more follow? Will oft-injured Carlton Geathers (F) - a rising junior - possibly be far behind? I hope not since the wide-bodied Geathers has never really had a chance to showcase his talent at Carolina.
Nevertheless, the only Horn holdovers left playing for Martin may be JUCO transfer Brenton Williams (G) and, of course, hybrid hardwood-gridiron star Bruce Ellington (G). Who knows, however? Neither Williams nor Ellington may be safe (but because Ellington's scholly is charged against the football team per the "Bear Bryant Rule," it would make little sense to cut Bruce - though he may likely not start again for that matter).
So - is this move a good thing? I think we have to trust Martin. SEC basketball is as wide-open as its ever been, and the Gamecocks must take advantage of the vacuum now! Clearly, we were not getting it done with Horn's talent and/or the holdovers from the past regime were not a good fit for Martin. Moreover, we have had four losing seasons in a row. It's strong medicine to show the door to four upperclassmen, but if we don't rebuild the team now, we may not have the chance to do it in the future.
In fact, the more I think about it, how can we not trust Coach Martin? His K-State success speaks for itself (even in his absence, the Wildcats were a strong NCAA Tourney team this past March). Moreover, he has already shown he can recruit top caliber players to Carolina. We're paying Coach Martin in excess of $2m to assemble a winner, not to play beanbag.
Of course, it's also a classic case of over-signing. Will anyone outside those affected care? If this was football, it would be national news. As it is, it will go almost unnoticed in the national press.
The next question is whether it is hypocritical to give Martin a pass for pushing out seniors and juniors when we gave Horn a full ration for the same transgression. This is a bit of a tough call. I firmly believe that - absent NBA-caliber underclassman players (think 'Mello) - a team gets the most out of its talent when they are seniors and juniors. If you boot an upperclassman, then you've wasted all the coaching and the experience that they have gained in your system. So under a cost-benefit analysis you have to be sure the young replacements are demonstrably better than the older veterans who have been forced out.
It's been well documented in these pages that Horn forced out a number of upperclassmen - some for legitimate reasons, and others for reasons which remain mystifying. And what Carolina fan could have been happy to see ex-Gamecocks Murphy Holloway and Ramon Galloway leading their teams (the Ole Miss Rebels and the LaSalle Explorers, respectively) in a great Sweet Sixteen game a few weeks ago? Had both those men remained at USC, it's likely that Frank Martin could have guided the Cocks easily into the NIT, and perhaps into the Big Dance itself. What a pity.
So is Frank Martin guilty of the same offense as Horn? I don't think so. The key difference is that Horn failed to keep many of his own recruits. So far, Martin is forcing out only Horn holdovers.
I'm sure that's cold comfort to Richardson, Smith, Slawson and Leonard - particularly the latter pair, who were both heralded recruits. I feel bad that they won't get the reward of a senior night in recompense for all their effort through some pretty bleak campaigns.
Like most of you I suspect, I thank the four departing players for their sacrifices, sweat and heart, and wish them the best wherever they go,
And like most of you, I look forward to the return of winning basketball to the Colonial Life Arena ... even if getting there sometimes means swallowing some hard pills and supporting the staff in some tough calls.