COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina coach Frank Martin believes this season is already off to a better start than his first two struggling basketball campaigns with the Gamecocks.
Martin's team opened fall camp Monday. And while Martin dealt with freshmen and returning players unfamiliar with his style the past two seasons, he sees an experienced group well-versed in what he expects on and off the court.
"It's the first time on the first day of practice I got a clue to what my personnel is all about," he said, smiling.
Martin thinks it may be enough for South Carolina's first winning season since 2008-09. It hasn't been an easy time since Martin left a winning program at Kansas State to revive the Gamecocks, who've gone 28-38 overall and 9-27 in the Southeastern Conference since his arrival.
While those teams were led by youngsters, Martin's features veterans up front and in the backcourt. The Gamecocks return all-SEC freshman team selection Sindarius Thonrwell, who was second on the team with a 13.4 point scoring average. South Carolina also returns its top four rebounders from a year ago in Michael Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas, Laimonus Chatkevicius and Thornwell.
All will have to make up for the loss of Brenton Williams, who averaged 14.9 points, shot 42.7 percent on 3-pointers and led the SEC with a 93 percent foul-shooting.
Martin knows someone on the roster will step forward this season to pick up the lost production.
"We actually work in the offseason at getting better. We don't just sit around," Martin said. "Those guys are prepared to make more shots."
Martin has continually said he knew the difficult road ahead when he accepted a six-year contract before the 2012-13 season. He had made the NCAA tournament in four of his five years at Kansas State and had never had a losing season as a college head coach before joining the Gamecocks.
Martin twice drew national scrutiny for his interactions with players. He apologized for Williams in January for harsh language he used in a loss to Mississippi. The coach apologized again in March after a one-game suspension by the school for obscene language in yelling at Duane Notice in a loss to Florida.
Martin brushed off the idea that pressure is growing for him to produce a winner.
"Go look at my background and see where I sit at today," he said. "You think I'm worried about pressure? For winning games? Please. I come from nothing. If what I do is not good enough, I will go back to nothing. I was happy with nothing, I will be happy with nothing again if that's the path my life is designed to have. I don't worry about it."
His players, though, are tired of the defeats and took positive steps in a winning direction at the end of last season. The Gamecocks won four of their final six games a year ago, including two in the SEC tournament for the first time since reaching the event's finals in 2006.
"We always want to do better than last year and we have goals that we have for each other," Notice said. "At the same time, we want to take it day by day because we don't want to put pressure on ourselves to do things and say things we're not capable of doing. But we're capable of doing a lot and we're excited about the season."
Martin doesn't want his players getting too far ahead of themselves. If the team concentrates on daily improvement, they can hopefully look back next spring on a successful season. That, Martin said, is a long way away and a bottom line he's not worried about.
"Don't worry about March," Martin said he counsels his team. "If you worry about March, you're putting undo pressure on yourself today because of that worry that's on your head. Worry about today. Who cares what's going to happen in March? Let's worry about that when we get there."