When the season began, few projected that Florida would open Southeastern Conference play a two-point underdog at South Carolina.
But with Florida stumbling to a 7-6 start and South Carolina surging on a seven-game win streak, the Gamecocks (9-3) have emerged in their third season under head coach Frank Martin. South Carolina’s 64-60 upset over No. 9 Iowa State last Saturday in Brooklyn, N.Y., was a signature win not just for the Gamecocks under Martin, but for the league as well.
Florida coach Billy Donovan isn’t surprised with South Carolina’s improved play. Donovan said on this week’s SEC men’s basketball teleconference that he felt it was only a “matter of time” that the Gamecocks would play at a high level under Martin.
“He’s gone through two years of some very difficult times in some very difficult situations, but you’re starting to see his team take on his identity and how he wants his teams to play,” Donovan said. “That’s a process when you’re looking to change culture.”
Donovan’s relationship with Martin dates back to the late 1990s, when Donovan recruited Udonis Haslem and Brent Wright out of Miami High when Martin coached there. Martin went 28-38 in his first two seasons at South Carolina, and it took time for players to adjust to his intense coaching style. Last March, Martin was suspended for a game by South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner for what the school determined was an “inappropriate verbal confrontation” with then freshman guard Duane Notice. Now a starter as a sophomore with the Gamecocks, Notice scored a team-high 15 points for South Carolina in the Iowa State win.
“I consider Frank a close friend,” Donovan said. “I think a lot of times people look at Frank and they see him as this intense, dominating, intimidating figure on the sidelines, and he’s the biggest teddy bear out there. He really is. He loves his players.
“I know he went through some difficult things last year, and I’m not saying how he went about it was right or wrong. That’s for Frank and their administration to decide. What I am saying is Frank is convicted and he’s got belief in how he wants his teams to play and perform and what he wants them to stand for, and when you don’t have a team the last couple years that embodies that, you fight for that, you let your team know that that’s very important.”
— Donovan was asked Monday about sophomore center Chris Walker’s inconsistency so far this season. Walker didn’t respond with a breakout performance in his second career start against Connecticut, finishing with 6 points, 5 rebounds and 1 blocked shot in 18 minutes. “Chris Walker’s expectation is up here, but the reality is, I’ve got to deal with him every day,” Donovan said.
The veteran UF coach then relayed a story when the 6-foot-10 Walker showed up for his day of practice last year. “Here’s a kid the first day of practice, walks into our practice facility with a protein bar in his mouth and his shoes untied, getting ready to stretch,” Donovan said. “I ask ‘Chris what are you doing?’ he says ‘Well, I was hungry.’ ‘OK, did you eat lunch?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have you eaten today?’ ‘No.'”Just getting him to understand you have to get up, have to eat lunch and eat before you come to practice. You need to have your shoes tied. He didn’t know. Where he was a year ago to where he is now, he’s made incredible strides. Unbelievable strides. The problem is, if everybody else’s expectation is up here, people are seeing the same thing I’m seeing from a regular basis every day. He’s gotten better, he’s improved.”