Fittingly, some would say, Frank Martin uses a boxing analogy to describe South Carolina’s approach to playing basketball. It is not made-for-TV watch-this highlight. It is old-school sweat and effort.
“I’ve been in the ring and I boxed,” Martin said Thursday. “If we were boxing, we’re not going in there to dance and run around. We’re going in there and see if you’re willing to knock me out. We’re not going to just try to dance and hide. That’s not what we do.”
South Carolina competes. Fellow coaches, surely including Kentucky’s John Calipari (who repeatedly calls for his players to “fight” and “battle”), admire this willingness to take challenges head on. But, surely, they like it better when the Gamecocks make some other team decide whether to compete or meekly submit.
Kentucky gets in the ring, so to speak, with South Carolina on Saturday. Yes, this game features the Southeastern Conference’s last two unbeaten teams. But the potential for intense competition in Rupp Arena heightens the anticipation.
Last season’s game in Columbia comes immediately to mind. Barely two minutes after tip-off, Calipari vehemently protested South Carolina’s effort to offensive rebound. He objected so strenuously that he received two technical fouls and was ejected.
Calipari denied that he was sending a message to his players: I’m not going to just take it, and neither should you.
After UK won 89-62, associate coach Kenny Payne said of South Carolina, “That team wanted to physically intimidate us. That team wanted to beat us up and show . . . that we are soft.”
Payne also called South Carolina the “toughest, ‘fighting-est’” team in the league.
“They win games because they absolutely beat you up,” he said. “For us to play the way we did makes a statement of who we are.”
Martin politely objected to Payne’s characterization of South Carolina’s approach.
“Kenny’s got a right to his opinion, and I love Kenny,” Martin said. “But that’s not who I am. I grew up where if you tried to run around and act like you’re tough, you’d be humbled in a heartbeat. So that’s not my DNA. I tell my guys all the time, there’s no such thing as tough guys.”
Martin grew up in inter-city Miami.
“We don’t beat anybody up,” he said. “We just don’t give up on a single play. We play basketball.”
The Gamecocks, 15-3 overall and 5-0 in the SEC, do not play what former Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton called brother-in-law basketball. That’s where you turn down the competitiveness in order to preserve a familial environment.
Nor does South Carolina play basketbrawl.
“We rarely get flagrant fouls,” Martin said. “We just don’t let people get anything easy. . . . I want us to play the right way for 40 minutes. Not just let people walk around and be who they want to be. We want to make people uncomfortable.”
With a flair for marketing that Calipari would appreciate, another former Kentucky coach, Rick Pitino, called it mother-in-law defense. “Constant harassment,” he would say with a smile.
Florida Coach Mike White, whose team lost at South Carolina on Wednesday, spoke admiringly of how the Gamecocks play.
“They make everything difficult for you,” he said. “For your best players. For your role players. Everything is challenged. We have a lot of respect for the way they approach the game.”
Martin’s family history is a story of overcoming obstacles, persevering and achieving. It’s the American dream, made more intense because the believers had the zeal of converts.
Martin’s mother and grandmother immigrated from Cuba in 1960, the year after Fidel Castro became dictator of the island.
“My grandmother barely spoke English, but she had a job,” Martin said with a pride easily detected in his voice.
His grandfather stayed in Cuba to take care of a son, whose upcoming military obligation made it impossible to leave. Ultimately, the grandfather and his son used tourist visas to visit Venezuela, from which the son immigrated to the United States.
The grandfather never immigrated, although he had visited the U.S. enough to know he preferred not to live here.
“He was used to the island life,” Martin said. “Less stress. Not the hustle and bustle. It was just too fast.”
Martin laughed at the irony of a grandfather who preferred the “island life,” and a grandson whose teams want anything but carefree pina colada basketball.
The family worked hard and prospered in Miami. The grandmother, who was a housewife in Cuba, had a job sewing in a factory from 6 in the morning to 6 p.m., Martin said.
His mother raised a family as a single parent. She first worked as a secretary and later owned a company.
His uncle worked as a laborer in the Port of Miami. Now, he’s a senior vice president of a shipping company.
“I learned from them that you don’t sit around and complain,” Martin said. “You do the job. You do it with tremendous love and enthusiasm every day. And you try to impact the people around you in a positive way.
“Eventually, if there’s an opportunity, you’re prepared for it.”
This South Carolina team shows those qualities, Martin said. It was a five-year process of building a program by stressing the need to do the right things off and on the court.
South Carolina has had a team grade-point average of 3.0 or better in five of the last seven semesters. During the last three summers, the program also participated in a community outreach program called 8K in 8 Days.
South Carolina needed perseverance and faith this season. Injuries complicated preseason practice. Then leading light Sindarius Thornwell was suspended for six games.
“I love the personality of our team. . . . ,” Martin said. “I’ve seen a lot of young guys embrace greater responsibility and that’s why you challenge people. You challenge people to find out if they’re going to run away from it. Or, to quote (South Carolina football coach) Will Muschamp, are they going to stick their face in the fan?”
Of course, Kentucky is the biggest fan in the SEC. Its gale-force winds routinely blow out opponents.
Martin, who led Kansas State teams in games at Kansas, knows full well the challenge Kentucky represents. He likes to call UK coached by Calipari a “perfect storm” created when a Hall of Fame coach directs a dynasty program.
“We’re going to go at the storm,” Martin said, “and we’re going to try to get over that wave. And we’re not going to avoid the wave. We’re either going to get over that wave or we’re going to get up the crest and flip over. . . .
“But we’re not going to route our ship around the storm.”
No. 24 South Carolina at No. 5 Kentucky
6 p.m. (ESPN)