GLENDALE, Ariz. — A long day of travel in the past, Justin McKie and Duane Notice settled into their hotel room in Arizona on Wednesday night. With a rare stretch of down time, the pair of South Carolina basketball seniors turned on their television and flipped through channels, seeking something to watch before the mayhem of the Final Four weekend fully launched Thursday morning.
They settled on a fitting piece of programming: A network replay of the Gamecocks’ 20-point win against Baylor from Friday night in the Sweet 16.
It presented a different opportunity for the pair, watching themselves and their teammates play outside of film sessions and they were struck with the realization of just how good South Carolina’s defense really is.
“You see the stat sheet and you see the field-goal percentage, but it’s not until you sit down and watch a full game like we did Wednesday night,” McKie said. “You don’t realize how everything just moves together. A guy might get beat and somebody else is there to help them out, then somebody else is there to help that guy out. It’s nice to see.”
For the past two weeks, that defense has been on display for all to see as the Gamecocks have attacked teams, winning four straight games in the NCAA Tournament to advance all the way to the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz.
The roots of the defense come from Miami with old Duke Blue Devil flair and some Bob Huggins style to boot.
The fundamental principles are built on Gamecocks coach Frank Martin’s experience as a player and coach in the mid-1980s under longtime high school coach Shakey Rodriguez. There was no shot clock in Florida at the time, leaving coaches with a different challenge.
As Martin recalls, the school to beat was Miami Hialeah Lakes, which featured four Division 1 players and the North Carolina four-corners offense, built to take an early lead and stall.
“If they were up 4-0, good luck,” Martin said. “There was nothing you could do. You had to defend and that was the team to beat. You can’t let them go four corners and beat you. You had to learn how to pressure the ball and guard the ball and deny, so they couldn’t pass the ball around.”
Rodriguez structured his defense accordingly, seeking to pressure an opponent, close passing lanes and force mistakes. At the same time, Martin was watching Duke basketball, studying the way guards Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker — both now basketball coaches — guarded the ball at the half-court line and denied passes. He drew from the similarities to the way Rodriguez taught defense, picking up more twists on playing defense in the early 1990s from the way Huggins employs an aggressive press style.
Roll it all together and you have a Frank Martin defense, with a point guard pressing the ball at half-court, wings denying passing and big men flying into ball-screen defense. And year by year it continues to morph into something more with tweaks and new input from assistants.
“We have come up with our own little strategy,” Martin said. “It has impacted now Matt Figger, Perry Clark and Bruce Shingler this year has been learning it.
“They all put their flavor into it. We continue to grow and try to make it better. I think that’s why our defense continues to get better because our players understand and have gotten better at it.”
Building the beast
The strategy of coaching the defense and installing the system has been refined in time, although it largely remains the same way Martin taught it when he was coaching the junior varsity at Miami High School.
It starts with playing 1-on-1, focused in on guarding the ball man to man. The Gamecocks must guard the ball for all 94 feet in practice, the first demand made by the coaches despite the fact USC is not a pressing team by nature. Next up is having guards deny the wings, as it moves from 1-on-1 to 2-on-2 and so on as the defense is taught.
“It’s really all broken down into parts,” said student assistant coach Brian Steele, who spent three years playing in the defense and now is in his second year helping coach it. “We do a lot of 1-on-1 drills, learn how to guard the ball with a lot of 2-on-2 and learning how to guard ball screens.
“We basically break it down piece by piece by piece and every little component that is a point of emphasis. We break that down in separate drills, not necessarily 5-on-5 stuff.”
There’s an emphasis on individual work, with much time spent on close-outs, rotations, rebounding, footwork and communication in the defense. The Gamecocks work on it every day, slowly building from installments into the entire defensive beast that has them playing Gonzaga on Saturday for a spot in the national title game.
Players say what makes the way Martin teaching the defense different is that he doesn’t preach what to do and they do it. Instead, the fifth-year Gamecocks head coach explains it in a manner to show why it is done a certain why and why it will work.
“He is very, very intense when it comes to his philosophies and he teaches us about staying in line, which means staying in the passing lane,” Notice said. “He teaches us about footwork. He breaks down defense to a science. It’s fundamental and that’s when he does when it comes to practice.”
Through it all, there is a consistent thread being used to prepare the Gamecocks for games. Martin and the USC coaches want their players put in positions of being outnumbered and having to rely on each other.
A common drill is playing four against five, where a fifth offensive player comes on the court with the initial offensive pass and leaves the defense to fend off an extra man. It goes on until the defense either gets a stop, rebound or turnover.
Or as guard Hassani Gravett says, “They put us in situations where you are supposed to get beat.”
“There are so many drills you do when you are at a disadvantage and you have to come together as one to get the stops,” McKie said. “If you don’t get the stops, you are going to be in that drill for a very long time.
“It helps when you get to game time because sometimes our practices are a lot harder than the games. Sometimes in practices, we are in situations where you have to scramble around, which helps us in the game. You get in a game and you scramble on 5-on-5, it’s easier.”
But as much as technique and style is hammered home by Martin and his assistants, they challenge their players beyond the physical.
Freshman guard Rakym Felder noticed this facet of South Carolina’s coaching early on: You cannot slack. There’s no going 100 percent one day and 50 percent the next day. The Gamecocks coach 100 percent effort all the time, every day and preach it constantly.
“We teach our guys how to give effort on guarding the ball,” Figger said.
‘That is his baby’
There’s a line where coaching effort must turn into players embracing what is being coached or else it falls on deaf ears and is for naught.
And that’s where having Frank Martin as your basketball coach makes all the difference.
“He gives us an attitude that makes you want to compete when it comes to defense,” Notice said. “He makes sure you have that pride within you so you play the best defense you can.”
The pride is Martin’s own in many ways, reflected in his players and shining in the defense that has ranked among the nation’s best throughout the season.
And the players see how much it matters to him when they start practices every fall to get ready for the upcoming season.
“He has passion and pride when he coaches the offense, but whenever the defense comes in, you know. You know that is his baby,” McKie said. “That’s what he cares about the most. It’s his attention to detail and his passion for it. …
“It makes you pick up your intensity a little bit, the way he coaches it with so much intensity and passion.”
The way McKie describes how much Martin cares really tells the story. The Gamecocks know truly how much the defense matters to Martin and they know how much they will hear it if they play it incorrectly. Much like a son seeking to please a father, the Gamecocks constantly try to attack defensively up to Martin’s standard.
“He is the most intense guy when we are doing defense because as you see if we play defense like we can and like we are capable of doing, teams have trouble getting the ball in the basket,” junior forward Jarrell Holliman.
The stat sheet speaks to the play: The Gamecocks are No. 5 in the nation in turnovers forced per game, No. 7 in 3-point defense percentage and they allow less than 65 points per game. But that’s just the publicly visible results of intense coaching and attention to detail that makes Martin and the Gamecocks strive to be even better the next game.
During film sessions and practices, Martin has a tendency to stop everything and players won’t have seen why. Then Martin will point out the most minute detail in the defense that players didn’t even think about and they quickly find out why he was right and how to do it better next time.
“It is who we are and it has always been our pride and joy in what we really think is going to win us games,” Steele said.
McKie has been getting texts in the past couple weeks from many friends. The refrain has been more or less the same, saying something to the tune of “y’all’s defense is incredible.”
Gravett has gotten much of the same, hearing from friends and supporters about the frustrating style of defense the Gamecocks have used to win four NCAA Tournament games and advance to play Gonzaga at 6:09 p.m. ET Saturday on CBS.
“It has been tiring and it’s tough,” Felder said, “but it has us here where we are today.”
On the biggest stage, the Gamecocks have put their defense and their pride in it on display. They came back to beat Marquette by 20 points, limiting the nation’s best 3-point shooting team. They left the expected national champion Duke Blue Devils frustrated and bickering on the court in the second half of an 88-81 win that put the nation on notice.
Then the Gamecocks shut down Baylor’s high-powered attack in yet another 20-point win. And to make it to the Final Four, South Carolina didn’t allow a 3-point field goal in the second half in a grind-it-out win against Florida in New York City.
“It’s amazing,” sophomore guard PJ Dozier said. “Seeing the very beginning and the product and what it comes around to. If you have faith in what he is telling you, then the sky is the limit.”
It’s not easy to be part of Martin’s defense, not with the expectations or the coaching. But there’s a result the Gamecocks know is there and they buy in for that reason. There’s success with it and with that knowledge in mind, all the attention to detail and laser focus has a big payoff.
After all, it’s 30 years worth of coaching, learning, refining and study put into action to wear down, frustrate and overcome any opponent.
“It’s worth it,” freshman Maik Kotsar said. “We made it to the Final Four.”