Surprised by Frank Martin and South Carolina? You shouldn’t be

When a team makes a Final Four for the first time ever – heck, when it wins an NCAA Tournament game for the first time ever – surprise is part of the expected reaction.

So it has been for the South Carolina Gamecocks and their head coach, Frank Martin, who have become a Tournament darling, especially after dismantling love-to-hate Duke and beating up Baylor along the way. (The darling label also was helped when Martin honored a Sports Illustrated for Kids child reporter’s perfect question and another time commented about today’s adults being the problem in society instead of kids.)

The extended run has even provided enough time for national reporter Bill Reiter to dive (again) into why Frank Martin isn’t at Kansas State anymore and opine (again) that the University of Tennessee is riding John Currie’s ego into administrative hell, probably.

Indeed, from wins to the podium to media good feels, Martin has had a perfect tournament. He has basked in its stature-building spotlight and only kind of had to share it with Gonzaga and Oregon. (Nobody has really even mentioned Final Four old-hat North Carolina, which might be scary.) Nope, this week has deservedly mostly belonged to Martin, who has appeared more ready than ever to, as he has said in the past he tells his players, “live in the moment.”

Having covered Martin’s tenure up close at Kansas State from start to finish, it’s intriguing to watch the man now and think he was this close to this year perhaps being his second Final Four.

In the 2009-10 season, Martin coached the fastest point guard in America in Denis Clemente and had him paired with K-State’s future all-time leading scorer, Jacob Pullen. Curtis Kelly was silky smooth and sneakily tough on the glass, while Dominique Sutton was the kind of guy a 15-year-old Sindarius Thornwell should have been dreaming to play like some day. Luis Colon provided some anchor toughness in the post, while Jamar Samuels was a pogo stick around the rim on both ends of the floor. The third senior in the three-man class with Clemente and Colon, Chris Merriewether averaged less than 1 point per game and 1.4 rebounds, but he appeared in 33 games because he poured his life into his eight minutes per game.

In that vein, every one of them (and several others) played exactly the kind of intensity and defense people are now losing their minds over with the Gamecocks. And, just like South Carolina now, it served K-State well. After handling North Texas, the Wildcats saw Pullen outduel Jimmer Fredette and No. 7 seed BYU. Then, in one of the greatest Tournament games ever played, K-State outlasted Jordan Crawford and No. 6 Xavier, 101-96, in double overtime. Just two days later, No. 5 Butler upended K-State’s run in a game where it was impossible not to wonder about fatigue.

“I’m sure we would of had a better chance [of making the Final Four]. We played a lot of basketball against Xavier,” Curtis Kelly told me this week. “As the [Butler] game went on, though, I can tell the overtime took a toll more then I gave it credit for.

“Butler was a great team, with a really good pro player in Gordon Hayward. So I’m glad we lost that year to a team that made it all the way.”

It’s impossible to say, of course, whether the double OT really was the ultimate factor that kept Martin and K-State out of the Final Four. But, considering K-State had beaten Xavier earlier by 15 that season in Manhattan, it’s hard not to seriously consider.

Back to the present, though, and Martin’s core fire is just as hot now as it was then. The love for his players also is there just the same. However, the same coach who once said in postgame about that 2010 KSU squad (following a Big 12 Conference win over Texas), “If they don’t come in ready to work tomorrow, I will destroy them,” now appears to have settled into understanding the fire doesn’t have to be an earth-scorching inferno all the time.

Tiredness aside, it makes you wonder if that added maturity is the last little something that might have been missing seven years ago in Manhattan but will be enough to propel Martin and his current group all the way. After all, the overall approach has gotten this team, a No. 7 seed that hasn’t been ranked in the AP Poll since Feb. 13, this far.

South Carolina is talented. It is tough. It is battle-tested. It offensive rebounds you into submission, and it can shoot the 3. And the defense, of course, is ferocious. Most of that is the result of its head coach believing in his guys and refusing to allow them to believe less. (Even if people like me believe far less – as recently as earlier this year.)

That’s a really scary, proven-winner combination if you’re the on the other side, and if it so happens that the Gamecocks make the National Final, nobody should be all that surprised. Not if they have been paying attention.

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K-State fans gave Dana Altman same support they now give Bruce Weber

News broke Monday that Kansas State would retain Bruce Weber for the 2017-18 season.

Unless you’re an unlucky soul in need of a cranial extraction from a certain cavity, you can guess the resigned but loud reaction that followed for the growing number of fans who swear they are finished with the men’s basketball program — attendance, donations, etc. — until Weber is gone.

K-State fans once withdrew massive support for Final Four Oregon coach Dana Altman … in only his second season leading the Wildcats.

What I wonder is how many of those fans were the same ones, or perhaps brought up in the homes of fans back in the day, who begged for Dana Altman to be replaced less than two years into his tenure almost 30 years ago.

Wait … what happened? Surely, you jest.

I don’t jest, and don’t call me Shirley.

It’s true. A fresh-faced Dana Altman was hired to replace Lon Kruger, who unceremoniously dumped the Wildcats for Florida and left a depleted roster. K-State fans, who were much more used to high levels of success 25 years ago, gave Kruger permanent God status while giving Altman one year and a short deck to deal a winning hand, which of course didn’t happen.

K-State finished last in the Big 8 Conference for the first time ever, and fans let their standalone-mustachioed leader have it by withdrawing their support by refusing to attend games. According to an Associated Press story dated Feb. 5, 1992:

“… already twice this season, fewer than 6,000 fans have showed up at Bramlage, which opened in 1989. Bramlage seats 13,500, and attendance is averaging about 7,800.” 

History is written only by those who remain, and the popular, hands-washed, K-State revisionist edition is that Altman simply wasn’t ready to be a coach at the Big 8 level. Maybe or even probably a good part of that is true, but if he wasn’t getting any real support from nearly the start? It’s convenient to build a home without nails and then blame its collapse on the person who happened to live in it at the time.

And so, that’s when things really began to turn from a bit messy to completely gross.

Feeling pressured (but no so much that it was willing or could afford to overcome serious athletic department debt and pay for quality leadership), K-State was turned down by Tubby Smith before whistling The Offspring’s “No Self Esteem” and hiring Tom Asbury, who waited to see if Iowa State would come open before accepting the K-State gig.

“I didn’t want to make any snap decisions,” he said at the time.

(Now I know I’m being used. That’s okay, man, ’cause I like the abuse…)

Eventually, the California tan paled and support shrank over the next six years, and Asbury was let go after going 85-88. At the time, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported Asbury was the lowest paid coach in the Big 8. That trend didn’t change as K-State again went on the cheap, offering Jim Wooldridge approximately $400,000 to be a program savior. That figure ranked near the bottom of the league as well, but it didn’t stop then athletic director Max Urick from saying Wooldridge was “a fantastic recruiter and had a history of being a turnaround artist…”*

*The really fun part about that salary figure is that it was about $50,000 less than what future Wildcats assistant Dalonte Hill would make annually simply because he pulled the Michael Beasley puppet strings. That comparison does a fantastic job at painting just how out of touch K-State admins prior to 2006-07 were with regard to the cost of recapturing the success they and the fan base felt they were entitled to. 

We know how that ended before Bob Huggins, Frank Martin, Brad Underwood and the rest of the cavalry arrived.

Back to the present, and K-State fans are gnashing their teeth over this week’s Final Four, which includes a coach they had but didn’t want, and another they had and finally wanted but lost because of an overzealous, short-timing NCAA compliance officer who masquerades as an athletic director.

Life, you and your ironies just suck sometimes.

Anyways, here’s hoping that fans realize not supporting the program never works, though the present day seems to show the “Altman withdrawal” has resurfaced. And also, here’s hoping the yet-to-be-named director of athletics uses the now-full coffers, when the time is right, to get K-State back in the real arms race again.