Anytime I'm asked about a coaching search that's in progress, I always make the "It's not just Shaka Smart" point. What I mean by that is in addition to a major-conference program considering the hot mid-major coach du jour, said program is often presented with a surprising candidacy that emerges, one you wouldn't have expected in advance. Think Tubby Smith to Minnesota. Larry Brown to SMU (maybe). And, especially, Frank Martin to South Carolina.
At first blush, Martin has made a very unusual move. There were reports that the coach did not always see eye to eye with his boss at Kansas State, athletic director John Currie. Martin and Currie have both denied those reports, but something appears to have hastened Martin's departure from Manhattan at an odd point in his career. After all, Martin was building a strong program in a tough conference in his first head-coaching position. He was by all accounts beloved by his players and by a fan base that was filling the home arena. He was getting his team to the NCAA tournament annually, and winning games there.
Conversely at South Carolina, Martin faces a tall task. The Gamecocks haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1973. This is a team that's gone 13-35 in the SEC the last three seasons, and even when things have gone right for South Carolina in recent times, they've somehow gone wrong. In 2009, they were a very respectable 10-6 in conference play, but didn't make the NCAA tournament.
As bad as things have been in Columbia of late, this past season represented something of a new low. The Gamecocks went 2-14 in the SEC, and, if anything, that was a surprisingly good outcome for a team that had the league's No. 11-rated offense and its worst defense. Under Darrin Horn last season, this team did two things well in conference play: they forced opponents to commit turnovers, and they got offensive rebounds. That was it. In every other basketball activity the team was below-average, often far below-average.
Lastly, Martin isn't exactly arriving to find the cupboard is full where talent's concerned. Leading scorer Malik Cooke was a senior, and two starters from last year, Damontre Harris and Anthony Gill, have already announced that they intend to transfer out of the program.
It all sounds pretty bleak. So what makes me think South Carolina will show improvement under Martin right from the start? Basically, there's nowhere to go but up.
South Carolina will be better in 2013
It's hard to go 2-14 in conference play, but what's really amazing is that the Gamecocks very nearly went 0-16 in the SEC in 2012. USC fans may point to the overtime loss at home to Mississippi State on February 29, but it's also the case that this team's two wins, at home against Alabama and Georgia, came by two points and one point, respectively. So that's the bad news: if anything South Carolina was even worse than their record indicated.
The good news is that, historically speaking, teams that perform at the level the Gamecocks did last year tend to improve the following season. Call it regression to the mean, call it karma, call it whatever you want. When you're outscored by 0.16 points per possession, as USC was in conference play last season, there's about a 3-in-4 chance that your performance will improve the following year.
So much for general tendencies -- let's consider Martin's specific situation. The USC offense has been consistently ineffective the past two seasons, but what changed last year was the defense. In Horn's last season the D became markedly more permissive, allowing SEC opponents to score 1.10 points per trip. My hunch is that Martin can better that mark on defense in his first season. Meanwhile anything he gets on offense will be icing on the cake.
Martin can be happy with or without Bruce Ellington
On paper the Gamecocks' leading returning scorer next year figures to be 5-9 junior-to-be Bruce Ellington, who averaged 11 points per contest in 2011-12. But Ellington's not only a scoring point guard, he's also a wide receiver on the South Carolina football team (and, according to head football coach Steve Spurrier, "one of the fastest guys out there"). As a sophomore, Ellington missed the beginning of the basketball season due to football.
Ironically, Ellington made an announcement last month to the effect that he was going to devote himself full-time to basketball. The very next day, however, head coach Darrin Horn was let go. Once there was a change in coaches on the basketball side, Ellington made his own change and worked out with the football team during spring practice.
It's an open question, then, whether Ellington will play basketball for Frank Martin or not. Should Martin be concerned? Yes and no. It's rare for a 5-9 player to attempt 162 shots from inside the arc in just 716 minutes, as Ellington did his sophomore year. Not surprisingly, Ellington missed most of those attempts, but what's really remarkable is that he almost never went to the line. As a result, Ellington's overall scoring efficiency was very low.
It would be easy to say Martin would be better off without a player that misses a whopping 62 percent of his two-point shots, of course, but in truth Ellington was actually a capable point guard in terms of taking care of the ball and dishing assists. Based on that I'll bet Martin would be happy to have his point guard come back. In any event I'm guessing that whoever takes on point-guard duties for Martin in 2012-13 -- whether it's Player X or a new-look Ellington making better decisions in terms of shot-selection -- is likely to be able to meet or exceed the level of performance we saw from that position last year.
Get ready to see a lot more free throws
No team recorded a lower free throw rate in SEC play than South Carolina last year. That's not going to cut it with Martin, who in five short years has already established a reputation as a coach who loves free throws -- and doesn't particularly mind if the opponent shoots a few either.
Martin's been brought in to build a program in Columbia, and no one will expect anything from him in the first year. But in addition to getting this team back on track in the long term, the new coach also stands a good chance of showing results -- albeit very modest results -- right away. Don't pencil this team in for the Final Four in Atlanta just yet, but I think South Carolina can at least show some progress in year 1 under Frank Martin.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.