Watching Frank Martin while his defense did something wrong made me feel like a scientist monitoring a volcano.
Martin’s Gamecocks were playing as well as he could have hoped for in the team’s first Sweet 16 appearance in 44 years. They’d just hit a 3 to take a 37–20 first-half lead on Baylor in what would be an eventual 70–50 win. That 17-point gap was thanks to one of the most vicious defensive stretches I’ve ever seen, including a period in which the Bears missed 11 straight shots while committing four turnovers in between points.
However, it would take only one mistake to awaken Mount Martin. After that 3, Martin’s players didn’t match up right with the Bears. Maybe they were too excited about the big shot. Maybe Baylor caught them off-guard by rushing the ball up the floor to get one last good possession in the first half. Maybe the South Carolina fans that filled Madison Square Garden were impossible to communicate over. Either way, the Gamecocks were misaligned, and the seismology reports on Martin’s increasingly shaky arms, legs, and bellowing mouth indicated an eruption was on its way.
The Bears realized the Gamecocks were off-kilter, and eventually worked the ball to their 6-foot-10 star, Johnathan Motley. As the play proceeded, a succession of Martin’s muscles began activating. When 5-foot-10 guard Rakym Felder fouled Motley on a made bucket, giving the Bears an and-1, Martin’s top blew.
Martin is known for his intimidating anger. (Deadspin called him “The Most Terrifying Coach on Earth.”) His face looks like a bird of prey’s, his suits make him look like the characters in 1950s mob movies who actually do the murdering and not the ones who merely order the murdering. Here is Martin cursing out former guard Angel Rodriguez; here he is cursing out current guard Duane Notice in a swearstorm that led to a suspension in 2014. Every coach gets angry; few coaches get as angry as Martin.
Why do talented high schoolers — like the Gamecocks’ two NBA prospects, former five-star recruit PJ Dozier and four-star-recruit-turned–SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell — decide to subject themselves to this? What we see as anger, Martin’s players see as the passion of a man who wants them to succeed.
“I remember a time Coach almost passed out he was so excited for us to play,” Thornwell says. “We played Kentucky at home, us and Kentucky both undefeated in conference. First TV timeout. I was like ‘You good?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m freakin’ excited. I’m freakin’ happy.’”
“That’s a true story. We had to hold him up,” Notice says. “That’s the fire and passion that he has. I think he wishes he could still play.”
If Frank Martin was just an angry guy, he’d be nothing more than another barely employable asshole. Instead, he’s taken two unfancied programs toward the mountaintop — and this year, his South Carolina team is two wins away from reaching it.
South Carolina is in the Final Four because of a stalwart defense that suffocates opponents with aggression. They’re ranked no. 2 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, behind just Gonzaga, the team they’ll play Saturday in the Final Four. Each of their tournament games has featured some feat of miraculous D. They forced Marquette into 17 turnovers, Duke into 18 — tying the season high for both teams. They held Baylor scoreless for almost eight minutes in the Sweet 16. Florida shot 0-for-14 from 3 in the second half in the Elite Eight.
“It’s the best defensive team I’ve coached as a head coach,” Martin says. “No doubt.”
Meanwhile, their offense was mediocre. When the Sweet 16 started, 15 of the remaining teams were in the top 40 offensively. The 16th was South Carolina, which was 124th. They scored 80 points in back-to-back games in their first two games of the season, against Louisiana Tech and Holy Cross, and then never did it again. They played four overtimes against Alabama — an extra half! — and didn’t crack 90 points.
This is peak Frank Martin. In his 10 seasons as a head coach, he’s had eight top 50 defenses; the only two misses were his first two years with the Gamecocks. And he’s had only two top 50 offenses, both in his first three years after inheriting the Kansas State job from Bob Huggins. Eight top 50 defenses vs. two top 50 offenses is a stat we might expect from an SEC East football coach.
Then, in the NCAA tournament, something weird happened: South Carolina started scoring. For the first time all year, the Gamecocks have managed to average a point per possession in four straight games. Those four games just happened to be the four biggest games of the year. They scored 65 points in a half against Duke, and they’re now up to 104th in adjusted offensive efficiency.
Either Martin suddenly learned to teach his players how to hit shots after 11 years, or there’s some luck involved in South Carolina’s Final Four run. But a bad offensive team can’t luck into exceptional defense. Martin’s team, on the other hand, was more than capable of having a few decent shooting nights. With a fire-breathing defense, they were in position to take advantage of that.
“We can’t control if the shot goes in. We can’t control the referee making calls,” says Notice, “but what we can control is our hustle, heart, and effort, how hard and intense we are on defense.”
Martin’s defenses are built on extreme ball pressure. They do a lot of things well — the team’s defenders are versatile enough to switch almost anything, help defenders swarm like a pack of wolves, they also can play zone if needed — but everything stems from each defender being committed to latching onto the ball handler. It’s a defense that’s really about attacking.
“Everything in our defense starts with Duane pressuring the ball,” forward Chris Silva says. “That gives us time in the back to get back on line and be aggressive.”
The defense requires incredible intensity and incredible discipline. Martin supplies both — a fire that inspires defensive effort, and an intimidating presence that ensures you know when you screw up. “Coach brings his best every day. He gives us his all every day,” Thornwell says. “For your coach to be like that, it’s a great feeling. We get that grit from him.”
Martin is more than just The Mad Coach. He showed unsolicited compassion toward a young reporter who had been criticized by older professionals. His win over Florida to make the Final Four led to poster-worthy motivational quotes: “If you ever lose your dream or your desire to fight for your dream, then don’t get mad when you don’t get it.” A son of Cuban immigrants, his spur-of-the-moment responses to questions about the death of Fidel Castro were more introspective and articulate than anything I tried to say with the benefit of time and thought about the dictator who drove my father’s family from their homes.
Martin has followed one of the more remarkable coaching paths in all of basketball. He wasn’t a star athlete — he describes himself as “a guy that wasn’t worth a crap as a player” — and he worked a bunch of odd jobs before getting into coaching. He was shot at while working as a bouncer at a Miami nightclub, which made him realize he should maybe focus on basketball.
The result: Martin has reached rarely touched peaks at every juncture in his coaching career. He won back-to-back-to-back state championships in Florida as a high school coach; he took Kansas State to its first Elite Eight in 32 years; he now has South Freakin’ Carolina in its first Final Four.
Whether you see his screams as unseemly rage or unbridled passion, his personality is what makes him one of the most effective coaches in college basketball.
“He’s not mad,” Thornwell says. “He just wants to see us do good. Nothing’s personal. He loves us to death.”