- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 16, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Frank Martin was proud how his young South Carolina team persevered through a difficult season.

The coach hopes the Gamecocks bring a similar approach to the offseason as they try to take the next step forward in the Southeastern Conference.

South Carolina finished 14-20 for its second straight losing season under Martin, but went 6-5 in its final 11 games, including a victory over national runner-up Kentucky in February. Martin says it’s up to his players, seven of whom were freshmen this season, to hit the weight room hard this summer and improve their strength and conditioning before next fall.

This year’s struggles were an eye-opener for the new Gamecocks. He shared freshman standout Sindarius Thornwell’s words from the coach’s wrap-up meeting with him earlier this month.

“He said to me, ‘I thought this was going to be a lot easier than it really was. I understand now,’” Martin said.

Thornwell blossomed into a star this season, averaging 13.4 points a game - fourth among freshmen in the SEC behind Kentucky’s trio of Julius Randle, James Young and Aaron Harrison.

Thornwell and fellow freshman Duane Notice will be counted on to pick up the scoring slack lost from senior and leading scorer Brenton Williams.

So far, Martin’s had no defections among the returnees and believes they’re all on track to follow through on the coaching staff’s offseason plans.

“The message is real simple,” Martin said. “This is the first offseason for the majority of our team. We have to take advantage of the weight room, nutrition, rest.”

It was not the easiest season for South Carolina, which opened SEC play 1-9 and lost its two expected point guards by mid-January. Bruce Ellington was a three-year starter at the point, but also one of the football team’s most effective receivers so it was little surprise after the Gamecocks’ victory over Wisconsin the Capital One Bowl that he declared for the NFL draft.

Three games into SEC play, Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson was lost for the season following surgery to repair a fractured foot after it was stepped on in a loss at Texas A&M.

Instead of upperclass leadership, Martin had to call on Notice, Thornwell and Jaylen Shaw at times to run the show - three freshmen at a position where experience is essential. It took some time, but players eventually figured out how to win in the SEC.

“At the end of the year, we were able to finish off some of those games because those young bucks started to understand to not get wrapped up in the emotion of a possession at the end of a game,” Martin said. “Earlier in the year, it bothered and affected us.”

Martin expects those players will be savvier and more polished next season, hungry to have an impact on South Carolina’s season. Still, Martin says he’ll continue to search out size at all positions. The Gamecocks, at times last fall, had to rely on 6-foot-5 sophomore Michael Carrera at the center spot because taller, 6-9 freshmen Demetrius Henry and Desmond Ringer were not prepared for the physical nature of SEC play near the basket.

Things began to click in mid-February with consecutive home wins against Vanderbilt and Alabama. The 72-67 victory over the Wildcats at Colonial Life Arena showed the players Martin’s methods were working and South Carolina won two straight in the SEC tournament to advance to the quarterfinals before a loss to Tennessee.

One thing Martin won’t discuss anymore is his one-game suspension for using foul language at Notice during a timeout in the Florida game. Martin apologized shortly afterward, but believes he’s got strong relationships with his players that will move the program in the winning direction.

“I challenge myself, every single year to improve on what I’ve done in the past,” Martin said. “I ask my players to move forward, and I continue to move forward.”

Martin says he’s enthused about the progress and thinks the fans are, too, after watching things improve this season.

“I get a completely different vibe right now in the community when I’m around than I have at any time in my two years here. Completely different vibe,” Martin said. “And I think it’s because the fans respect the way our team continued to grow during the year and the way we finished the year playing, including that win against Kentucky.”

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