Frank Martin held back.
With a background in math and a career in basketball, he likely had enough numbers and images in his head to make a loud statement about a certain South Carolina shortcoming — but he chose to avoid potential consequence.
“I’ll let you answer that one whatever way you want to answer it,” the seventh-year USC coach told a reporter Monday. “I’ve danced that dance and I’m not dancing it ever again.”
The Gamecocks (11-10, 6-2 SEC) travel to face Kentucky (18-1, 7-1) on Tuesday. The fifth-ranked Wildcats, winners of eight straight, present a tough enough challenge. They’re defending as well as anyone in the conference, they feature four starters averaging double-figures in scoring and they’re undefeated at Rupp Arena this season.
But here’s a note that could make the task all that much taller: South Carolina has taken 50 fewer free throws than its opponents over its last three road games.
“I’ll say this,” Martin said, “it’s a first for me as a coach.”
That’s not a controversial opinion. Rather, it’s an observation from someone who’s into his 20th season on a college sideline.
Teams typically get fewer calls as visitors versus playing at home. The Gamecocks, over 15 home games last season, averaged three more free throws than their opponents at Colonial Life Arena. On the road, it was USC getting four fewer attempts. In 2016-17, the Gamecocks averaged two more FT attempts than opponents at CLA. On the road, it was down four a game.
This season? Carolina is plus-six at home — but, on average, minus-10 in FT tries away from CLA.
“It’s more expected that on the road, historically, people just say you don’t really get calls,” said senior guard Hassani Gravett. “I was taught to not really pay attention to that, so I just play the game however it comes.
“Most of the time, unless it’s like a late-game situation and they make a bad call, you should come out victorious by just executing whatever it is that you’re asked to do. It shouldn’t be determined by just calls.”
When South Carolina took a season-low nine free throws in a loss at Oklahoma State on Jan. 26, Martin pointed to USC’s lack of aggression against the Cowboy zone as the main factor.
“If you don’t attack the zone and you just pass it around and shoot Hail Marys over the top of the zone,” he told the the Gamecock IMG Sports Network that afternoon, “you’re not gonna go to the foul line.”
But a week later at Georgia, the Gamecocks were considerably less passive en route to 86 points. Though, Carolina only went to the line five times in the first half — and 16 times for the game. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, took 25 free throws.
“I thought A.J. Lawson at Georgia attacked the rim off the dribble,” Martin said, “which I’ve been on him about. I thought he was real good at that. He needs to continue to do that. And somehow, someway we gotta figure out a way to get to the line more when we’re on the road.”
Officiating crews were completely different at LSU (where USC was out-shot at the stripe, 35-14), OSU (29-9) and UGA (25-16). Don Daily was on the call of the Georgia game as well as the Vanderbilt game two weeks earlier, when the Gamecocks took 35 free throws in Nashville.
Publicly complaining about officials can have its costly effects. Martin was fined $25,000 by the SEC for it last February. He didn’t go there Monday. He simply suggested ways for the Gamecocks to fix a glaring problem.
“We watch film and we gotta keep doing what we do,” Martin said. “We got to keep throwing the ball inside to Chris Silva and continue to do the things that we’re good at offensively.”
South Carolina free throw discrepancy by location
Who: South Carolina (11-10, 6-2 SEC) at No. 5 Kentucky (18-3, 7-1)
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky
TV: SEC Network
Andrew Ramspacher: @ARamspacher