The SEC Tournament begins Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, and No. 13 seed MSU (9-21) will open against 12 seed South Carolina (14-17) in the tourney’s first game, at 6:30 p.m. We caught up with SC coach Frank Martin on the SEC coaches teleconference this morning, and he had a lot of praise for MSU coach Rick Ray. State split its regular-season series with the Gamecocks.
Here’s the transcript of Martin’s chat.
“Opening up with Mississippi State. I’m proud of our kids for the fight, the resolve of getting through another hard year. They’re all hard, not record-wise, hard in the sense that it’s five months of absolutely grind mode and then getting to a conference season, which just beats you up. Now it’s the postseason and everyone’s excited, everyone starts 0-0. We just played Mississippi State, and I can’t say enough for the job Rick Ray’s done. I can’t say enough for how hard his kids continue to play, even after all the adversity his team has dealt with during the course of the year. It’s a phenomenal job he’s done, and we’re excited for the opportunity to be a part of the SEC Tournament.”
What’s made MSU a tough matchup for y’all?
“It’s just the job Rick’s done. They’ve never given in to adversity, whether it be a player getting injured – and they’ve had their slew of injuries this year. It’s unbelievable that he’s been able to keep those young kids together playing so hard, where they’re fighting their tails off and losing a couple of games and being deflated because of a score or the result of a game. They play with tremendous resolve, tremendous energy, and they’re doing it with a bunch of young kids, which is the most impressive part. They compete. Any time you get your kids competing, you give yourself a chance.”
Your impressions of Craig Sword:
“He’s real good. He gets that ball in that paint. He’s got good size, he’s got real good athleticism, and he understands how to play. He’s done a great job, and Rick and his staff have done a great job in allowing him to grow and utilizing him through his strengths as this year’s evolved.”
What’s enabled Vanderbilt to put together a good stretch here lately?
“Well, they’re making open shots. Earlier in the year I think they struggled shooting the basketball some, but that comes with being so young. Their defense has never been a problem. They defend you. They’re long, they stay between the ball and the rim, they’re long on the perimeter, which makes it hard to pass the basketball. I think you go back to the fact that you’re looking at a team that four months ago was playing all freshmen and sophomores, and now they’re four months into this. The challenges of the season have hardened their team, better prepared them, and they’re playing their best basketball of the year at the right time. For example, our game the other day, every time we made a mistake and gave them an open shot, they made it. And they made their free throws. When they do that, their defense is good enough to win, and I think you’re seeing the result of all those things coming together at the right time of the year.”
Is Nashville an advantage for Vandy over everyone else this week?
“Heck, I was in the Big 12, I pushed like heck to play a tournament in Kansas City, and I thought that was an advantage for us, and we got bounced in the first round twice. It’s a neutral court. It’s not like Vanderbilt practices or plays in there. Do their fans have more access to attend the game? Probably. But heck, you can put Kentucky to play overseas, and they’ll probably outdraw whoever they play against. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as an advantage when everyone’s on a neutral court.”
What do you tell your team of attacking a tournament where you have to win five games in five days?
“I don’t talk to them about five-and-five. If you start worrying about running the last 100 yards of a marathon, you’ll probably never start the race. You worry about the first 100 yards, and when you complete those yards, then you worry about the next 100, and kind of keep your focus on what you can attain, which is what’s in front of you the moment that you’re in. The only thing that we can do is worry about Mississippi State. If you figure out a way to win that first game, then your team should be ecstatic that it gets a chance to play another game. There’s plenty of time to rest. If you’re lucky to get through that five-game stretch like some teams have here of late, if you’re lucky, then you can worry about resting in the month of April. But at this time of year you’ve all worked too hard. I always tell kids all the time, when you’re in high school, you go on these AAU tournaments, you play three, four games in one day. Now you just play one a day. What’s the big deal? I believe you handle the day that you’re in, and if you figure it out, that excitement should be on your side because you get to play again.”
You said recently that Vanderbilt played it the right way, what did you mean by that?
“They play team basketball. They pass the basketball offensively, they move, they screen. It’s not just one guy with the ball and everyone standing around watching. You watch Kevin (Stallings‘) teams play forever, and as a fan of the game, I’ve always enjoyed watching Kevin’s teams play because of that. And then defensively they’re united. They’re all tied to a string, and they help one another. It’s just the way I believe the game should be played.”