COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin has beefed up the Gamecocks' schedule, and now he hopes to improve the team's attendance.
Martin and his players are embarking on a weeklong series of events in the community to build goodwill and urge fans to purchase season tickets. The goal is to sell 8,000 — a total Martin says hasn't been hit at the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena the past few seasons.
"We always ask our fans to come to us," Martin said Tuesday. "Well, we've got to find time to go to our fans, and I think this is a great way to show that to our players."
It hasn't helped attendance that the Gamecocks haven't had a winning season since going 21-10 in 2008-09 or made the NCAA tournament since 2004. They have had just one winning Southeastern Conference record since 1997-98.
Martin believes reaching out to fans and connecting with them off the court is essential to turning around South Carolina's fortunes. Some of the best showings the Gamecocks have had in Martin's first two seasons have come when the building is packed, as when 15,303 people filled the arena March 1 for the 72-67 victory over eventual national runner-up Kentucky.
If the Gamecocks are to have long-term success, "we need everyone's help," Martin said.
Martin has put together a strong non-conference schedule, including juicy home games against a pair of Big 12 NCAA tournament teams from last year in Baylor on Nov. 18 and Oklahoma State on Dec. 6. The game against the Cowboys is part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
The Gamecocks should have more experienced pieces in place this year after two seasons of growth in Martin's system.
Sindarius Thornwell was part of the all-SEC freshman team last year and is the Gamecocks' top returning scorer. He'll be joined in the backcourt by a healthy Tyrone Johnson and Duane Notice, another freshman thrown into the fire last year because of Johnson's foot injury at point guard and the decision of senior Bruce Ellington to give up basketball for the NFL draft.
Thornwell said summer workouts have been spirited and intense.
The team will hold events with the Special Olympics and at the Richland County Public Library's main branch and will make a visit to a children's hospital. The players will also visit Fort Jackson, one of the U.S. Army's main training sites, for an event Monday.
"I'd much rather be on the lake for the next eight days. I'd much rather be on the ocean," Martin said with a smile. "But it's part of what this job requires right now."