The fresh smell from the greatest basketball season in South Carolina history hasn’t had time to wear off before it got even better.
April already delivered Gamecocks fans a first women’s basketball national championship and men’s Final Four. Now just weeks after both Final Fours, South Carolina is guaranteed a couple of return visits by the NCAA Tournament in the next six years.
On Tuesday, both Columbia and Greenville were picked as subregional sites for the 2019 and 2022 men’s NCAA Tournament first and second rounds, respectively. Also, an NCAA women’s regional will be played at Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena in 2020.
This is huge news for a state that for 15 years had been denied NCAA hosting opportunities until former governor Nikki Haley finally encouraged the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds following the massacre in a historically black Charleston church in 2015.
That politically prudent decision was quickly rewarded when Greenville inherited the NCAA subregional that was relocated from Greensboro, N.C., after the controversy regarding North Carolina’s house bill that prevented transgender people from choosing a bathroom that corresponded with their gender identity.
North Carolina lawmakers grudgingly semi/sort of repealed the controversial HB2 law on the eve of the NCAA doling out its championship venues through 2022, satisfying the collegiate governing body enough that Greenboro and Raleigh were awarded NCAA first and second round games in 2020 and ’21.
Charlotte already was selected as a host venue in 2018 and avoided another relocation saga.
The fallout from North Carolina’s political drama as well as the warm embrace South Carolinians have shown for both the men’s and women’s basketball game have suddenly given the Palmetto state a relatively equal footing in the NCAA’s eyes with its more well-heeled hoops neighbors on Tobacco Road.
That is not something that sits well with North Carolina folks accustomed to playing host to NCAA opening rounds on an annual basis.
“It’s like someone put mustard on our barbecue,” wrote Greensboro, N.C., columnist Ed Hardin of the new regional share setup with its southern neighbor.
The real head turner in the NCAA announcement was Columbia, which will play host to the men’s tournament for the first time since 1970. The 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena will host games on March 22 and 24 in 2019.
“The Road to the Final Four passes through Columbia beginning in 2019 and we hope for a long time to come thereafter,” said University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides. “Everybody has known we’ve been a great basketball town. We have a great basketball tradition. We stand on the shoulders of people who came before us.”
Greenville already showed off its hosting chops in March when eventual Final Four teams South and North Carolina advanced through the 15,000-seat site. The home-state environment proved to be a huge lift for the Gamecocks men’s program that hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1973 before rallying to beat Marquette and Duke to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. South Carolina rode the momentum in upsets over Baylor and Florida before final succumbing in a dramatic semifinal to No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
South Carolina’s powerful women’s basketball program finally got to enjoy playing subregional host as a No. 1 seed the past two seasons with the NCAA’s boycott lifted, but it has had to travel to South Dakota and California for the last two regionals. If coach Dawn Staley’s team remains dominant, it could enjoy a home advantage in the Greenville Regional in 2020.
All of this speaks not only to South Carolina’s resurgence in basketball but to the quality of its in-state venues. Georgia only has one basketball arena with the capacity to play host to the men’s NCAA Tournament, and Atlanta’s Philips Arena will hold the South Regional in 2018. Atlanta’s new Mercedes Benz Stadium was awarded the 2020 Final Four.
Greenville has proven that a revitalized riverfront/downtown and quality arena can attract big-time events. It’s the kind of success that Augusta’s Coliseum Authority should hope to replicate when it finalizes plans to build a new 12,000-seat facility to replace the aging James Brown Arena.
That capacity would be on the low end for potential inclusion in future NCAA Tournament bidding, but the right quality and location could make it a feasible long-range goal.
Whatever the case, the NCAA’s willingness to branch out from its traditional boundaries bodes well for area hoop dreamers. South Carolina, in particular, picked a good time to plant itself on the basketball map.