It’s been a long couple years for South Carolina fans watching hated rival Clemson rekindle its football brand dominance. That had to make Friday night in the Tigers’ backyard even sweeter as the Gamecocks restored its heritage as the state’s basketball school.
With Columbia already entrenched as one of the nation’s elite women’s hoops bastions, South Carolina’s men’s team triggered a party in Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena with its first NCAA Tournament victory in 44 years.
Sindarius Thornwell – the school’s first conference Player of the Year since John Roche (1969-70) back in the Atlantic Coast Conference days – scored 29 points as the Gamecocks buried 44 years of frustration and Marquette in a second-half avalanche that led to a resounding 93-73 victory and a Sunday date with Duke.
“These kids have taken me on an unbelievable ride and I couldn’t be prouder,” said coach Frank Martin, the architect of the Gamecocks’ renewal.
It’s been so long that it’s easy to forget that South Carolina was once a basketball power back in the day under Hall of Fame coach Frank McGuire. The Gamecocks still own as many ACC regular season (1970) titles as Clemson and more tournament (1971) trophies.
Only twice before in NCAA Tournament history, however, did the Gamecocks ever win advancement games, beating Temple in 1972 and Texas Tech in 1973. Both times they got decisively eliminated in the Sweet Sixteen by North Carolina (92-69) and Memphis State (90-76). The Gamecocks won a couple of regional third-place games both years, which was hardly consolation for not playing for a shot at the Final Four.
Since its last meaningful postseason win on March 10, 1973, South Carolina only returned to the NCAA Tournament five times in the 43 seasons before 2017 – one-and-done every time. The “House that Frank built” went into relatively quick decline after the Gamecocks divorced themselves from what they considered an abusive relationship with Tobacco Road in 1971. Years in the independent wilderness before finally seeking new conference homes took a heavy toll.
The State newspaper recently concluded that 203 other Division I programs had won NCAA Tournament games in the interim – and that was before Northwestern won on Thursday.
Other quality coaches have tasted success in Columbia before it always ended sourly. Eddie Fogler won the school’s only Southeastern Conference championship in 1997 only to lose by 13 points as a No. 2 seed to Coppin State. He took them back as a No. 3 seed a year later only to get bounced immediately by serial giant killer Richmond.
The best they could do under Dave Odom was win consecutive NIT titles in 2005-06 that never led to the next step.
The reality of what he inherited flummoxed Martin.
“You go back and you think of some of the guys that have played at South Carolina, the incredible coaches that have coached at South Carolina over those 44 years, I think it’s a remarkable,” Martin said. “It’s one of those stats that you’re like how is that happening? How does Frank McGuire not win an NCAA game since 1973. How does Eddie Fogler, Dave Odom? … How does that happen?”
By the time Martin arrived in 2012, many Gamecocks fans had all but given up on basketball. There were more fans watching Thursday’s open practice in Greenville than the few diehards who attended Martin’s early home games in Columbia.
“Even when I first got to school here, the gym was empty,” Thornwell said. “It was cold some games. We still had fans that was there supporting us loud and proud. And those are the fans that we really get up for. Those are the fans that we really appreciate.”
Those fans have come to appreciate the renaissance of South Carolina basketball. The men’s team set school records for overall attendance (241,126) and average attendance (13,396) this season. It’s the only school to have its men’s and women’s (12,853) programs average more than 10,000 per game.
“Two years in a row we lead the country in attendance when you combine men and women’s basketball together,” Martin said. “I knew if we could build it – and it was a big if – but if we could build it and we play the kind of basketball that I like my team to play, that our fans would absolutely love it. And it’s starting to happen. We’re not there yet. We’re not there yet, but it’s starting to happen.”
South Carolina’s motto this season was “unfinished business” after it was left out of the NCAA field a year ago. This year they not only got the call, but were rewarded with a relative homecourt advantage that was apparent Friday and could help them pull off a huge upset of No. 2 seed Duke today.
“It helped the momentum when P.J. (Dozier) got those couple fast-break dunks,” Thornwell said of the Gamecocks’ rally that turned into a rout. “And the atmosphere went crazy. It just gave us the confidence we needed to get over the edge and push through the final minutes of the game.”
South Carolina fans finally seem to have rediscovered its basketball roots. As much as the Gamecocks will always covet the football glory that defines its in-state rival, basketball may be the revenue sport that carries the school to national prominence as it has its perennially successful women’s program under Dawn Staley.
Now that an embarrassing streak of futility is over, it will be fun to see how far it goes and how much it grows.