The NCAA East Regional returns to Madison Square Garden tonight. With a simple ironic twist of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s recent words, one could argue there’s “no value” in New York.
For only the third time in 15 years, a regional will tip off without either the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds present. The anticipated showdown between defending national champion Villanova and reigning Atlantic Coast Conference champ Duke was scuttled by second round upsets last weekend, leaving the 3, 4, 7 and 8 seeds to duke it out for a Final Four berth.
If you’re South Carolina – which rode an emotional wave to swamp Duke with 65 second-half points in Greenville on Sunday – you have to feel pretty good about the opportunity that presents itself.
“We’re not satisfied with just winning one game or this game,” said Southeastern Conference player of the year Sindarius Thornwell after the Gamecocks advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1973. “We’re in it – why not win it? Why not us? We feel like we can compete with anybody in the country.”
Why not us? Sound familiar Gamecocks fans?
Steve Spurrier uttered those very same words when he showed up in Columbia in 2004 and introduced himself as the new head ball coach. And six years later he delivered the Gamecocks their first and only SEC East title.
Frank Martin is in his fifth season at the basketball helm, and he has steadily changed the expectation of South Carolina men’s basketball. All the hard work and discipline paid off when the winningest collegiate men’s coach of all-time shook Martin’s hand late Sunday night in a delirious Greenville arena and said, “You’re building something special at South Carolina.”
“They’re men and they’re coached by a man,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said of the Gamecocks. “They’re an extension of their coach. He’s a really good – he’s a tough competitor. And his kids believe in him. And he’s built something really good here.
“And they not only are good technique-wise, but they add heart. They add toughness. They add all the intangibles that go with great technique. And then they’re all committed to it.”
That commitment has a very good chance of paying off in Madison Square Garden this weekend. The Gamecocks face a Baylor team that can boast wins over three other Sweet Sixteen teams Oregon, Louisville and West Virginia. But these Bears also exhibit some of the same flaws that got previous highly-seeded Baylor teams bounced in the first round of the last two tournaments against Georgia State and Yale.
South Carolina won’t have a combination of its own fans and North Carolina’s creating a home-environment din for it in the Garden – where the Gamecocks were twice crowned NIT champions and lost in December to Seton Hall. It does have a newfound confidence and swagger that generates momentum, and the moment certainly won’t seem too big for them after beating Duke.
Being an extension of Martin should be a good quality in New York City.
“You know, they put up with me, which is not easy to do,” Martin said. “And they’ve become mentally tough, as mentally tough can be. For us to be able to play against a team like Duke and play so well on the big stage says a lot about the character of our team.”
The last time the top two seeds in the East didn’t make it to the Sweet Sixteen, No. 7 seed Michigan State took advantage and made it to the Final Four in 2015. Before that in 2004, No. 3 seeded Georgia Tech won the Midwest and got all the way to the NCAA championship game.
Sometimes it just takes a team getting hot at the right time. Whatever funk a late-season slide might have generated was erased with a history-changing ride in Greenville. Thornwell, P.J. Dozier, Duane Notice and Chris Silva are a tough enough nucleus to topple any remaining team in the regional, and the Gamecocks play the kind of defense that keeps them competitive. They already split with No. 4 seed Florida, which faces Wisconsin in the other regional semifinal.
“Coach told us just to continue to listen to him,” Thornwell said. “And we have listened to him all season and don’t stop now. We have won the first two games and now we’re in the Sweet Sixteen. And we’re going to continue listening to coach and we’re going to let coach lead us and we’re going to follow him into whatever. And hopefully it just keeps leading us to the right direction and to winning.”
The foursome might not possess the marquee value of the blue bloods (North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA) assembled in Memphis, but the experience for the Gamecocks is priceless.
“We didn’t get that chance our first three years and for us to get this opportunity our last year heading out is a blessing for us,” said Thornwell. “And it’s good for the basketball program also for us to still be playing and to make it to the tournament and making a run.”