If you’ve got your men’s NCAA Tournament bracket printed out and are looking for that local darling to pencil in, save your energy. It’s not there.
For only the second time since the men's NCAA Division I field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, both Georgia and South Carolina have been shut out statewide. We are mere wallflowers for the “Big Dance.”
A not-so-sweet 16 other states are also sitting this one out, but only two (Louisiana and Illinois) have more D-I schools than South Carolina and Georgia while nine of them have only two or fewer eligible schools (including Alaska which has zero).
If that doesn’t seem pathetic to you (and it obviously did to the folks who fired Gamecocks coach Darrin Horn on Tuesday), well maybe I’m just a harsher critic. After migrating to this border-town newspaper 11 years ago, it was obvious that basketball takes a distant backseat to football around here. Coming via Tobacco Road from the fertile hoops territory of the Old Dominion, that gridiron mind-set took some getting used to. Only Augusta State’s recent success at the Division II level has masked the relative regional weakness on the hoops front.
But this men's season confirms that basketball around here is merely a diversion to while away the hours between football title games, National Signing Day and spring practice. That 18 Division I programs from two states in the heart of Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference territory couldn’t muster up one team worthy of being included among the 68 trying to reach the Final Four in New Orleans is pretty bottom of the barrel.
Even when the big four major programs have been in funks like this season, you could at least count on a Winthrop or College of Charleston or some other mid-major to minor program picking up the slack on the Palmetto side of the Savannah River.
The Peach State has been a fairly consistent weak link in terms of NCAA quality depth. Nine times in the past 19 years, Georgia teams have been idle during March Madness. Of the 30 state teams that have qualified for the NCAAs since 1985, Georgia Tech (15) and Georgia (10) own 25 of those appearances.
South Carolina, with 11 D-I programs, is less top-heavy. Eight different schools have qualified since the field first expanded to 64, seven of them during the streak of 16 consecutive seasons with at least one Palmetto team representing, including nine by Winthrop. Clemson (10) has the most appearances since ’85, while Winthrop (9), S.C. State (5) and College of Charleston (4) have made at least as many trips as the flagship school, South Carolina (4).
But this season was forgettable on both sides of the I-20 corridor. Georgia and South Carolina brought up the rear of the SEC standings, while Georgia Tech tied for last in the ACC. Only Clemson (16-15) posted a winning record, ranking seventh in the ACC.
Savannah State (21-11) won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular season but lost badly to Hampton in the conference tournament and had to settle for the only NIT bid from either state. S.C. State went 0-16 in MEAC.
Wofford, College of Charleston, Furman, The Citadel and Georgia Southern, were all chasing Davidson in the Southern. Wofford (19-13) accepted an invitation to play Pittsburgh in the 16-team College Basketball Invitational.
Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern each had 19 wins in the Big South while perennial power Winthrop and Presbyterian both had losing records.
Georgia State (21-11) was a respectable sixth in the strong Colonial Athletic Association. Mercer and USC Upstate tied for second in the Atlantic Sun while Kennesaw State went 0-18.
Georgia State, Mercer, Upstate and Coastal Carolina were all invited to the fourth-tier CollegeInsider.com Tournament. I had never heard of it either, but it boasts NFL players on its selection committee.
It shouldn’t be this bad in a region filled with so much talent. But until the culture accepts that there are more sports worthy of support than football, it will never reach the level of sustained success that many of our southern neighbors enjoy seasonally.
Not that 2012 was a complete bust for the men in the two-state area. USC Aiken, Anderson, Columbus State and West Georgia all made it to the Division II Tournament. Anderson made it to the Southeast Regional final.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org