COLUMBIA -- By South Carolina coach Dave Odom's estimate, the turning point for this season's Gamecocks squad came 368 days ago.
South Carolina had fallen in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, and the team returned home the next morning with a 12-16 final record before a heart-to-heart chat with its coach."We had a meeting with the underclassmen, and I said, 'Never again,'" Odom said. "'Never again will we come back here and not be in some sort of postseason tournament if I've got anything to do with it.' That was the beginning."
And on Sunday, after the NCAA Tournament Selection Show had been switched off, it came to this.
An NCAA Tournament first-round game vs. seventh-seeded Memphis (21-7) on Friday in Kansas City, Mo. A new lease on life, and a deep sigh of relief.
"I was a little nervous at 6 p.m., because I wasn't sure," said Gamecocks guard Mike Boynton, whose team is a No. 10 seed and will play in Kemper Arena in the East Rutherford, N.J., Regional. "There were 12 or 15 other teams that felt the same way. When our name came up, I took a deep breath and exhaled with a big smile on my face. It was a feeling that comes once in a lifetime."
He shared it with the rest of the Gamecocks (23-10). They watched the NCAA Tournament Selection Show at Odom's house and, after their seeding and match-up was announced, players said a sense of relief filled the Columbia home. Not really a sense of overwhelming celebration.
"We just got a feeling we hadn't felt before," said senior forward Kerbrell Brown said, whose squad would face either No. 2 seed Oklahoma State (27-3) or 15th-seeded Eastern Washington (17-12) in the second round if it advances past Memphis. "You could see it in the guys' faces."Now those guys will face a Tigers squad that claimed a 1/5 share of the Conference USA crown, and before back-to-back losses to Cincinnati and St. Louis - the latter came in the league tournament - the Tigers had won 12 of 13 games.
Led by freshman forward Sean Banks (18.0 points, 6.7 rebounds per game), Memphis features five players who average more than 9.0 points per game. Plus, the Tigers beat the Gamecocks in the NIT championship game two seasons ago.
Still, it doesn't matter to Carlos Powell who the Gamecocks play."I," Powell said, "could breathe now that we're in."
Based on their seeding, it appeared the Gamecocks were the last Southeastern Conference team selected, behind Kentucky, Alabama, Vanderbilt, Florida and Mississippi State. Lucky for the Gamecocks, they managed to beat Arkansas and Louisiana State in last weekend's conference tournament to make the field of 65.
"I'm really just happy we were able to make it in," Boynton said. "Hopefully we can make the most out of whatever a No. 10 seed is supposed to do."
Reach Josh Katzowitz at (706) 823-3216or email@example.com.