COLUMBIA, S.C. -- With one of the best starts in school history and a flourish at the end, South Carolina returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in six seasons Sunday.
The 10th-seeded Gamecocks (23-10) will take on seventh-seed Memphis on in the opening round in Kansas City.
South Carolina was one of college basketball's biggest surprises the first half of the season. The Gamecocks were picked last in the Southeastern Conference before the year began, then tied the school's best start since 1969-70 by going 18-2.
But a certain NCAA berth suddenly turned shaky over the next several weeks. The club lost its most reliable post player, 6-foot-9 senior Rolando Howell, to a wrist injury in February and limped into the SEC tournament with a 3-7 mark - the dreaded "last 10 games" the NCAA committee supposedly takes into account.
The Gamecocks, though, picked up their play when it mattered most - in the league's tournament. They defeated Arkansas and LSU to reach the semifinals this week for the second time in three seasons under coach Dave Odom.
South Carolina fell to eventual league tournament champs, Kentucky, 78-63 on Saturday.
The team gathered at Odom's home to watch the selections. If the Gamecocks get by Memphis, who they lost to in the 2002 NIT finals, they would face Oklahoma State or Eastern Washington.
The Gamecocks have not fared well in college basketball's biggest spotlight, they've lost four in row and not won an NCAA game since the late Frank McGuire's days on the coaching sidelines.
In 1997, second-seeded South Carolina fell to Coppin State 78-65 in the opening round. The next year, seeded third, the Gamecocks dropped a 62-61 decision to Richmond. The school's last NCAA victory came 31 years ago in an East Regional consolation game, 90-85, with Southwestern Louisiana.
South Carolina reached the NCAAs four straight seasons with the "Old Irishman" McGuire from 1971-74. The team also went in 1989 with coach George Felton and the back-to-back appearances in 1 997-98 with Odom's successor, Eddie Fogler.
Odom brings his second school into the NCAA tournament. He made it eight times in 12 seasons with Wake Forest. The furthest Odom advanced was the round of eight in 1996 when the Demon Deacons featured NBA star Tim Duncan.