(Originally published March, 2017)
It was March 17, 1973 in Houston, Texas. The Gamecock Basketball team beat a feisty Southwestern Louisiana team (now known as Louisiana-Lafayette) by a score of 90-85. It was a consolation game in the NCAA Tournament, back when they did those kinds of things. Carolina had earlier taken a 78-70 win over Texas Tech in a first round game in Wichita, Kansas, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen (there were only 32 teams in the tournament then).
The Gamecocks ran into a buzzsaw in the second round, losing 90-76 to a hot Memphis State team that would go on to play in the championship game that year, losing to the invincible John Wooden-led UCLA Bruins. Wooden and UCLA won the last of seven consecutive NCAA Championships that season. They won ten of twelve between 1964 and 1975.
There could be no way legendary coach Frank McGuire and his boys (English, Traylor, Winters, Dunleavy, Joyce) could have known that the next day – March 18, 1973 – would begin a 44 year sojourn of futility and frustration in the tournament which, at that time, seemed like a birthright – an annual event etched as confidently on the calendars of Gamecock faithful as Christmas and Easter. As they boarded the plane from Houston back to Columbia, they must have thought that many tournament wins lay ahead.
The Gamecocks would return to the Tournament the following season, 1974, losing 75-67 in the first round to a surprisingly strong bunch of Furman Paladans in Philadelphia. It would be Coach McGuire’s final NCAA tournament team and the Gamecock program would not return to NCAA tournament play for another 15 years. USC was three years removed from its heated exit from the ACC. The great, natural rivalries that fueled recruiting and constant sellouts at Carolina Coliseum were gone. South Carolina now found itself wandering through the wilderness of major independent status. And the basketball program suffered.
Scheduling was difficult without the built-in drama of conference play. The Marquettes and Fordhams and Notre Dames of the world, solid programs though they were, did not spark the same level of fan interest. Attendance began to suffer. Recruiting began to slip. Coach McGuire’s final six seasons saw a slow decline with only two NIT appearances (’75 and ’78) and no additional 20-win seasons. It was a sad ending to one of the legendary coaching careers in the history of college basketball.
By the spring of 1980, the legendary coach stepped down under pressure and Carolina, a half dozen years removed from their last NCAA win, managed to woo Bill Foster from Duke. It appeared an inspired hire. Foster had led the revival of a flagging Duke program, taking his 1978 team to the NCAA championship game before losing to powerhouse Kentucky. His last three teams won two of three ACC championships. Foster was an innovator and a nationally-recognized builder of programs.
After two rebuilding seasons, Foster’s 1983 team went 22-9 – the program’s first 20 win season since 1975. They narrowly missed the NCAA tournament and wound up in the NIT where they went 2-1, losing in the third round to former ACC rival Wake Forest. It was this NCAA snub that provided the impetus to join the Metro Conference the following year in order to re-engage in conference affiliation and bolster their future tournament resume. Foster’s program never could duplicate the success of ’83, due in part to his health problems, the upgrade in Metro competition, and a slide in recruiting during his last few years.
South Carolina hired George Felton to replace Foster in 1986 and this seemed to inject new life into the program. Felton, a top assistant on Bobby Cremins’ powerful Georgia Tech teams, was a proven recruiter and a USC letterman. He returned energy and the McGuire connection to the program, and his 1989 team marked a long-awaited return to the NCAA tournament. Felton was a reserve on that 1974 squad – the last Gamecock tournament team – so there was added significance to his return in ’89. Things did not go well in that opening round game, however, and USC lost 81-66 to a hot-shooting N.C. State team, coached by ACC Coach of the Year, Jim Valvano and led by point guard Chris Corchiani. The Wolfpack shot 56.7% that day, the best opponent shooting percentage in South Carolina NCAA Tournament history.
Felton’s program came close again in 1991, winning 20 games in the program’s final season in the Metro Conference, but did not receive an NCAA bid, settling again for the NIT. In a still mysterious development, Athletics Director King Dixon fired Felton soon after the completion of that season, leading to a botched coaching search in which several prominent coaches turned down offers to lead the Gamecock program. Dixon ultimately hired Murray State (KY) coach Steve Newton, who would lead the program into their initial season in the SEC, in 1991-92.
It soon became apparent that Newton was in over his head. Talent was not up to SEC standards and Carolina took its lumps for several years as the new kid on the block. To compound frustrations, fellow SEC newbie Arkansas was competing for national championships at the time, winning it all in 1994.
Carolina’s next NCAA tournament invitation came in Coach Eddie Fogler’s best season at Carolina in 1997. A magical 15-1 run through the SEC and a regular-season conference championship gave the University their first SEC team championship, and is to this day their only one in Men’s Basketball. The Gamecocks entered that year’s tournament with a sparkling 24-7 record and a #2 seed in the East Regional. They faced #15 seed Coppin State out of the MEAC in Pittsburg. Many pundits predicted a final four run for Carolina, which was led by a three-headed monster in guards in B.J. McKie, Larry Davis and Melvin Watson. Tied 34-all at the half, Coppin State went on an improbable 35-14 run in the second half, ultimately pulling off the 78-65 upset, which at the that time was only the second 15-2 upset in NCAA tournament history.
The Gamecocks returned to the Tournament the following year as a #3 seed and would go down in similar fashion to the #14 seeded Richmond Spiders in a close one, 62-61 in Washington, D.C. The wind seemed to go out of Coach Fogler’s sails after two monumental tournament upsets, and his last two teams at USC were unmemorable.
South Carolina’s next tournament appearance came in 2004, under Coach Dave Odom. Coming off of a 23 win season, the Gamecocks squared off with a Memphis squad in an ugly defensive slugfest marked by long scoreless stretches by the Garnet & Black. Carolina did not score a basket in the last 9:37 of the first half and went on to lose 59-43 in the first round game in Kansas City.
Odom would go on to field several more solid teams at Carolina which always seemed to start strong, then falter down the stretch, earning themselves NIT bids rather than NCAA. His teams won consecutive NIT championships in 2005 and 2006, but that was not enough to revive fan interest. Coach Odom never achieved a winning SEC record and never seemed to gain favor with Gamecock fans. He was a class act, represented the University well and made admirable inroads at reconnecting with disaffected lettermen, particularly from the McGuire era. Unfortunately, that was not enough to bring an end to the now 30 year drought of NCAA Tournament wins.
Enter Darrin Horn, who parlayed a 2007 Sweet Sixteen appearance by his Western Kentucky squad into a Power 5 job at South Carolina. In his first season, 2007-08, the Gamecocks won 20 games, achieved double digit SEC wins, a share of the SEC East title, and an NIT appearance. This was accomplished with a mostly Odom-recruited team. Led by First Team All-SEC guard, Devon Downey, Carolina achieved a program milestone in it’s first-ever victory over a #1 nationally-ranked team at home that season versus Kentucky. This was the high-water mark of the Horn era. Reported poor relations with players and the media were distractions and Horn – a promising young coach – proved to be in over his head.
Coach Frank Martin came to Carolina from Kansas State in the spring of 2012 – a parting gift from Athletics Director Eric Hyman, who would soon leave for the same position at Texas A&M. Martin inherited a program in shambles, some 40 years removed from the McGuire glory years and sustained national respectability. The 18,000 seat Colonial Life Arena, which replaced the venerable Carolina Coliseum, was referred to derisively as the Colonial “lifeless” Arena. The arena was often so quiet that Martin claims he could overhear cellphone conversations of fans on the other side of the playing floor.
Over time, Martin built his program, instilling a toughness and fighting spirit not seen at USC in decades. Winning 14 games in each of his first two seasons, he won 17 in year three and 25 in year four. In a monumental snub by the NCAA in 2016, Carolina was left without a bid despite finishing 3rd in the SEC and winning 24 regular-season games. A 24 win Power 5 school had never been left out of the NCAA Tournament prior to 2016.
The Gamecocks would not be denied in 2017. After beefing up their strength of schedule and rolling through 12 wins in the SEC, the Gamecocks finally earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament – their first in 13 years.
In a thrilling and cathartic 40 minutes, Carolina finally managed an NCAA Tournament win versus a very talented Marquette team. And a convincing one at that, winning by 20 points in front of a partisan Gamecock crowd 100 miles from Columbia, in Greenville, South Carolina.
In round two, USC faces an old ACC nemesis, Duke. The Blue Devils are led by the same coach who took over for South Carolina-bound Bill Foster way back in 1980. The legendary Mike Krzyzewski. Duke is a #2 seed and picked by many to bring another championship back to Durham. But no matter what happens in that game, South Carolina has achieved something special. This squad of Gamecocks has ended 44 years of futility and frustration. That 44 year-old monkey no longer lives rent free on the backs and in the heads of Gamecock players, coaches and fans.
The last time Carolina won an NCAA tournament game, Carolina Coliseum had only been open five years. It was still a state-of-the-art facility. The finest in the Southeast. USC was in the midst of navigating its way through Major Independent status. The Athletics department was modernizing. Times were changing.
Richard Nixon was in his second term, the shadows of Watergate darkening by the day. The Vietnam War was mercifully winding down. Gasoline was 38 cents a gallon. The Dow Jones Industrial Average flirted with the mythical 1000 point level just before a long decline.
Long declines were the order of the day in 1973. Nobody could have known just how long or steep the decline of Gamecock Basketball would be. Certainly not that fiery Irish coach and his boys on that plane ride from Houston on the day after St. Patrick’s Day so many years ago.
16,000 days gone by. And on St. Patricks Day, exactly 44 years later, a new day dawned. And anything seems possible now.
Afterword: In the days following this blog post, Frank Martin and his team took Gamecock fans on an improbable and magical ride. In the Round of 32, the Gamecocks dominated former ACC rival Duke – a team many analysts predicted to win it all in 2017. Carolina beat a talented Baylor team by 20 points in the Sweet Sixteen, and handled SEC rival Florida by a seven point margin in the Elite Eight. The University of South Carolina found itself in the promised land – the Final Four. With their top scorer and team leader Sindarius Thornwell suffering from influenza, the magic finally ran out. The scrappy Gamecocks hung with Gonzaga until the final buzzer, losing by four. They came just shy of a national championship match-up with another old ACC foe – the University of North Carolina.
Meanwhile, the USC women’s team, under the direction of Coach Dawn Staley, defeated conference rival Mississippi State to claim the program’s first basketball national championship.
It was a special March, 44 years in the making.