The Final Four. The. Final. Four. Is this happening? Are my South Carolina Gamecocks seriously one of four teams left with a shot at a national championship in basketball?
To understand how preposterous that sentence is, consider that to make the Final Four in any given year a team has to win 4 games in the tournament. Carolina had not won a single game in the tournament in 44 years. That is, since well before I was born, we had not won ONE game even ONE time in ONE tournament. And now we have won four games this year.
It has been a few months of some big surprises - Cubs win, Trump wins, Tigers win - but the Cocks making the Final Four has to be the most unlikely for reasons both historic and recent. The simple fact is that after being very good in the 1970’s, for two generations South Carolina basketball has been painfully silent on the national stage (not to take anything from the dominating Gamecock women’s team, who have now made their second Final Four in three seasons).
Sure, there was the 1997 team led by LD, Melvin and BJ that reeled off 15 straight in conference including a win at Kentucky to hand the Wildcats their first loss on Senior Day in 33 years - but that team got rolled by 15 seed Coppin State in the tournament. BJ and Melvin returned to lead the 1998 team to a 3 seed, only to draw Richmond in DC and watch as the home crowd pulled hard for the local underdog and another favored USC team was one and done. That game still stings. NMB Ryan was working in DC and got us passes to watch the game in a box in the MCI Center with President Palms and Governor Campbell and I cannot remember feeling more defeated as a Gamecock basketball fan than when the clock hit 0:00. I mean, if you cannot win a single tournament game as a 2 seed or a 3 seed, when will you ever win one? Fellow Patriot Hagen Rouse was on the ‘97 and ‘98 teams and I still have the signed team picture he secured for me:
As an aside I have a pretty good Hagen story. He was a year older than me and averaged like 30 a game his senior year at Mann. I was good friends with several guys that age and we decided to paint our chests in his honor for a home game - problem was there were six of us and both “Hagen” and “Rouse” have 5 letters. Solution?
I was the exclamation point on R O U S E ! NMB Stuart still hazes me about that.
Anyway, back to USC. We snuck in six years later as a 10 seed in 2004 - lost first round - and then sat at home as 13 years passed with no post season play (I refuse to acknowledge NIT championships). Other than two electrifying Devan Downey seasons and an SEC East title in 2009 (by a team that did not even make the tournament), there was was . . . nothing. Years and years and years of terrible basketball seasons. No hope of making it to the Big Dance.
In fact we tried our damnedest to not make the tournament this year. Start of the season: not a single preseason vote for the Top 25. During the season: best player suspended for several games. Stretch of the season: a major swoon, losing 4 of the final 6 regular season games and then our first game in the SEC tournament. I admit to sending this text after we lost in the first game of the SEC tournament - “are we 100% sure we will get in?” It was not that far-fetched we would be left out, as we did not make it last year with more regular season wins. We kept sliding down in bracketology, with a stranglehold on the dreaded red downward triangle indicating a team that is falling. In final predictions on Selection Sunday, Lunardi had us as an 8 seed in Tulsa. Same for SB Nation, but in Buffalo. Jerry Palm and CBS had us as a 9, as did USA Today and Fox Sports; destined to be plopped hundreds or even thousands of miles from home, turn in a lackluster performance and call it a season. And honestly, our tournament starved fans would have probably been OK just to make it in given how long it has been since even that occurred. There were certainly no expectations for a team skidding to the end on collective hind ends.
And then a miracle happened. We got in. But not only in, we drew a 7 seed in . . . NO, IT CANNOT BE . . . NO EFFING WAY, WE’RE PLAYING IN GREENVILLE!!!!!! After years of losing out due to NCAA sanctions due to the Confederate battle flag at the Statehouse monument, we caught a break. North Carolina was penalized for an act that tells people which bathroom to use. The big boys - Duke and North Carolina - were being shoehorned out of their perennial Greensboro home and deposited in Greenville. But so were the Gamecocks.
Emails started flying - “can you get me a ticket?” I have been a member of the Gamecock Club for 20 years and did not come close to getting into its allotment of 250 tickets. So I watched the Marquette game on my couch. But I had a ticket for Sunday - could we get to the second round? Nah, probably not, but we’ll see. Selection Sunday analytics said we had a 0.3% of making the Final Four so this is the “we’ll see” you give your children when they ask for a pony. Actually two ponies.
Many people who follow sports closely thought we had no chance, for example:
That evasive one win did not seem promising at 10:30 p.m. on Friday night as we started out down 8-0 and Marquette rained down eight threes in the first half. And then the boys bucked up and hit the gas, blowing the doors off on the way to a 20 point victory. Our reward? A matchup with 2 seed Duke, the bettors’ favorite to win not just the game but the whole tournament.
NMB and Duke Law graduate/fan David flew in from DC to go to the Sunday game with me. He was polite but confident - I mean, we are talking about 2017 ACC Tournament Champions and college basketball royalty Duke. Coach K had won 11 conference tournament titles and never failed to reach the Sweet Sixteen with any of those other 10 title teams. Why would this year be any different? But a funny thing happened. Coach Martin told us that he had prepared the team to make a run, and his attitude was contagious as every Gamecock I talked to was also polite but confident. Nobody had the “we’re just happy to be here” thing going on which would be normal for any team overcoming such a draught and was a hallmark of Gamecock fans in the bad old days.
Sunday arrived. A gorgeous blue sky beckoned us to the Ink N Ivy rooftop. My city was on display to a national audience and put on its typical stellar performance. Gamecock fans were out in force and the afternoon could not give way to evening soon enough.
UNC played Arkansas first and squeaked by, so their fans were there to the end and ended up staying at the Well for the Duke/Carolina game. And of course the Tar Heels wanted the Gamecocks to beat their hated rivals. But it was really the USC fans who showed out, treating the team to a home atmosphere as they clawed back from 7 down at half to a convincing win over the Dookies. Again, South Carolina basketball, a 7 seed, beat Duke basketball, a 2 seed, to go to the Sweet Sixteen - uhh, do what? I got home from that game at midnight and could not get in bed before 2, as the adrenaline would not subside.
As the team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, nice articles started appearing. Then we got to New York City and beat the brakes off of Baylor and won a good one against Florida, and more nice articles came out. One writer said we were “Cinderella with brass knuckles.” Patrick Davis even wrote a song about the team.
Now we find ourselves on the doorstep of history, our team guaranteed a chance to play for the national championship if we win Saturday and poised to become even more legendary in the eyes of all USC fans. This is the point where you would expect for me to say that I really want to win. Or, perhaps, that being in the Final Four is already an accomplishment in and of itself. Both of those things are true. But what is more true is that I am in love with the way this team plays . . . as a team, truly better than the sum of its parts. Thornwell could start for anyone, Dozier for most, Silva and Notice for some. Kotsar? A few. We play four guys off the bench who are classic role players. This is not a team chock full of McDonald’s All Americans (we have 1, Dozier, who is just our fourth one ever and first since 2000) but rather a bruising bunch of grinders who picked a catchphrase - Secure the Bag - from a Gucci Mane song. When asked by a reporter what the phrase meant to him, Thornwell said to “take advantage of your opportunity.” I am sure that was the family friendly response, but you get the point.
This team is dedicated to the hardest part of the game, defense. As Coach K said after his team was bounced,
“Q. What makes South Carolina so tough defensively? And I guess just what did they do to you guys on that end that was so hard to deal with?
COACH KRZYZEWSKI: Well, first of all, they're well-coached. 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. And they played it at a high level, and the game was a very physical game. But they're a terrific defensive team. Frank does a great job with his team. And whoever he brought in, they're committed to playing that end of the court.”
Technique . . . twice. Committed . . . twice. Heart. Toughness. Physical. Intangibles.
Translation? One of the best coaches of all time knows our rotation is full of dudes who can absolutely wreck shop against the best of the best.
So here we are. A thousand reasons we can lose, from being first timers, to Silva picking up two early fouls, to Thornwell not able to practice due to illness, to the other teams all being full of accomplished players. We are big underdogs on Saturday vs. a team that has lost ONE game all season. Vegas says +750, ESPN BPI says 2% possibility of winning it all (there are only four teams left and we are still given only a 2% chance to win it - this is the definition of disrespect). And yet, something tells me these guys wouldn't have it any way.
As a kid my mother had a quote on the refrigerator that said “Attitude not aptitude gets you altitude.” This is a saying that I have regrettably ignored too many times in my life, but the older I get the more I know how true it is and the more I try to live it. And these Gamecocks are a shining example of that quote and Honey would be so proud. As Coach Martin said after the Baylor win, “Attitude comes first. We gotta have guys that are gonna believe in our mission, that are going to believe in what we do. Once they believe, then we can teach them the technique. It all starts with our mindset, and we’ve got guys who have completely bought into what we do.”
This team has achieved serious altitude and the mountain top is in sight. We are playing for it all in a city named after a mythological bird that is reborn from the ashes of its predecessor to attain new life . . . seems about right.
Secure the bag, boys, so I can secure the flight for Monday night.