And you thought Duke was going to the Final Four. Win the championship, even.
To be honest, this writer bracketed it out that way.
This writer was wrong.
Why? Because a scrappy team from Columbia, SC whose last tournament appearance was 13 years ago wrenched themselves into every unsuspecting person’s Sweet Sixteen bracket.
This Sweet Sixteen appearance, by the way, is the South Carolina Gamecocks’ first in well over forty years. To get there, they accomplished some impressive feats, including a 10-3 nonconference slate complete with wins over fellow Sweet Sixteen participant Michigan and and an admittedly-down Syracuse team.
To recognize what South Carolina was prior to Frank Martin’s arrival and what they are now is to see a minor miracle.
The Gamecocks were on a three-season losing streak prior to Martin’s arrival and although their first two seasons with their current coach followed suit, they have steadily climbed their way into the National Championship conversation over his last three.
What’s most impressive about the Gamecocks under Martin is how they’ve gotten incrementally better in conference play. His first three seasons, Martin’s squad won one more game than they did the previous year and in his fourth, he jumped a full five SEC wins from the year before.
For the 2016-2017 campaign, they finished fourth overall with a 12-6 record before conference tournament play. While they were ousted early by Alabama in the SEC Tournament no one can call into question how clutch they’ve been when they got into the Big Dance.
Martin’s been cooking with the right ingredients for the last couple of seasons in Columbia, but no one could’ve predicted the type of season that the SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell had.
On the season, the 6’5” senior averaged over 21 points and seven rebounds per game. He’s been the steady factor for the Gamecocks, which was evident when South Carolina went 3-3 in the six games Thornwell missed early in the year.
What’s most impressive and telling about Thornwell’s leadership on the team is his 34 minutes per game. In fact, in South Carolina’s 4 OT loss to Alabama he played a whopping 56 minutes. 56!!!
In the era of the “one and done,” this senior from Lancaster, South Carolina is proving to be one of the most valuable players in the entire Tournament.
He hasn’t had to do it alone, either, as he’s had a terrific supporting cast of upper and underclassmen taking on a share of the responsibility.
Sophomores P.J. Dozier and Chris Silva powered their way to 13 points and five boards and 10 points and six boards, respectively, while senior Duane Notice added another 10 points per game to round out the Gamecocks’ balanced attack.
Since finding their way into the Tournament, South Carolina has been damn near lights out the whole way. It’s not like as a 7-seed, the Gamecocks were disrespected heading into tournament play, but they certainly were not expected to make it to this point, despite getting a favorable draw and playing their games in Greenville, SC.
Beating 10-seed Marquette by 20 points was impressive, but many prognosticators had them making it to the second round anyway. It was their seven-point victory over 2-seed Duke in Greenville that blew the doors off the hinges.
If you watched that game, you never got a sense that the Gamecocks were out of it. At the half, the disparity between the two was only seven points and given Duke’s lack of predictability throughout the season, it didn’t seem impossible that SC could stay in the game.
While their field goal shooting in the first half left much to be desired, Thornwell and company came storming out in the second with 65 points.
In every major statistical category except three point shooting, South Carolina held the advantage over the Blue Devils, most importantly in turnovers and rebounds. While South Carolina had 11 turnovers, Duke had an uncharacteristically nasty 18. The Gamecocks 37 boards outlasted the Blue Devils’ 34.
When you tack on the field goal advantage, it’s not difficult to see why the game went the way it did. Whenever the Duke would hit a three, Thornwell, Silva or Notice could be counted on to consistently answer. They never faltered down the stretch and this is something that should leave little to be desired coming into their Sweet Sixteen match-up with a very physical Baylor team.
The season’s obviously not over and Frank Martin will be the first to tell you that his team is not taking a celebratory break coming into their Sweet Sixteen game with the Bears, but if one were to freeze time and recognize what the Gamecocks did to get to where they are, that alone could be construed as a program milestone.
We shall see, though, if it was merely a stepping stone on Friday evening.