South Carolina is in the 2017 Final Four.
This is something that would have sounded unbelievable at the beginning of the 2016-17 college basketball season (when yours truly picked the Gamecocks to finish 8th in the SEC), never mind five years ago, when the Gamecocks went 10-21 and finished 12th in the then-12-team SEC in Darrin Horn’s final year in Columbia. Horn was unceremoniously fired a few days after South Carolina ended that season with a loss to Alabama in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
And then South Carolina made what looked like a home-run hire at the time, and now looks like a grand slam. Frank Martin went 117-54 and made the NCAA Tournament four times in five years at Kansas State; in his first year with the Wildcats, he took them to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years, and in his third year, K-State was in the Elite Eight for the first time in 22 years.
Then, Martin left for South Carolina, in large part because he felt unappreciated at Kansas State. (Note to Tennessee fans: your new athletic director was responsible for letting Martin get away from K-State. Consider yourselves warned.) It was, to be clear, much like what happened in 1993. Then, Eddie Fogler took the South Carolina job because Vanderbilt wouldn’t give him a raise after winning the SEC title and being named National Coach of the Year. Fogler would deliver an SEC title at South Carolina — to this date, the Gamecocks’ only SEC title in basketball — but never got past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
That left Martin with a daunting task. Not only did Darrin Horn leave behind a dumpster fire, but South Carolina was a program that hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973. In 1973, Mike Dunleavy was a freshman at South Carolina. So, too, was the great Alex English. Yeah, it had been a while.
Still, coaches have long seen some potential in the South Carolina program. Columbia, South Carolina, flies under the radar, but it’s the 71st-largest metropolitan area in the United States, and it’s centrally located in the state. Their home arena, Colonial Life Arena, seats 18,000 and the Gamecocks draw reasonably well when the team is good. South Carolina isn’t a hotbed of talent, but the state has produced five recruits in the last four years who were rated as four stars or better (per 247 Sports) — and that’s not even counting South Carolina natives who play at prep schools like Oak Hill Academy. But if the in-state talent isn’t enough, Columbia is just an hour and a half from Charlotte, and about three and a half hours or so from Raleigh and Atlanta.
And yet — 44 years without a NCAA Tournament win. And that was in spite of the fact that the Gamecocks attracted coaching talent: Frank McGuire won a national title at North Carolina before being forced out due to an investigation; Bill Foster was two years removed from a Final Four at Duke when he took the job; Fogler won the SEC at freaking Vanderbilt and was the National Coach of the Year; Dave Odom had won the ACC and been to an Elite Eight at Wake Forest (okay, okay, that had a lot more to do with Tim Duncan than it did with Odom.) Coaches saw the potential at South Carolina, but none could deliver before Martin.
Much of the problem, historically, has been that the Gamecocks have had trouble keeping those talented in-state prospects at home. I mentioned earlier that South Carolina has produced five blue-chip recruits in the last four years, but only one of them (sophomore PJ Dozier) signed with South Carolina. South Carolina has typically had a difficult time preventing top recruits in the state from going to the ACC, and specifically the other Carolina. After all, if Columbia’s only three hours from Chapel Hill, that goes both ways — the Tar Heels have frequently raided the state to their south (the top recruit in South Carolina in each of the last two years has signed with North Carolina.)
But an in-state recruit was what started Frank Martin’s turnaround. After slogging through a 14-18 record in his first year, Martin signed seven recruits in the 2013 recruiting class, including one who would completely change the face of the program. Sindarius Thornwell was the kind of recruit that historically spurned the Gamecocks. He was (per 247 Sports) the 33rd-ranked recruit in the Class of 2013, and he finished his high school career at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. But after overtures from NC State, Thornwell decided to come home and play for the Gamecocks. Four of the seven players that Martin signed in 2013 eventually left the program, and Justin McKie -- a local recruit who was the son of BJ McKie -- never became anything more than a role player. But Thornwell and Duane Notice together changed the direction of the South Carolina program.
The ride was bumpy, however. Even with the influx of talent, the team actually dropped from 14-18 in Martin’s first year to 14-20 in his second, albeit with a 97-spot jump in KenPom in the process. A late-season win over Kentucky (which would go on to the national title game) and a run to the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, though, suggested that Martin had the program on the right track. South Carolina seemed to turn the corner early in 2014-15 with a 9-3 start that included wins over Oklahoma State and Iowa State -- but then, the Gamecocks went 6-12 in the SEC.
2015-16 could have been South Carolina’s year. Thornwell and Notice — along with Michael Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas, and Laimonas Chatkevicius, three seniors who’d signed in Martin’s first few weeks on the job — were joined by five-star freshman Dozier, another one of those recruits who broke the tradition of the best in-state players leaving for college. (It helped that Dozier’s father was a star player at South Carolina in the 1980s.) The Gamecocks started the season 15-0 and eventually went 24-8 — and missed the NCAA Tournament thanks to a weak nonconference schedule.
With the three seniors gone, South Carolina looked to be rebuilding this year — but a funny thing happened. Thornwell stepped up his game to become the SEC Player of the Year, and Dozier turned from a five-star bust as a freshman to an NBA prospect as a sophomore. Two international players — Chris Silva (from Gabon) and Maik Kotsar (from Estonia) — stabilized a frontcourt that had been gutted by graduation and dismissals. (You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned much of Frank Martin’s recruiting in 2014 and 2015 — most of those recruits are no longer on the team or are bit parts.)
It’s a testament to the nature of college basketball that a single recruit — in this case, Sindarius Thornwell — can completely change the trajectory of a program. And South Carolina’s five-year turnaround is hardly unprecedented. Lute Olson took an Arizona program coming off a 4-24 season, and that had made the NCAA Tournament three times in history, to the Final Four in his fifth year. Jim Calhoun took a UConn program that hadn’t made the tournament in seven years and was coming off a 12-16 season; in his fourth year, the Huskies were a 1-seed and made the Elite Eight. Hugh Durham took over Georgia after six straight losing seasons and zero NCAA Tournament appearances, ever, and got the Bulldogs to the Final Four in his fifth year.
In college basketball, you’re never that far away from the top. If you’re Missouri or LSU, you can imagine that your new coach might take you to the 2022 Final Four — because if we’ve learned anything from Frank Martin, even the most destitute program can turn things around in short order with a great coach and a single great recruit.