I went to my first South Carolina basketball game in 1970. I'm not sure which one was first, but suffice it to say I was there the night of the Maryland game that year at the Carolina Coliseum and those events are etched in my memory.
Not just the events of that one game, but the electricity of the place. The crowd and the excitement radiated throughout. Nobody sat down and it was like that for every game.
The years prior to 1969-70 had built that atmosphere. The Coliseum was new and people camped out for tickets. Why? Carolina had three winning seasons in the years before, not only overall but in the ACC as well.
By the time I entered college in the fall of 1978, South Carolina basketball had 11 straight winning seasons. They were no longer in the ACC but had five straight conference winning seasons before leaving the conference after the 1971 season. The Gamecocks would have four winning seasons while I was in college to run the streak to 15 straight.
It is no wonder I was under the disillusionment that we were a basketball school and one of the best in the nation. Coach Frank McGuire retired after the 1981-82 season and we had our pick of any coach in the nation for all practical purposes. We chose Duke head coach Bill Foster. Duke, in turn, hired Mike Krzyzewski, while Georgia Tech hired Bobby Cremins. Interesting how all of that turned out.
For better or, in this case for worse, South Carolina went into decline. After a couple of good seasons under Foster, South Carolina joined the Metro Conference. The Gamecocks had one winning season in conference play in the Metro, that being 1988-89 under George Felton (8-4).
In 1992, Carolina joined the SEC. It wasn't until the 1996-97 season that the Gamecocks had a winning record in the conference. Eddie Fogler led South Carolina to its lone regular-season conference championship with a 15-1 record. They followed that up with an 11-5 season the following year.
What followed can only be described as the mediocre years. Not once under Dave Odom did South Carolina have a winning record in SEC play. He won a couple of NIT tournaments, which was nice, especially the first one. The second one was a team that beat eventual national champion Florida twice in the regular season and lost at the buzzer to the Gators in the SEC Championship, but unfortunately went 6-10 in the SEC and didn't get to play in the NCAA tournament. USC waltzed through the NIT and only had themselves to blame for not being in the NCAA.
Darrin Horn managed to have a winning season in his first year, leading the Gamecocks to 10-6 in the SEC. Since joining the SEC, South Carolina had only three winning seasons in the conference until last year, when Frank Martin's team went 11-7.
The men's basketball team hasn't won a conference tournament since 1971, hasn't won a NCAA tournament game since 1973 and has only five winning seasons in the two conferences since leaving the ACC. Five winning seasons in 46 years.
I share this not to put down the basketball program. All of this was a revelation to me once I started studying it. I have a feeling that there are still a few people, like me, that were under the illusion that South Carolina is a basketball school. Once upon a time we were, and the good news is there is a distinct possibility that it will happen again.
It hasn't been easy, but Frank Martin has laid the ground work for not just a flash in the pan, but a run of winning seasons like we haven't seen since the early-80s. McGuire had two losing seasons while building his program in the '60s. It took three winning seasons before the great team of 1969-70, which won the regular season by going 14-0 in the ACC.
Martin's group has secured their second winning season in a row for the first time in 19 years and are challenging for the SEC regular-season championship. This team has some good players but the future will only get better.
True, Sindarius Thornwell is a senior and far and away the best player on the team. Sin should win SEC Player of the Year and time will tell if that comes to pass. He has senior help. Duane Notice is one of the best defensive players in the country and Justin McKie has gotten better as the sixth man.
The underclassmen are good and will get better. There's a reason that pro scouts come to see PJ Dozier. He shows signs of being great, and with some consistency in his offense he will get there. Chris Silva plays with great enthusiasm and toughness, but his discipline is lacking. South Carolina is a much better team with him on the court and most of his fouls come after he's missed a shot or made a bad play and he tries to make up for it. He wants to be good and he'll get there.
The freshmen are, well, freshmen. They are inconsistent, but show signs of greatness. Maik Kotsar will be very good. He has good ball handling skills for a big man. He can dribble and pass and, over time, he'll get much better offensively.
Rakym Felder has flashes. So does Hassani Gravett. Given time, both will be good players. The rest of the bench has a ways to go, but some good ones will emerge along with the recruits to come.
This team will certainly win a few more game and play in the NCAA tournament. It would be great to win the SEC regular season, much less the SEC tournament. But winning a game in the NCAA tournament should be the goal. It would mean wonders for the program and be something that hasn't been done in 44 years.
Obviously, you want to be as highly seeded as possible, but we've been seeded as high as No. 2 and No. 3 in the past and that didn't work out. I contend that seeding doesn't matter. Just get in and fight and claw for the win against whomever the opponent turns out to be.
After that, we'll worry about winning a second one. The program wasn't built in a couple of seasons in the 1960s, but the groundwork was laid over time and the same applies now.
It's a great day to be a Gamecock!
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