For the first time in nearly 15 years, the South Carolina men's basketball team is going dancing.
On Sunday, March 12, the Gamecocks were selected to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. South Carolina earned the bid after racking up 22 wins during the regular season and finishing fourth in the SEC with 12 conference wins.
It's a huge moment for the program, but head coach Frank Martin doesn't want his team to be content.
"The one thing I've told our players is don't be happy to just be in it, be focused and prepared to make a run now that we're in this exclusive group," Martin said.
The Gamecocks will open up the NCAA Tournament against Marquette on Friday, March 17, in nearby Greenville. The Golden Eagles are a Big East team that is dangerous on offense. Five different players average double figures in points, led by Markus Howard's 13.2 points per game. Howard also shoots better than 54 percent from behind the three-point line.
South Carolina was announced toward the beginning of the NCAA selection show, so it didn't have to wait long. However, there was still a lot of nervousness prior to the announcement. When the Gamecocks were revealed, there were hugs and cheers from the players, coaches and their families at Colonial Life Arena.
"It felt good," senior Justin McKie said. "It felt like we came here to do a job, and we kind of accomplished it by making the tournament."
In a ranking of all 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament, the Gamecocks came in at No. 26, showing that the selection committee valued South Carolina's resume this season.
South Carolina was knocked out of the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday and lost six of its last nine games overall, but Martin said his team is not reeling right now. The Gamecocks played good competition down the stretch, and the NCAA Tournament means it's an entirely new season for South Carolina. Whatever happened during the regular season doesn't mean anything when March Madness rolls around.
Because of the first NCAA Tournament berth in 13 years, there is a lot of "youthful energy" within the team currently, according to Martin. Now the Gamecocks return to Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, a place they are familiar with. South Carolina defeated rival Clemson in that arena last season.
"We've played in that building, we've won in that building," Martin said.
Greenville is less than two hours away from Columbia, so the hope is that there will be a lot of Garnet and Black for Friday's game. However, Duke and North Carolina are in that same bracket, so Martin understands that the demand for tickets will be high.
"Our fans that can get their hands on tickets are going to be there," Martin said. "You don't finish 13th in the country in attendance and go to the NCAA Tournament and have fans that don't show up. They're going to figure out a way to get in there."
The Gamecocks narrowly missed out on the NCAA Tournament last season, and that was a huge blow to the team. For the three seniors and the rest of the team, finally making it to the Big Dance is the ultimate reward.
"I think this is the best way to go out," senior Sindarius Thornwell said.
Tipoff is scheduled for approximately 9:45 p.m. on Friday and can be seen on TBS. The winner will move on to the round of 32 to face the winner of Duke-Troy.
"This whole week should be a week of celebration for what these kids have done," Martin said. "I want our fans to be excited."
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Jenny Dilworth**