The South Carolina Gamecocks are going to the Final Four. Let me repeat that for you. The South Carolina Gamecocks are going to the FINAL FOUR! They defeated the Florida Gators 77-70 Sunday evening in the Elite Eight in New York. I cannot believe I am typing these words. Until this tournament, South Carolina hadn’t appeared in a NCAA tournament game since 2004. They hadn’t been beyond the first round since Frank McGuire’s teams lost in the Sweet 16 three years in a row, ending in 1973.
Frank Martin took the job as head coach in 2012 and had made some progress. And this year’s team was a good story. It just wasn’t supposed to be THIS good. The Gamecocks came in as a seven seed and a program that had never made an Elite Eight in its history. They’ve been bad for a long time, and they do not have five-star recruits to put them over like Kentucky.
South Carolina hasn’t lucked into making the Final Four either. It beat Marquette’s explosive offense in the first round. They beat a scalding-hot Duke by eight in the second. It destroyed Baylor in the Sweet 16. And now, in dramatic fashion, has topped Florida to punch a ticket to Glendale, Arizona. It’s beaten three top-15 teams in one week.
The story on Sunday was the same it has been all tournament for the Gamecocks. The offense was better than it was for most of the season, but it was still just OK. The key was on defense. In what turned out to be a seven-point game, SC’s grinding defense made the difference.
The Gamecocks will be a huge underdog in the Final Four. They’re going to play Gonzaga in the national semifinal, which means that lousy offense will need to beat the only defense that’s been better than their own. It’s certainly possible that their offense tanks so badly against Gonzaga’s defense that they don’t have a chance to win. Basketball’s like that. South Carolina’s got a real chance, though.
The Gamecocks’ defense has emerged as the second-best unit in college basketball. If their defense can play up to its increasingly high standard, the Gamecocks will have a shot to beat the mighty Zags.
People forget Gonzaga only beat West Virginia by three points in the Sweet 16, on a night when neither offense could produce anything. If South Carolina’s defense is stingy to any degree like what WVU’s was, this game should be close, too. If the Cocks can muck things up enough for Gonzaga, their offense can flounder and still stay close.
They’d never even made an Elite Eight before, and now they’re in the Final Four. They’re a joy to watch. Their best player, Sindarius Thornwell, is every bit as engaged on defense as he is on offense. So are every one of his teammates.
South Carolina’s won a NCAA tournament region with, mostly, a bunch of three-star recruits. There’s not much explanation other than that Martin figured something out and his players bought in totally.