GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Nothing made sense Friday night inside of Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Not only that, but nothing will make sense Sunday night when those doors open again for lordly Duke against a traditionally basketball-challenged program from 104 miles to the East in Columbia.
South Carolina? I mean, South Carolina will face Duke with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line, which is the first thing that makes no sense. During most of the past four decades, the Gamecocks have fluctuated in hoops between mediocre, awful and worse than that. Even so, No. 7 seed South Carolina spent Friday night against Marquette grabbing its first victory in the NCAA Tournament since 1973, and get this: The overwhelming majority of the 14,180 spectators for a venue that theoretically included fans from seven other teams (Duke, North Carolina, Arkansas, Troy, Marquette, Seton Hall and Texas Southern) were standing and screaming as one for all things Gamecocks.
Nobody cheers for the Gamecocks. Well, not usually, and certainly not the way they did down the stretch of their 93-73 blowout of Marquette.
"Yeah, man. This is great," said Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina's all-everything guard who has witnessed more struggles than triumphs for the Gamecocks in basketball since he arrived from his hometown of Lancaster, S.C., four years ago. They are rolling now with a relentless team that pounds opponents on defense while Thornwell does just about everything else along the way to victory. He added, "That's what we play for. We play for those fans that's been supporting the basketball program for so long and haven't seen that much success, but still supported them, still came to the games. Even when I first got to school here, the gym was empty. It was cold some games. We still had fans that were supporting us loud and proud."
If only Thornwell knew what it was like for South Carolina during the old days, and he doesn't, but famed Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins does. Let's make this simple. Despite 109 years of men's basketball for the Gamecocks, they've had only a singular stretch of dominance. Not coincidentally, it spanned from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, when Cremins was South Carolina's starting point guard for three of those seasons, and then he watched those bruising teams of yore continue to scare folks with their physical play as an assistant coach. To hear Cremins tell it, he was insignificant compared to his choice as the No. 1 reason for those Gamecocks winning 18 or more games for eight straight seasons, including 20 games or more for six straight years to produce four of South Carolina's nine trips in history to the NCAA Tournament.
"One person. Frank McGuire," Cremins said, from his home in Hilton Head, S. C., recalling when the Hall of Fame coach arrived on campus in 1964. McGuire also did well at St. John's before he turned North Carolina into North Carolina by recruiting New York players. He won a national championship there in 1957, but due to a point-shaving scandal during the early 1960s, he was forced to resign, and he told North Carolina officials to anoint his top assistant named Dean Smith as his successor.
Before long, McGuire was turning South Carolina into North Carolina with a bunch of New York guys such as Cremins.
"I was not a great high school player. I was a good high school player, but if you were a first-team, all-New York player during that time, you were going to play for Frank McGuire," Cremins said, of a time when South Carolina was in the ACC instead of the SEC. "When I played, we were sold out every game, and the crowds were incredible. But there was only one bid from the ACC back then, and my senior year (of 1969-1970 when the Gamecocks went 25-3) is well-documented. We had the team to really do something, but our All-America player John Roche got hurt during the ACC tournament, and we lost in the finals (against North Carolina State) in double overtime. But the next year, they won the ACC tournament on a jump-ball play against North Carolina."
Current North Carolina coach Roy Williams nodded from the podium during his news conference Saturday afternoon. That was partly because he remembered that game, but mostly because he recalled South Carolina's overall run of goodness under McGuire. That 1971 ACC tournament game between the Carolinas was just a couple of years after Williams finished dribbling for the Tar Heels' freshman team, and then he spent the rest of his North Carolina years as a student studying practices with Smith's permission.
"In those days, big rivalries meant there was a lot more going on than everybody knew about," Willaims said. "Now with social media, if they had things going on back then, there would have been guys that weren't playing for years or years or years or coaching for years or years. It was a fierce rivalry. A very heated rivalry. There was a lot of things openly said between the two teams, and yet you had Frank McGuire and Dean Smith who had a great deal of respect for each other. But I was in school at that time. Some of the big-time games, some of the very violent game, things that went on during those games. I still remember one of the North Carolina players, and I know who he is, yelled, 'Contact, contact!' And everybody stopped -- and I remember the South Carolina player, and I know who he is, but if you want to find out you've gotta do your homework -- going out in the middle of the court and stomping his feet trying to smash the contact.
"I mean, that wasn't looked upon as that unusual, that kind of thing. So it was a big-time rivalry in those days."
As for these days, Cremins is impressed with the ability of another Frank to build the Gamecocks into a force after he began his five years on campus with two losing seasons. They were 25-9 last year, with a trip to the NIT, and now they are 23-10 courtesy of that Frank, as in Martin instead of McGuire, recruiting the gifted South Carolina likes of PJ Dozier and Thornwell, along with others from across the country.
"We just needed the right guy, and Frank Martin is now the right guy," Cremins said. "He brought that defensive mentality from Kansas State, and he's turned it into something great at South Carolina. Last year was a disappointed, because they played so well, but Georgia beat them twice at the end of the season, and it took away their bid to the NCAA Tournament. This year, they got the bid, and they got the beautiful draw, where they didn't have to travel far, and their fans could see them play, and I think it's just great. I'm also sure Duke is very aware of everything we're talking about."
No question there. In fact, Duke guard Grayson Allen said the following Saturday afternoon before practice: "I did hear their crowd at the end of our game (against Troy on Friday night). When they were coming on to the court, they got a big standing ovation from their crowd. And they're going to be well supported. I mean, we know we're going to have Duke fans in the crowd, too. But it's really just another tough game for us."
It's mostly just another chance during the NCAA Tournament for the Gamecocks and their followers to shock the world, along with themselves.