South Carolina danced into the Final Four. No one saw it coming. Frank Martin’s 7th-seeded Gamecocks have been a devastatingly efficient offensive machine and imposed an iron will defensively.
The term “Cinderella” gets tossed around liberally and may not apply here. Sindarius Thornwell could start for any team in the country. PJ Dozier is a big-time player. A broad application of this term, however, should not be taken as a slight.
If one believes it applies to schools outpacing expectations and outrunning its own history, South Carolina fits the definition. Before this year, the Gamecocks had not won a NCAA Tournament game since 1973. Their four wins thus far match the tally posted from 1908-1973. South Carolina won two games each in the ’72 and ’73 tournaments as a result of third-place regional games. They lost first-round games in 1974, 1989, 1997, 1998 and 2004.
South Carolina’s rise out of relative nowhere, historically, is comparable to four teams in recent memory. Over the past 30 years, only three teams have advanced to a Final Four after never before reaching the Sweet 16.
Virginia Commonwealth did it in 2011. Previously, the Rams were 0-4 in the second round all-time. George Mason did it in 2006 after losing all three of its previous first-round games. Even Butler’s shocking back-to-back national title game appearances were preceded by Sweet 16s in 2003 and 2007.
South Carolina, despite playing in a power conference and sporting a proud basketball tradition, did not have have the NCAA Tournament track record of Butler.
In terms of coming out of nowhere, though, no one compares to Seton Hall. P.J Carlesimo’s Pirates came one point shy in the 1989 NCAA title game against Michigan. The sum of their tournament experience before that? Making the second round the year prior.
Through one lens, no sport affords the opportunity to build a legacy so quickly. Consider the circuitous route fellow Final Four member Gonzaga took since jumping onto the national radar 19 years ago. Consider the programs which have enjoyed great success but failed to string together a Final Four run.
What South Carolina has done will live forever. The past was just prologue. History matters, of course, but it’s remarkable what 160 minutes of basketball can do to re-write it.