Twenty years ago, the best South Carolina basketball season in almost a quarter-century ended in historic fashion. The SEC champion Gamecocks lost to Coppin State out of the MEAC, becoming just the third No. 2 seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 15 seed.
No one could have known it at the time, considering guard B.J. McKie came back for another season, but the 1996-97 team ended up as South Carolina’s last genuine hope for a deep Tournament run for the next two decades.
When Frank Martin took the head-coaching vacancy in Columbia ahead of the 2012-’13 season, he was leaving a Kansas State program he had taken to the Elite Eight just a few years prior. K-State basketball exists in the shadow of rival Kansas, but the Wildcats have their own impressive lineage: competing for national championships under Tex Winter in the 1960s; Mitch Richmond and Lon Kruger reaching the Elite Eight in 1988; and Bob Huggins’ one year in the Little Apple planted the seed that sprouted as Martin’s successful tenure.
Kansas State may not be a blue blood like KU, but it boasts a more impressive history than South Carolina. When that 1997 team bowed out in a first-round shocker 20 years ago, it extended an NCAA Tournament winless drought dating back to 1973. That drought endured until Friday, when Martin’s Gamecocks beat Marquette in the first round of East Region play.
Impressive and historic as Friday’s victory was, South Carolina was just getting started.
The Gamecocks boast what is arguably the biggest upset of this NCAA Tournament. Duke entered the 2016-17 season touted as one of the most talent-rich rosters in recent memory. Injuries, Grayson Allen’s various incidents, and Mike Krzyzewski’s extended break due to back problems contributed to underachievement for the Blue Devils.
With a run to the ACC Tournament championship, however, Duke had seemingly ironed out its early woes. The Deathstar was fully operational just in time for K’s sixth national title run. The only problem? Sindarius Thornwell, Chris Silva and Duane Notice came swooping in Sunday on tie-fighters.
South Carolina’s 88-81 win to advance to the Sweet 16 was plenty impressive without added context, but considering the Gamecocks trailed by seven at halftime and Frank Martin came with adjustments that had South Carolina playing a style seemingly better suited to Duke’s game, the upset is all the more shocking.
The Gamecocks, sporting an offensive efficiency ranking of No. 124, hung 65 second-half points on the Dukies. That’s no insignificant number in the history of South Carolina basketball, either. The 1997 Gamecocks totaled 65 in their loss to Coppin State.
Frank Martin made an unconventional decision leaving established K-State for long suffering South Carolina, but little is conventional about Martin’s road to the Sweet 16. The child of Cuban exiles, Martin worked as a bouncer in Miami at the height of the city’s cocaine epidemic, a story Myron Medcalf covered in 2014. He coached high school basketball before getting on the staff at Northeastern.
— Gamecock MBB (@GamecockMBB) March 20, 2017
Martin has blazed his own trail for years. Behind his leadership, Gamecock basketball isn’t following any established precedent; it’s making its own history.
Aside from South Carolina’s 65-point, second-half eruption, Sunday’s more eye-popping offensive deluge came via Kansas. The Jayhawks’ lead over Michigan State had been tenuous much of the second half, whittled to a single point on an Alvin Ellis III layup with 12:18 remaining.
From that 54-53 count, Kansas went on a 36-17 run to slam the door hard on Sparty.
KU has so many weapons, and all of them brought their respective skill sets to the table Sunday. Frank Mason III can score effectively, but also distributes like a traditional point guard. Devonte Graham disrupts on defense. Josh Jackson can score from virtually anywhere on the floor. Landen Lucas provides the dirty work any championship contender needs to fulfill its potential.
Wagner and The Victors
In Michigan’s thrilling, first-round victory over Oklahoma State, 6-foot-11 sophomore Moritz Wagner scored just six points. He was the only Wolverine starter not to notch double-figures in the 92-91 victory.
Wagner more than compensated in Sunday’s Round of 32 win, scoring a career-high 26 points on an incredible 11-of-14 shooting. Wagner proved instrumental in Michigan’s upset of Louisville, which exacted a small measure of revenge for the 2013 national title game. It also keeps college basketball’s hottest team riding a wave into the Sweet 16.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 19, 2017
Michigan’s story is a fascinating one, as the Wolverines avoided potential disaster when their airplane skidded off the runaway before the Big Ten Tournament. Their inspired play since has the mystique of a cinematic plot, and thus begets team of destiny talk.
Examining Sunday’s win from a more grounded perspective should actually make Michigan faithful feel more hopeful for the Wolverines’ Final Four chances. Michigan beat a good Oklahoma State team without much of a contribution from Wagner, who turned around and elevated Blue to a defeat of an even better Louisville squad.
The two games demonstrated two sides of Michigan basketball. John Beilein has a versatile lineup in which one night, Wagner can carry the load. Another, Derrick Walton’s the man. On another still, D.J. Wilson dons the hero’s cape.
Michigan’s multifaceted look mirrors that of Oregon — which the Wolverines will face in the Sweet 16. Dillon Brooks has been the star for Oregon much of the season, winning Pac-12 Player of the Year along the way.
In the NCAA Tournament, however, Tyler Dorsey has raised his game up to another level. With Jordan Bell doing double-duty in Chris Boucher’s absence on the interior, the Ducks feature three proven playmakers who can carry Oregon on a given night.
The Big Ball(er) Brand of Bruin Basketball
Any doubters of Lonzo Ball left out there? The UCLA super-frosh struggled after jamming a finger in last weekend’s Pac-12 Tournament, then sustained a leg injury in the Bruins’ up-and-down defeat of Kent State Friday. His woes carried over into the first half of Sunday’s win over Cincinnati — but not the second half.
Ball played arguably his best 20 minutes of basketball all season after intermission, and UCLA demonstrated how vital the freshman point guard is to their identity. Ball flirted with a triple-double against one of the best defenses in college basketball: 18 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds.
The staggering difference in both Ball’s first-half play and second, as well as UCLA’s team effort, underscores just how much the Bruins feed off their point guard.
— Thuc Nhi Nguyen (@thucnhi21) March 20, 2017
For the night, UCLA committed just three turnovers as a team. The Bruins scored 31 field goals on 21 assists, with those dishes setting the table for percentage of 59 from 2-point range, and nearly 40 from deep.
South Carolina’s above-referenced 1997 loss to Coppin State is one of just eight 15-over-2 upsets in the 32 years since the NCAA Tournament adopted its current format. The Gamecocks have company in Duke — and their second-round defeat of the Blue Devils elicited memories of when the Blue Devils became college basketball’s sixth two-seed victim.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 20, 2017
The Gamecocks’ dunk-fest to close out Duke prompted the following tweet from Lehigh’s basketball account:
Those dunks in the final minutes look familiar. pic.twitter.com/95SYZwTvMB
— Lehigh M. Basketball (@LehighMBB) March 20, 2017
Savage, Lehigh. Savage coming off the top rope.
Longtime readers might have picked up on my sense of nostalgia when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. I always love reminiscing on March Madness past. At one point on Sunday, however, I fully appreciated just how great the future can be.
The CBS-Turner partnership on NCAA Tournament coverage completely changed how viewers consume the Big Dance, in the best way possible. Unless you were willing to shell out the scratch for Mega March Madness, the CBS pay-per-view service that gave you access to every game, TV viewers were beholden to the whims of the Eye network.
Not only is every game now available on one of four channels — CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV — but the March Madness Live app adds another dimension. During the loaded Thursday and Friday slates, I had one game on my TV, another on my tablet and a third on my laptop simultaneously.
It wasn’t until Sunday when it hit me just how far we’ve come in our Tournament experience over just a few short years. I will sometimes stream the radio broadcast for a game I am watching on TV; the radio call can offer a fresh perspective, as was the case when Jim Jackson broke down the intricacies of John Beilein’s offense.
The radio stream and TV broadcast don’t always sync up. However, the magic of DVR lets me time the screen with the radio call, which I stream through my phone.
As I streamed the TuneIn radio app in sync with the telecast of Kansas-Michigan State, had North Carolina-Arkansas on the iPad, and queued up Oregon-Rhode Island on the laptop, I had an epiphany: I live in the greatest time to be a college basketball fan.