The South Carolina Gamecocks are going to the Final Four, and they could absolutely win the national championship, after a 77-70 win against Florida in the Elite Eight on Sunday in New York.
Those are wild words to type. Until this month, the ‘Cocks hadn’t appeared in an NCAA tournament 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 in 2012 and made incremental progress, and this year’s team was a good story. It just wasn’t supposed to be this good. The Gamecocks are a seventh seed, a program that had never made an Elite Eight in its history. They’ve been bad for years, and it’s not like they loaded up on five-star recruits to put them over the top this season. They added one four-star, and he’s just a role player.
South Carolina hasn’t lucked into this. It beat Marquette’s explosive offense in the first round, then 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. It’s beaten three top-15 teams in one week.
The story on Sunday was similar to what it’s been all tournament. South Carolina’s offense was better than it was for most of the season, scoring 1.1 points per possession, but it was still just OK. The key was on defense. Florida entered the game scoring nearly 1.2 points per trip, and South Carolina kept it to just below 1. In what turned out to be a seven-point game, USC’s grinding defense made the difference.
The Gamecocks will be an underdog in the Final Four, despite having the country’s No. 2 defense by adjusted efficiency. Their offense, which ranks outside the top 100 in the same statistic, might be the worst to make a Final Four in the modern history of the event. 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, and not just against Gonzaga.
Some of that’s just math. There will be four teams left in the field when the Cocks get to Arizona. Computer models and oddsmakers will peg them as by far the least likely team to win it all, and I can’t disagree with that. But South Carolina has demonstrated that if it beats Gonzaga and then someone else, it shouldn’t be a huge shock.
The Gamecocks’ defense has emerged as the second-best unit in college basketball, only behind the team they’re about to play. South Carolina would lose handily if the game against Gonzaga were played on paper, because the defenses are close to even and Gonzaga has an offense that’s many miles better. But if South Carolina’s defense can play up to its increasingly high standard, the Cocks will have a shot by default.
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.
No matter what happens, this has been the Cocks’ best season ever.
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 is every one of his teammates.
I keep thinking about the quote Martin gave after South Carolina’s Sweet 16 win, when a smart kid report asked him if technique or attitude was the most important element to his defense. The moment went viral, but remember what Martin had to say:
“Attitude comes first,” the coach said. “We got to have guys that are going to believe in our mission, that are going to believe in what we want to do. Once they believe, then we can teach them the technique. It all starts with our mindset. We have got guys that are completely bought into what we do.”
Is that grade-A coach-speak? Yes. Does it feature cliches used by coaches all around the country? Sure does. But now South Carolina’s won an 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.