A football school no more, South Carolina basketball has Columbia gripped with acute hoops fever
Thirty thousand people.
That's how many fans showed up to Colonial Life Arena in one weekend to watch South Carolina basketball. Both the men and women's games had over 15,000 fans crammed into the garnet seats and the 30,000 fans saw two Gamecock wins.
The atmosphere is a far cry from three years ago, when the two teams combined for 26 losses and average attendance for games hovered around 6,000. The sounds of players talking and balls bouncing frequently reverberated through the mostly empty arena and excitement for both teams was minimal.
Now, lines form hours before the game. The student section overflows before tipoff. And the noise mimics that of a jet engine rather than a college basketball game. Columbia, South Carolina is gripped with basketball fever.
"I'd much rather manage that dynamic, than the one we managed three years ago which is three thousand people in an arena, your whole campus didn't care about your team," men's head coach Frank Martin said. "I'd much rather manage the dynamic we got right now."
The symptoms started simply enough: The women's team beat a ranked Ohio State team to start the season and then cruised passed a few non-conference opponents to start 7–0.
The condition strengthened as Frank Martin and the men strung a few wins together to start 7–0 as well.
Then the women defeated Duke by 11 points and the men conquered rival Clemson on the road. Both teams combined for an 18–0 record.
After that, the diagnosis was complete. The fever had taken over, and with the teams a combined 36–2, it doesn't seem to be subsiding.
"We've been recognized much more; there's more attention when you walk around campus," senior forward Laimonas Chatkevicius said. "Everyone comes into the stands, there are more people during the games, so that helps a lot."
With the women ranked No. 2 and the men staying ranked for most of the season, South Carolina is one of only nine schools with teams ranked in each AP poll. The combined 30 straight wins to start the season is the fifth-best start by a school in history.
Now, what's started as excitement about these two programs has blossomed into an all-encompassing fervor.
"This season has been special. I believe it requires something special," junior guard Duane Notice said. "(It's great) Just to see how much progress we've made. Rome wasn't built in a day."
Both teams are currently predicted by Sports Illustrated to make the NCAA Tournament. For the women, it'd be their fifth straight appearance; for the men, it'd be the first time to make the dance in 12 years.
While South Carolina is historically considered a football school, this fever could force the Gamecocks to be treated as a basketball institution from here on out.
"Obviously (the fans) love football, but I think our programs, both Frank and I, have made them fall a little more in love with basketball than normal," head coach Dawn Staley said. "And that's a great thing."
Collyn Taylor is SI's campus correspondent for the University of South Carolina. Follow him on Twitter.