Frank Martin and South Carolina's surprising Cinderella story written by senior trio
- Behind Sindarius Thornwell, Justin McKie and Duane Notice, the Gamecocks have shocked the college basketball world.
They have been calling it their “farewell tour,” a long goodbye throughout their fourth and final season of basketball at South Carolina. It began in December, before the Gamecocks’ game against Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden, and it has continued in the three-plus months since, a playful way for their trio of soon-to-graduate guards to commemorate and bid adieu. “We just have fun with it,” said Justin McKie, one of the touring three, along with Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice. “Like after shootaround, we’re leaving an arena, we get on Snapchat now and be like: Farewell Tour, we out.”
The biggest story coming out of the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend was perhaps that South Carolina is not out, that it is instead returning to that same storied arena for a Sweet 16 game (and, in no small measure, that it knocked off a favored and traditionally villainous Duke team in doing so). That farewell tour has instead introduced the Gamecocks to much of America at large, which now welcomes them as darlings in a tournament suddenly short on them. They reached that status over a brilliant and blistering second half of basketball in which they buried the Blue Devils with 65 points while making nearly three quarters of their shots, showered in the cheers of a home-state Greenville crowd, and converted an 88-81 win into a public appreciation of equal parts novelty and schadenfreude.
Back on campus there were kids swimming in the fountain outside Thomas Cooper Library. In the locker room the players found themselves flooded with congratulations. (“My phone was actually freezing because I was getting so many tweets and Snapchats and text messages and calls,” said sophomore guard Hassani Gravett. “It got to a point where I was like, ‘I’m gonna have to wait until it all comes in to respond to people.’”) Suddenly South Carolina was the talk of the tourney. Over the next 24 hours, the media relations department was inundated with hundreds of requests. Coach Frank Martin made the national radio and TV rounds. On Thursday, his 51st birthday, he appeared on Good Morning America. They presented him with a cake.
This is not the treatment usually afforded to SEC teams who win two NCAA tournament games; this is usually what awaits a directional mid-major or tiny liberal arts school that upsets the Power Five squad. But in a tournament where the other lower-seeded survivors are recent March stalwarts—fellow No. 7 seed Michigan, No. 8 Wisconsin, and No. 11 Xavier—the Gamecocks have emerged as the unlikeliest remaining dancers. Not only had 13 years passed since South Carolina last made the NCAA tournament, but it had also been 44 years since the school last won a game in the event, when Frank McGuire coached a team led by future Hall of Fame forward Alex English to the Sweet 16. When Martin left Kansas State, not exactly a true powerhouse, to take the Gamecocks job in 2012, some questioned whether the move was a downgrade.
Five years later, Martin has molded a dogged, hard-nosed team in his likeness, purveyors of the nation’s No. 4 defense in adjusted efficiency at 0.89 points per possession, according to Kenpom.com. Its performance against Duke was not its most statistically dominant performance, but it was perhaps its most impressive, coming as it did in a win-or-go-home setting against a team loaded with blue-chip talent that had, a week earlier, looked like a true national title contender while winning the ACC championship. But the Gamecocks were unafraid and unrelenting, forcing 18 Blue Devils turnovers to fuel not only their offense but their egos.
“Going into the game, I think some guys looked at it like, ‘Man, almighty Duke and Coach K,’” Gravett said. “But as we started playing with them, we were like, ‘These guys are just another team.’ Our defense is unbelievable. We’ve got the best defense in the country. So once we started getting stops and everything, we felt like we could definitely beat these guys.”
And so they did, and so they have received the spoils of this month’s spotlight. Thornwell—the fearless guard whom Mike Krzyzewski declared the “best, unheralded, great player in the United States” the day before Thornwell scored 24 points against him—became the well-known face he likely already should have been as the SEC Player of the Year, and further cemented his place in Palmetto State athletic lore. Five years ago the Lancaster, S.C., native spurned the interest of more established basketball schools to sign on as Martin’s first recruit, giving the fledgling program the catalyst it would need in a slow build toward legitimacy.
“Me and PJ, we both, I feel like we both played for the same reasons,” Thornwell said, referring to second leading scorer PJ Dozier, who grew up in Columbia. “For our family, for our state... We all have been through the struggles and with the program and just we all been playing good this season. For us all to be in the spotlight is just tremendous because we don't feel like we get the recognition that we deserve all season.”
Now that spotlight finds them in the same place it has found many surprise March success stories before them: in a challenging matchup against a higher seed, in this case No. 3 Baylor and its imposing front line. For Thornwell, McKie, and Notice, the game represents something like a narrative arc. As freshmen, their first road game had been at Baylor; they lost by two points, then faced them at home the next season and lost by four. And of course, in the reflective state of their farewell tour, this was not lost on them. Well, mostly.
“I think our freshman year we were flustered playing on the road against them,” Notice said. “But our sophomore year we kind of rode together and were able it get that win. But all that's in the past right now. We just got to focus on—oh, we lost... We didn't win. Never mind. Never mind.”
Everybody laughed. That was so many stops ago. And besides, who needs to look back? The tour is not done yet.