The 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four features No. 1 North Carolina versus No. 3 Oregon and No. 1 Gonzaga versus No. 7 South Carolina. Only 0.01 percent of brackets submitted on ESPN featured all four of these teams in their Final Four. Only 0.6 percent of brackets had South Carolina making it this far.
Over the past five years, Head Coach Frank Martin has molded South Carolina’s basketball program in his image of pride and toughness. This Cinderella run has been a culmination of the mentality he has fused into this Gamecocks team, helping it beat three top-20 teams on its run to the Final Four.
Martin entered the program in 2012 after leaving his position at Kansas State, where he stacked up a 117–54 record with tournament appearances in four out of five years, including a run to the Elite Eight.
Following this success, Martin and the Gamecocks struggled in his first two years running the program, going a combined 9–27 in conference play. Martin was suspended for the last regular season game of the 2013-14 season for issues regarding his verbal communication with the team. Frustration plagued the program.
The following year, the Gamecocks put together an impressive 9–3 non-conference showing, highlighted by a win over No. 9 Iowa State. But the team continued to struggle in conference play and ended with an even record.
The team’s best player, guard Sindarius Thornwell, suffered through some significant injuries his sophomore year, Martin’s third season.
“If he was my child, where I kind of had to sign off, I would not have allowed him to play,” Martin said. “I threatened to suspend him that year to force him not to play; he wouldn’t let me.”
Thornwell’s grit motivated the rest of his team to work harder to try to establish South Carolina as a dominant basketball program. His hard work would eventually pay off.
The 2015-16 season was a significant turnaround for South Carolina basketball. The Gamecocks opened up the season winning 16 straight games, earning a ranking as high as 19th. Their momentum eventually slowed during conference play, as they went 11–7, but the team ended up with 24 wins, hopeful for their tournament chances—no Power Five conference team had ever missed out on the tournament after winning that many games.
But after receiving a false notification the team would be placed in the tournament, Martin’s Gamecocks instead received an NIT bid. A successful turnaround season ended in disappointment.
Though Thornwell was able to expand his play that season thanks to the addition of guard PJ Dozier, who relieved some offensive pressure, both he and Martin knew they had to continually improve to make the 2016-17 season count.
The Gamecocks did just that. The team went an impressive 22–9 during the regular season, featuring a 12–6 conference record. They jumped as high as 16th in the rankings in week six, keeping themselves relevant in the discussion of the top teams in the country.
The Gamecocks pride themselves on their persistent defense, turning opponents over 17 times a game. In Martin’s first season, the Gamecocks were ranked 230th in defensive efficiency, but that number has improved all the way to second in the nation for his fifth season. Martin has shared his message of outworking opponents and never giving up, something the team has taken to heart.
Of the Final Four teams, none have played a tougher tournament schedule than South Carolina. The team’s first victory came against Marquette, followed by a major upset victory over Duke, a heavy tournament favorite. The Gamecocks then dismantled the Baylor Bears with a 70–50 statement win and followed that game up with a win against Florida.
Going into the weekend, the Gamecocks were the hottest team in the tournament with a scoring differential of +13.5 and Thornwell scoring 25 points per game. Though the Gamecocks had never played a game in the Final Four before, they became a team that believed in itself, united by its coach and boasting the most stout defense left in the tournament.
Despite their narrow loss to top-seeded Gonzaga on Saturday, the Gamecocks have made their supporters and coach proud, and have set themselves up for increased success in the years to come.