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Basketball Preview: The State of Play

How'd this program get to where it is today? For one thing, by making a ton of bad coaching hires. We review the history of the program over the last 40 years, because you can't know where you're going unless you know where you've been.

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Bruce Ellington will lead the Gamecock basketball team once he returns from football duty.
Bruce Ellington will lead the Gamecock basketball team once he returns from football duty.

This job isn't easy.

You already know the numbers that haunt this program. They haven't been to an NCAA tournament game since 2004 (where they got whitewashed by Memphis in a game that wasn't as close as the 59-43 score indicates). Basketball Prospectus once welcomed the Darrin Horn era by saying that the Carolina job was so hard, in a few years Horn would either be one of the best coaches the program had ever had, or the assistant coach at Northwestern. They were right he'd be gone, but they should've guessed skiing.

Last season marked the 40th anniversary of our last NCAA tournament win. I wasn't alive in 1972-73, and many of our fans weren't either. That team had notable names like Kevin Joyce, Alex English, Mike Dunleavy, and Casey Manning. Sadly, that probably captures most of the names that your casual fan who came into his or her Gamecock fandom in 2005 knows about the program pre-2000.

Sure, they've heard of BJ McKie (all the more so thanks to Justin's arrival), and they may have heard of Zam Frederick (also helped along by the presence of his son in the program), as well as a few other guys. But a glance at Notable Players in our Wikipedia article quickly shows that this program hasn't had a whole helluva lot happen since that last tournament win, with one major exception.

And man, that exception. I could write a book about the 1996-97 and 1997-98 Gamecocks. They're full of great stories, and easily the highest points our program has reached since the McGuire era. But even those teams, great as they were, can only be looked back on so fondly, thanks to two straight early exits in the NCAA tournament in games in which they were heavily favored.

But let's back up to paint a brief picture about where this program sat prior to Martin's arrival (for even more information, click-through to this great read from tryptic67 from early 2012.)

The Glory Years (1966-1974)

After leading North Carolina to the 1957 NCAA title (but more frankly, after getting involved in an NCAA investigation after the 1961 season), Frank McGuire tried his hand at coaching in the NBA. He led Wilt Chamberlin and the Philadelphia Warriors for one season, taking the team to a 49-31 record and a seven-game loss to one of Bill Russell's many Celtic teams that took home that particular piece of hardware.

Following the season, Wilt and the Warriors moved west, but McGuire stayed behind. After two years off, McGuire took on the challenge of leading a South Carolina program that had never reached postseason play (while it took until 1975 for the NCAA to allow teams other than conference champions to play in the tournament, this also means the Gamecocks were missing out on the NIT, which started a year before the NCAA tournament in 1938 and invited between 8-16 teams during this stretch).

It took McGuire two years to get it going in Columbia, but from 1966-1971 he never finished lower than third in the very competitive eight-team ACC (this was pre-Georgia Tech, let alone Florida State and the rest of the teams that have been brought along in the last two decades), and winning the conference in 1971, the Gamecocks' last year in the league.

McGuire and football coach Paul Dietzel led the Gamecocks out of the ACC, and after three consecutive appearances in the tournament from 1972-74, McGuire would only make two more NITs before he retired in 1980 at the age of 66.

The Downward Slide (1975-1983)

Many subscribe the downfall to a rift in the department between McGuire and newly-hired football coach Jim Carlen. That schism weakened both programs and led to the Gamecocks failing to re-join the ACC in 1975. The ACC would pick up Georgia Tech in 1979, and the topic was never seriously discussed again before the Gamecocks finally joined the SEC in 1992.

While the program continued to post winning seasons in every year after the 1965-66 campaign, it had fallen out of the upper echelons of the sport, and was struggling to get meaningful basketball games in February, as the rest of college basketball went through their conference schedules.

In a fact that will shock those of you who have never known Duke as anything other than basketball royalty, the Gamecocks followed up the McGuire era by prying away Bill Foster from his job in Durham, where he had just led the Blue Devils to three straight NCAA appearances, including an NCAA Championship Game final loss in 1978 and the Elite Eight in 1980. Duke would be forced to scramble for a head coach, finally making the dubious choice to hire a coach from Army who was coming off a 9-17 season.

Foster put together two strong seasons at Carolina in the first three years of his tenure, sandwiching 17-10 and 22-9 records in 1980-81 and 1982-83 around a disappointing 14-15 1981-82 campaign. In the 1982 season, Foster suffered a mild heart attack in a 59-53 Gamecock win over a capable Purdue team in Columbia. In Odom-esque fashion, too many of the 22 wins were against the soft underbelly of the schedule, and the Gamecocks would have to settle for an NIT bid.

The Plateau of Mediocrity (1984-1991)

It'd be the last postseason appearance under Foster, who led Carolina into the Metro Conference in 1983-84, where in his last three seasons he would never post a winning conference record and never best his 15-13 record in 1984-85. While the conference included basketball luminaries such as Cincinnati, Memphis, and Louisville, it also carried also-rans Tulane, Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Southern Mississippi. It is fondly remembered for nearly inventing the super conference, the first of which would ultimately still include South Carolina when it joined the SEC in 1992, as well as for having a logo that is awesome to wear on a t-shirt that I rock all the time.

He unceremoniously quit the job after the 1985-86 season to head to Northwestern, while the Gamecocks faced an NCAA investigation for events that occurred during his tenure. In seven years at Northwestern, Foster never posted a winning season with the Wildcats (in fact, never accumulating double-digit wins).

The Gamecocks went out and hired assistant head coach to Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech - George Felton. In doing so, Carolina passed up on then Alabama head coch Wimp Sanderson (who had just taken the Tide to five straight NCAA tournaments, and would make four more in the next five years) and Gene Keady (who had made four straight NCAA tournaments at Purdue, and would make 13 more in the remaining 19 years he spent with the Boilermakers). We also missed out on Danny Nee, who had moderate success - and made five NCAA tournaments in his 15-year run - at basketball death trap Nebraska. Our last option - Paul Evans - only made five NCAA tournaments in his eight years at Pitt. We did not make a good coaching hire.

In any event, Felton kept the Gamecocks from ever becoming truly terrible, in fact leading them to an NCAA tournament appearance they probably didn't deserve in 1988-89 when his team tied for second in the Metro. They would go on to lose by 15 to NC State as a 12 seed, the only NCAA appearance between 1974 and 1997.

Felton was fired after leading the Gamecocks to a 20-win season in 1990-91 under odd circumstances. In the press conference announcing his firing, athletic director King Dixon refused to discuss the reasons for letting Felton go. Felton had a rumored drinking problem, and an otherwise strained relationship with Dixon. In any event, despite moderate success, the Gamecocks were on the hunt for another head basketball coach as they pivoted from life in the Metro to life in the SEC.

The SEC and Bottoming Out (1992-1996)

The Carolina job was considered a good get in 1991, as coaches knew that they would be taking over a program headed to one of the premier conferences in college athletics in a year's time. Instead, the search committee installed by King Dixon botched the process, and after 57 days of being turned down in public, finally decided to take a chance on a mid-major coach.

Steve Newton coached at Murray State of the Ohio Valley Conference for six years, leading the Racers to four regular season and three OVC tournament championships during his tenure in Murray, KY. He was by no means the first choice for Carolina - that would've been Vanderbilt's Eddie Fogler, who had just led Vanderbilt to the NCAA tournament in his second season on the job.

Then Larry Brown - then of the San Antonio Spurs, and former NCAA champion with Kansas - pursued the job long enough to get an offer before turning it down (even in 1991, Brown was known for his proclivaty for job changes). Carolina would go on to fail in their pursuit of John Kresse (regret), Terry Holland (who had quit coaching and was the athletic director at Davidson after a successful 17-year stretch at Virginia), Rick Barnes (who took the Clemson job three years later), Pat Foster (who had a so-so run at the University of Houston), Charlie Spoonhour of Southwest Missouri State (who never had great success at his next job - St. Louis), Brian Winters (an ALUM who instead stayed on as an assistant NBA coach), and finally Rutgers' head coach Bob Wenzel, who publicly rejected the job and was such a catch that he never made another NCAA tournament in his final six years at Rutgers.

Newton had an ignominious two-year stint at Carolina, racking up a 20-35 (8-24 conference) record, and resigning mid-way through his second season at the helm thanks to five NCAA recruiting violations. The man who Carolina never wanted was quickly shuttled away, and new athletic director Mike McGee had his first major hire to make.

After an unfortunate situation where we hired Bobby Cremins - only to have him immediately return to Georgia Tech - the Gamecocks made no mistake in their next hire. Eddie Fogler - fresh off a 28-6 season with Vanderbilt - took the South Carolina job in 1993 and led the program to heights it had not reached since the McGuire days.

Fogler spent his first two years at Carolina rebuilding the downtrodden program, compiling lackluster records in 1993-94 and 1994-95, and then the Gamecocks made their move. Led by sophomore Melvin Watson, junior UNC transfer Larry Davis, local legend BJ McKie (all winners of South Carolina's Mr. Basketball award), and massive sophomore center Ryan Stack, the Gamecocks put together a 19-12 record that planted the seeds for the next two seasons. The season unfortunately ended in the NIT quarterfinals against Alabama, where BJ's former Irmo teammate Marvin Orange led the Crimson Tide to a 68-67 win where Melvin Watson dribbled the ball of his foot late to seal the win for the Tide.

The Peak (1997-1999)

Then came the best two-year period in Carolina basketball history. The team - made up largely of the same core, though Davis wasn't around in 1997-98 - won the SEC with a 15-1 conference record in 1996-97 with Kentucky's first ever loss on Senior Day in the SEC finale clinching the championship. The season had an inauspicious start, with losses to both UNC-Asheville and Charleston Southern, but the Gamecocks reeled off 12 straight wins after the latter loss. Unfortunately, the second-seeded Gamecocks ended their season in horrific fashion, losing to Coppin State 78-65 in the first round.

The team would rebound to compile a 23-8 (11-5) record the next season, which included beating Cincinnati in glorious fashion. After a run to the SEC Championship game (where we were throttled by Kentucky), the Gamecocks fell again in the NCAA tournament, this time an excruciating one-point loss as the three-seed to Richmond, 62-61.

The Regression (2000-2008)

Recruiting dropped off somehow during this time, so by BJ's senior season there weren't enough players left to help him finish in style. An 8-21 season was followed by two more lackluster years (15-17, 15-15). Fogler got the Gamecocks into the NIT with a 22-15 record in 2001-02, but disagreements with Mike McGee over the future direction of the program (and other things) led Fogler to call it a career.

After a brief run at Jim Calhoun of UConn, the Gamecocks settled on Dave Odom to replace Fogler. Odom had exasperated some Demon Deacon fans for three straight NIT appearances, and led the Gamecocks to that same tournament in his first year, in what would be a recurring theme for Dave.

The Gamecocks made one NCAA tournament in Odom's tenure (the aforementioned 2003 Memphis game), but otherwise Odom couldn't get the team to perform well in advance of the NIT (where he thrived). In three separate years - 2001-02, 2004-05, 2005-06 - Odom took a team with sub-20 wins and rung up at least four NIT wins to climb that plateau. It was infuriating, especially in 2005-06, when the Gamecocks got swept by 15-15 Georgia and lost to 4-12 in conference Ole Miss on their way to a 6-10 SEC record. Of course, that team was good enough to make a run to the SEC Tournament finals and then win the NIT, but it couldn't win 9 of 10 games when it needed them to make the NCAAs. So went the era of a man who wrote an aptly entitled book, "The End is Not the Trophy." (available for $0.01).

The Bottom Falls Out (2009-2013)

After Odom resigned mid-way through the 2007-08 season, Eric Hyman made his first basketball hire during his USC tenure: Darrin Horn. After considering Travis Ford of UMass (who went on to be wildly successful at Oklahoma State) and Bob McKillop of Davidson (a bullet dodged, in my opinion) once he decided - in typical Hyman fashion - that Sean Miller of Xavier was too expensive (he's now doing a banner job at Arizona), Hyman went for Horn, who would've never been considered for the job but for a fluke NCAA win over a good Drake team and an incredibly fortuitous San Diego upset of UConn that helped WKU into the Sweet 16.

The Horn era started averagely and got worse. Horn helped USC earn a split of the incredibly weak SEC East in 2009, but thanks to a garbage non-conference schedule that included a loss to the College of Charleston and the only remotely decent team we played (Clemson), along with a first-game exit in the SEC Tournament, the Gamecocks headed for the NIT. What had become tedious under Odom became the peak of the Darrin Horn era.

To be fair to Horn, his 2009-10 team would've been wildly different if Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes hadn't been injured and suspended, respectively, early in that season. With a shortened frontcourt, Horn and the Gamecocks relied even more heavily on Downey, who played 85% of the minutes available and shot 35.5% of the team's shots while on the floor, good for fourth in the nation that season, which is just outlandish. After a 15-16 season in 2010-11, Horn wore out his welcome in 2011-12 with a 10-21 (2-14) record in which the Gamecocks went 3-15 in the 2012 calendar year portion of the season.

Into this mess stepped Frank Martin. As down as the program was, it took another major step back when Damontre Harris and Anthony Gill both announced that they would not be returning to the team. That led to the mess that was the 2012-13 season, the end of which was so ridiculous that Martin took to starting walk-on Brian Steele in multiple games, either proving a point to the players that they had to do what he wanted to earn playing time, or proving to the fans that he was so entrenched for the next few years that he could get away with anything.

That led to four players with eligibility remaining - Brian Richardson, Eric Smith, RJ Slawson, and Damien Leonard - leaving the program, along with senior Lakeem Jackson. Into their places step seven freshmen, who join a Villanova transfer, a JUCO transfer, a wide receiver, a big man on injured reserve, and two Lithuanians to form the 2013-14 Gamecocks.

We'll preview those guys over the next two days.

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