The winter of 2002 was a very long time ago. The South Carolina Gamecock football team felt ascendant (not unlike it does right now), with the fans and players likely oblivious to the brutal next three seasons about to befall the program under the guidance of Lou Holtz. The baseball program was beginning its 2002 season, wondering if it would ever be able to break through and finally return to the College World Series, after back-to-back exits from the Super Regionals in 2000 (to Louisiana-Lafayette) and 2001 (to Stanford), with both exits coming at the hands of 3-2 defeats in the final game of those Super Regionals.
And over in the Carolina Coliseum (for the last time), the South Carolina basketball program played its first season under Dave Odom, who arrived in Columbia after achieving moderate success at Wake Forest, primarily with Tim Duncan. "The Wizard" put together a top-20-team in the nation in Winston-Salem the year prior (according to SRS and Sagarin, if not the final rankings).
On the other hand, South Carolina exited the 2001 season with a problem. Eddie Fogler was able to get the team playing at a level of around the 60th-best team in the nation (again, according to SRS and Sagarin), but that wasn't nearly good enough in the SEC at the time, with Kentucky and Florida operating solidly top-ten programs, and with the Tennessee Volunteers and Georgia Bulldogs also fielding top-50 units. With the SEC still using divisions in basketball, that meant half the conference schedule was played against teams better than the Gamecocks, which placed a natural ceiling on the program (again, not unlike football). The Gamecocks needed a little magic.
According to the new ratings put out by Ken Pomeroy on Monday, Dave Odom brought it, at least partially. Per Pomeroy's ratings, the Gamecocks finished 20th in the nation with a 21-15 record, helped along by five wins in six games in the NIT. The 18-14 record compiled by South Carolina during the regular season was adjudged by the selection committee not to be good enough to garner NCAA admission. That made the Gamecocks the best team in the nation (per Pomeroy's end-of-year ratings) left out of the tournament, a distinction they also held in 2006, when they were the 18th-best team in the nation with the 324th-best luck.
In retrospect, what went wrong for the 2002 Gamecocks? A few things.
1. They scheduled limited out-of-conference opportunities, and missed them.
The only games against truly top out-of-conference teams came early in the season. First, the Gamecocks lost to Duke (the best team in the nation that year) out in Maui by a 81-56 score (a young ChickenHoops was in attendance - thanks again, Mom!), before falling to UCLA 89-77 in the second game. When they got back to Columbia, the Gamecocks took care of business against the rest of the out-of-conference slate with one exception - a 70-68 loss to Georgetown at home in December. Otherwise, the Gamecocks didn't play any particularly good teams (Clemson and Providence were the only other top 150 teams), and thus they accumulated zero good out-of-conference wins that they could point to at the end of the season.
2. They played in a really, really good SEC East.
It's hard to remember now, but the SEC East used to be a juggernaut in college basketball. At the time, with the SEC still at 12 teams and the divisional structure still in place, that meant South Carolina faced two top 10 teams in four of their 16 SEC games (Florida and Kentucky). In 2002, it also meant playing the Georgia Bulldogs twice, who later went on to earn a three seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks went 1-5 in those games, with a one-point loss to Florida at home and an overtime loss to Georgia in Athens.
3. They had really, really bad luck in close games against both good and bad teams.
Perhaps the Gamecocks simply hadn't learned how to win at this point, but they simply couldn't catch a break in close games. In games decided by ten or more points, Carolina went 16-4, with losses to Duke, UCLA, Kentucky, and at Ole Miss, all NCAA Tournament teams.
In the 12 games decided by single digits, South Carolina went 2-10, with particularly painful home losses to Georgetown (by 2), Kentucky (by 1), Alabama (by 1), and Mississippi State (by 7) at home, all teams that made the NCAA Tournament themselves. Carolina also threw away opportunities against weaker opposition, with a home loss to Vanderbilt and road loss to Auburn sticking out, although those outfits were significantly better opposition at the bottom tier of the SEC than the current version offers, as the entire conference was rated in the top 100 of Pomeroy's ratings (this year, 5 of the 14 squads were not top-100 teams).
The team was led by Jamel Bradley and Aaron Lucas, two senior guards who were the only players to average over ten points a game, with Lucas adding almost four assists a game as well (he's currently 20th on the SEC's all-time leaderboard in the latter category among players since 1998).
But their calling card was defense. The Gamecocks forced turnovers on an outlandish 27% of opponent possessions, with Chuck Eidson (second all-time in steals at Carolina) leading the way with 91 swipes, and Rolando Howell adding a very impressive - especially for a big man - 58 steals himself. They did it all while keeping opponents off the foul line, which meant teams had to earn their points against the Gamecocks.
While the interior defense struggled - the 50.4% shooting mark the Gamecocks allowed on 2s was probably in part accrued by guys like Howell playing for steals - it didn't matter because so many possessions for opponents ended without shots, and the Gamecocks didn't give away points at the foul line. While Carolina was somewhat lucky to watch its opposition shoot just 28.9% from 3 over the course of the year, their defense was legitimately excellent.
Unfortunately, the team couldn't find enough production on offense. Howell chipped in almost 10 points a game to join Bradley and Lucas, but junior Chuck Eidson continued to struggle shooting all season long as he rebounded from shooting issues that plagued his sophomore season, shooting under 40% from the field (45% from 2, 31% from 3). Of the eight Gamecocks to take at least 100 field goal attempts that year, only Jamel Bradley (that period's Brenton Williams, shooting 40% from 3) and freshman center Marius Petravicius managed an eFG% of over 50%.
The lack of offense doomed the Gamecocks - in a year where Division 1 teams averaged 1.009 points per possession, South Carolina scored below that mark in 16 of its 36 games. It went 18-3 in games it cleared that number; the team was 4-11 in the games it failed to hit average. Of course, it's not surprising to find that you win more when you score more, and it shouldn't surprise readers to learn that most of the strong offensive performances were run up against weaker competition, but when you hold the opposition under one point per possession in 26 of 36 games, you really ought to do better than 21-15.
The season wasn't a complete waste. Because the Gamecocks missed the NCAA Tournament, they received an NIT bid, the tournament where Dave Odom made his career. I'm not kidding - Odom went 21-3 in his six trips to the NIT, with three championships and one runner-up. It's horrifying how well Odom teams played when it mattered least.
But putting that aside, the NIT trip gave Carolina fans a very special memory - the final game in the Carolina Coliseum. In the quarterfinals, the Gamecocks hosted Ball State. The game was farcical. Remember that defense we were talking about earlier? It held the Cardinals to 12 first-half points. Which is pretty ridiculous. Even more ridiculous? That woeful offense put on a display, scoring 48 points. The lead led to a second half where the fans simply celebrated the history of the building and the first year under Dave Odom, with hopes of better times and NCAA Tournament trips to come in future seasons, when playing across the street at the Colonial Life Arena.
The better times have yet to come. And ultimately, it's hard not to look back on a team that underachieved its potential due to a confluence of bad luck and bad circumstances. But for one night - the last night at the Coliseum - it was a pretty great bunch of Gamecocks.