With our signature win over #8 Texas A&M at College Station, the South Carolina Gamecock men's roundballers are four games over .500 in SEC hoops for the first time in eight seasons; you have to go all the way back to '08-'09 during Darrin Horn's first year at the helm, when we also sat at 7-3 at the same point, to find us riding so high in conference play.
Last night we also broke the 20 win plateau for the time since that same '08-'09 season.
This is our first road victory over a Top 10 team 2006 (# 6 Florida Gators) and our best win since taking down the #9 Iowa State Cyclones in 2014 (at neutral site Barclays Arena in Brooklyn).
And despite the loss to the Dawgs earlier in the week, we should hold onto or improve on our # 25 AP ranking - the highest Carolina has been in the polls at this point in February since '03-'04 when Dave "Mr. NIT" Odom was in his second year and made it to his one and only Big Dance while at USC.
If we can keep up our winning ways, we are sitting pretty for the NCAAs. We were 26th in last week's RPI and 36th in ESPN's Basketball Power Index. Most projections have us making the field of 64. For a squad that hasn't been to March Madness since '04 - a twelve year drought - that is pretty heady stuff.
All the credit goes to Coach Frank Martin.
Four years ago - during Darrin Horn's final season - I wrote: The Decline of South Carolina Basketball 1972-2012: A Timeline. Our Chickenhoops next tackled the same subject at the beginning of the '13 season in The State of Play.
When you combine our two posts, you have a pretty good history of the modern era of USC roundball (even when Hoops and I disagreed over some conclusions or focused on different issues). Read them both if you have some time.
If you do slog through them (and they tell a dismal tale), probably the biggest recurring theme you will see in both of our articles is all the mistakes, mismatches and missed opportunities in coaching hires. Time and time again if there was a wrong choice to make, we'd go straight for it - we'd either ignore a promising young star in the making to go for an established name at the tail end of his career, or we'd take a total crap shoot on an iffy newcomer when proven winners (with years to go on the sidelines) were available. We had some great players over the years, but the coaching records were dismal. We zigged when we should have zagged, and vice-versa. As I wrote four years ago, we never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
And we paid the price on the court.
If you had asked me in February, 2012 who we should have hired to replace Horn, I would have said "Gregg Marshall" faster than you could say "Wichita State." Maybe for some of you the wounds are still fresh, but its hard to remember that there was a lot of angst [and not an insignificant amount of sniping] between the pro-Marshall partisans, and those who felt Darrin Horn deserved an extra year or two at the helm before we dropped the axe.
I was already nursing regrets that we'd not grabbed Marhall out of Winthrop back in '08 when our A.D. Eric Hyman passed him over for Horn in the first place. So when Marshall took his name out of the running for USC in '12, I will confess I was more than a bit disappointed. I did try to keep some perspective when I wrote this:
But it was not meant to be. He's not coming home. And all of the energy we expended in debating the point - both pro and con - is now moot. For the second time in four years, we're not going with Gregg Marshall.
Maybe we'll get a "better" coach. Maybe we won't.
Maybe we'll look back on this day as yet another "coulda, shoulda, woulda" in a program that exemplifies the old saw of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Or maybe our next hire will be the one who solves the puzzle of Gamecock hoops that has agonizingly eluded every South Carolina coach who has followed the legendary Frank McGuire.
I think its now safe to say we've gotten a better coach.
When Eric Hyman hired Martin in 2012, the program was its lowest ebb ever. Our two best players transferred and four more would soon follow. Our recruiting was in the ditch. We had just one overall winning season in the last six, which had also been our only.500+ SEC campaign since '97-'98 (we did go 8-8 in '03-'04). We were a joke.
Now we're relevant.
It hasn't been easy. Martin's suspension for the final regular season game in '14 was tough. But looking at the record book shows it may have been a watershed moment in a positive way. Before Ray Tanner benched him, Martin was 25-27 with one ranked win (against # 17 UK) and no SEC tourney victories; since the suspension, his teams are 39-20, with two top 10 W's and four SEC tourney wins.
Maybe the players are better? Sure. But they are all his players - including Michael Carrera who has been the player of the year so far for the Cocks. If Martin isn't SEC Coach of the Year at the conclusion of the season I don't know who will be. Really, the voting can stop now.
From where we were at the end of the Horn era to where we are now is nothing short of amazing.
Will we make the Big Dance? If we can notch 25 wins, including a SEC tourney victory, and finish over .500 in regular season league play, we should get the invite to the Tournament. This will give the dynamic Martin more ammunition to use in recruiting. The SEC is wide open and there's no reason we shouldn't be an upper-division team going forward for the foreseeable future.
So congratulations, Coach. You not only nailed your best hide to the door last night but you've proved to be our best hire in decades on the men's side.