For yet another year, South Carolina men’s basketball will be absent from March Madness, and the status of coach Frank Martin is increasingly in doubt. As the 2021-22 campaign has been a very up and down time to watch the Gamecocks, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to look back on some better days and commemorate the fifth anniversary of 2017’s wildly fun and wildly unexpected Final Four run.
South Carolina entered the 2016-17 season on a note of promise and with the NCAA Tournament top of mind, as the Gamecocks compiled a 25-9 (11-7 SEC) mark in the previous year and reached the second round of the NIT. Stars like senior guard Sindarius Thornwell and sophomore guard P.J. Dozier, along with senior guard Duane Notice, sophomore forward Chris Silva, and freshman big Maik Kostar, gave the Gamecocks a good mix of young and veteran talent to roll out in their starting lineup. Role players like senior (and Gamecock legacy) Justin McKie, sophomore transfer Hassani Gravett, and freshman Rakym Felder found ways to contribute off the bench, too.
The first sign of big things to come arrived early. In November, South Carolina notched back-to-back Top 25 upsets of No. 25 Michigan and No. 18 Syracuse and trounced both teams (61-46 and 64-50, respectively), showing off the suffocating defense that Frank Martin prefers. Although the Gamecocks broke into the polls at No. 20 and rose as high as No. 16 over the next few weeks, December put a damper on that, as South Carolina lost to Seton Hall, Memphis, and rival Clemson to close out the non-conference slate and tumble back out of the rankings.
The Gamecocks went right to work in SEC play, opening the league schedule on a five-game winning streak and picking up a No. 24 ranking and another win over a fellow Top 25 opponent, this time over No. 19 Florida. Fifth-ranked Kentucky spoiled the party, but South Carolina rattled off another four wins before falling to Alabama and entering the worst part of its schedule.
With the calendar turned now to February, USC fans started to get nervous. The Gamecocks’ best wins were well behind them, the losses were piling up as the regular season wound to a close, and worst of all — as has been unfortunately characteristic of Frank Martin’s teams — they immediately flamed out in the first round of the SEC Tournament. With the Gamecocks now unranked and losers of six of their last nine contests, Selection Sunday was a stressful affair. Given that South Carolina’s last tournament appearance was in 2004, and there’d been some more recent snubs that still stung, there was legitimate reason for concern. But thankfully for the Gamecocks, the committee nonetheless deemed their body of work good enough, and awarded South Carolina a 7 seed in the East Regional — and the chance to win their first NCAA Tournament game since 1973.
With the tournament dream now finally realized, reality came calling quickly, as the East Regional bracket revealed a daunting road ahead for the Gamecocks. First up was a date with 8-seed Marquette, a mid-major known for its postseason giant-slaying. South Carolina flipped the script on the Golden Eagles, who went up 10 points early but wilted in the face of an 11-0 Gamecock run that put USC ahead for good, as South Carolina blitzed to a 93-73 victory. Four Gamecocks posted double-figure scoring, led by Thornwell’s 29 and Dozier’s 21, with Silva and Kotsar adding 10 points each. Thornwell pulled down 11 rebounds as well, and the all-around performance heralded his heroics to come.
Next up? The region’s second seed, the one and only Duke Blue Devils. It was at this point that many observers — fans very much included — expected the Gamecocks to bow out of March. They’d gotten their feel-good victory against Marquette; surely that was the all they could hope to bring back to Columbia when going up against an NCAA Tournament juggernaut like Duke. Thrillingly, the answer was no, as the Gamecocks came back from another 10-point deficit and exploded offensively in the second half, posting a 65-point effort that was the most ever given up by a Mike Krzyzewski team (and also featured a nice exclamation-point dunk by Justin McKie in the closing seconds that I’ll never forget). The Gamecocks had five players reach double figures in the 88-81 victory: Thornwell again led the team with 24 points; Notice and Silva each posted 17; Felder came off the bench for a strong 15 points; and Dozier added 11.
Riding a euphoric high over the Duke victory, South Carolina entered the Sweet 16 to face No. 3 Baylor. It didn’t take long for the Gamecocks to grab control of the game as they cruised past the Bears, 70-50, and handed that program its worst NCAA Tournament loss. Thornwell again dominated for South Carolina, scoring 24 points while Silva and Dozier had 12, Notice put up 11, and Felder had another good outing off the bench with nine. It was at this point in the Gamecocks’ run that I really, truly started to believe. Getting over the hump and beating Marquette was one thing; shocking Duke was another, and both could be described as flukes by a more cynical viewer. But to beat down Baylor in such a way that the Bears were never a credible threat? There may be something more to this Cinderella story.
After dispatching three frequent March Madness participants, the Gamecocks headed to the Elite Eight to face another, albeit one much more familiar to them: SEC sibling and fourth-seeded Florida. Likely owing to that familiarity, this was the toughest test South Carolina faced yet; the teams battled and traded leads into the final minute, when a pair of Thornwell free throws and a nice assist to Kotsar gave the Gamecocks breathing room and the 77-70 victory. Thornwell, who to this point in the tournament was averaging 25.8 points and 7.5 rebounds, scored 26 points; Dozier (17), Silva (13), and Kostar (12) rounded out the double-figure scoring. With Thornwell crowned the East Regional MVP, the South Carolina Gamecocks were going to the Final Four.
And then, unfortunately, the clock struck midnight on South Carolina’s Cinderella story. Facing No. 1 seed Gonzaga, the Gamecocks battled admirably, but suffered an agonizing 77-73 loss as the Bulldogs’ big men bullied South Carolina in the paint. Down 75-72 in the final seconds and with the ball, USC had a chance to tie the game when Thornwell was fouled. He made the first free throw, then intentionally missed the second in hopes of an offensive rebound; instead, it fell to the Zags, and their free throw makes after the resulting foul iced the game. For the first time in the tournament, Thornwell did not lead the Gamecocks in scoring; he put up just 15 points in a gutty performance that many fans suspect was hampered by an illness he came down with just days before the Final Four. While Thornwell’s health will linger as one of the biggest what-ifs in South Carolina sports history, the 2017 NCAA Tournament is nonetheless an unforgettable, cherished memory for the Gamecocks.
While South Carolina is not a program that tends to put out NBA talent, it’s no surprise that the 2017 squad is well represented among current pro Gamecocks. After injuries marred what had been a fairly successful stint as a rotation player with the Denver Nuggets, Dozier was traded to the Orlando Magic last month. Silva has kept finding ways to stick around with the Miami Heat, who seem to enjoy signing him to multiple 10-day contracts (just bring him on already!). Thornwell and Kotsar are playing overseas in Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga, and Notice is playing for the Hamilton Honey Badgers in his native Canada.
Dozier and Silva were also recently in Columbia to watch South Carolina’s top recruiting target and No. 1 overall prospect, GG Jackson, in action — and hopefully put in a good word for their alma mater as well. If the Gamecocks want to reach another Final Four without playing decades of basketball to do it, Jackson would be a great first step toward that goal.