THE BUSINESS OF defining the “greatest” or “best” anything is tricky. I’m not so certain I could ever get anyone to join me in believing the Dave Clark Five was every bit as good a band in the 1960s as the Beatles.
So when I proclaim that the 1972-73 Frank McGuire-coached South Carolina team was the best in program history, take it for what it is worth: one man’s opinion. Or, maybe I should qualify it — the 1973 Gamecocks were the most talented collection of players to ever wear the garnet and black.
“That was a pretty good team, but I don’t know about the greatest,” said Kevin Joyce, the leading scorer on that team and one of several players back in Columbia over the weekend to help celebrate a weekend of recognition for their coach. “I think it’s in the mix.”
The 1973 club won 22 of 29 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, where it fell to eventual national runner-up Memphis State. What separated that team from all the rest in USC history was an immensely talented starting lineup that featured five future NBA draft picks.
Joyce, a senior on that team, and backcourt mate Brian Winters, a junior, both were first-round picks. Joyce went to the Golden State Warriors in 1973 as the 11th pick, and Winters to the Los Angeles Lakers a year later at No. 12.
Freshmen forwards Alex English and Mike Dunleavy went four years later in the second round to the Milwaukee Bucks and the sixth round to the Philadelphia 76ers, respectively. Center Danny Traylor, a senior on that team and the only one of the bunch who did not play pro basketball, was a sixth-round pick of the Capital Bullets in 1973.
English proved to be one of the top scorers in NBA history, averaging 22 points in a 15-year career that included eight All-Star Game appearances. Winters averaged 16 points per game in a nine-year NBA career, and Joyce was an 11-point per game scorer over three seasons in the old ABA.
While pro careers are no way to judge a team’s worth in college, the after-college performances verify the level of talent McGuire had assembled in Columbia.
Much like the 1969-70 team, which many consider the greatest of all-time because it went 14-0 in the ACC regular season and 25-3 overall, the 1973 club was bitten by the bad-luck bug.
All-America guard John Roche went down with a sprained ankle in the ACC tournament semifinals in March of 1970. A healthy Roche most assuredly would have carried USC to the tournament title and berth in the NCAA East Regional at Carolina Coliseum.
The 1973 team has forever lamented an illness to Winters, who missed three games early in the season with mononucleosis but never could gain full strength. McGuire rarely used his reserves, but because of Winters’ health, the coach was forced to lengthen his bench, and the top six players accounted for 89 percent of the minutes played that season.
“I never could get in that last 10 percent of good condition,” says Winters, who also was in Columbia this weekend. “It was a tough year for me physically.”
Joyce believes that had Winters been at full strength all season, USC would have possessed the top backcourt tandem in the country.
That season was the first in which freshmen were eligible to compete on the varsity, and McGuire took full advantage of strong recruiting class that included English and Dunleavy.
“You could see they were good,” Joyce says of preseason and early season practices and games with the newcomers. “They were definitely talented kids who could play.”
In judging one team from another, it often is useful to start by using championships won as criteria for being exceptional. The 1970 team won the ACC regular-season crown. But the 1973 team operated as an independent and never had a chance to win a league title.
Because USC was not affiliated with a conference, McGuire went about scheduling games with the idea that his Gamecocks would play anyone, anywhere. To gain an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, an independent at the time needed to not only win games but also win against top-level competition.
USC played 13 home games that season, but one of those was a victory over a ninth-ranked Indiana squad coached by Bob Knight. Joyce scored 41 points against Indiana, which eventually reached the Final Four.
By season’s end, USC had played three of the eventual Final Four teams. The Gamecocks lost early in the season to a Providence squad led by Ernie DeGregario and Marvin Barnes, then fell to the Memphis State team of Larry Finch and Larry Kenon in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
It seemed all season as if USC was squaring off against an All-America opponent, from Ticky Burden of Utah to Nick Weatherspoon of Illinois to Maurice Lucas of Marquette to John Shumate of Notre Dame to Dwight Lamar of Southwestern Louisiana.
None of those teams had five NBA draft picks like South Carolina did, which is why those 1973 Gamecocks should be considered the best of all-time. If you do not believe me, maybe I can at least convince you that the Dave Clark Five’s “Because” was a much better tune than “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles.