South Carolinas last two home games have featured substantial student turnouts, the middle section and half of an end zone of Colonial Life Arena blanketed with emotional kids cheering for their classmates and as it turned out, getting to celebrate on the court with them after the biggest win of Frank Martins tenure.
Its the kind of thing that Martin has pointed out lately the Gamecocks record may not be terrific, but attendance is on the rise.
Tuesday nights opponent, No. 1 Florida, should also expect to see a heavy student turnout at the CLA. But, the Gators are used to it since becoming one of the strongest programs in the country under coach Billy Donovan, heavy student crowds have been the norm at Gainesvilles Stephen C. OConnell Center.
Thats exactly what Martin hopes to see in the future at Colonial Life Arena.
I come to about 8 to 10 home games per year, said Craig Warner, 35, a member of Floridas Rowdy Reptiles and a native of Clemson. As much as I love football, I love basketball even more. I came in the same year Billy Donovan did, and its been awesome ever since.
Martin knows that it will take a while to try to match what Florida has with its student section. Two hours before playing the Gamecocks on Jan. 8, students were lined up outside the O-Dome doors. Once inside, they rushed to get the front seats of the bleachers, where orange pom-poms and the Dazzlers dance team awaited to give the students instructions for certain cheers.
Once the game began, it was constant noise. The section stretched one side of the court and because Floridas floor is an extremely tight layout with sparse room on the sidelines, the fans were only five feet or so off the court. The Gator chomp, an orange Mohawk wig, even a custom-made Florida hockey sweater added to the fun.
Back then, in 2006, the first national championship run, we had the most enthusiastic students ever, said Venki Narayanam, 26, who grew up in Gainesville, graduated from Florida and now attends graduate school at Duke. Weve tried to rebuild that, to bring it back to what it was, and I think were almost there.
Warner and Narayanam were part of something as students and want to keep being part of it.
Martin and the Gamecocks are fighting an uphill battle but are starting to see results. They dont have the two national titles and national runner-up that Donovan has, or the three straight Elite Eight appearances.
Colonial Life Arena also is not as conducive for an electric basketball atmosphere designed to be an opposite of the steep, dark Carolina Coliseum, the spread-out seats at the CLA are great for graduation and concerts but not very good for creating that cramped, uncomfortable basketball feel for opponents.
Yet, USC is seeing progress. Average attendance at home this year stands at 9,913 after the Kentucky game, the highest in three seasons. The Gamecocks averaged 10,427 fans in 2010-11 but checked in at under 9,000 in the two following seasons.
The Georgia and Kentucky games have featured strong student turnouts. The Georgia game lured students with free promotions, while the Kentucky game packed them in without. Tuesday nights Senior Night activities, with a halftime appearance by football coach Steve Spurrier and quarterback Connor Shaw, ought to replicate each game, especially after the momentous upset of the Wildcats.
It began at Florida the same way. Donovan was a hot young coach when he was hired, but the Gators were still scuffling through the SEC. Promotions like USCs T-shirts, coozies, posters helped bring the students in.
Once Donovan reached the national championship game in 2000, it was set.
Its first-come, first-serve if youre a student, Narayanam said. The other student section is upper deck, the overflow section. Billy buys us Chick-fil-A sometimes, or pizza.
We feel were the best student section in the SEC, Warner said.
Martin has thanked his marketing department throughout the season. While its no Rowdy Reptiles just yet, The Roost is starting to fluff its feathers.
How about our fans today?, Martin marveled after the Kentucky game. I was feeling it today and Ive been feeling it since the Ole Miss game. Our time is coming. If we do our jobs, were going to have the best fans in the country in mens basketball.
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