Originally published on March 15, 2004
The NCAA Tournament had been in Mike Boynton's head his whole life, something he only dreamed about since playing basketball as a kid in New York City.
On Sunday night, it became reality for Boynton and his South Carolina teammates. "Finally," a beaming Boynton said after learning the Gamecocks had earned the school's first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998.USC (23-10), selected to the tournament as a No. 10 seed in the East Rutherford, N.J., Regional, will play No. 7 seed Memphis on Friday in Kansas City.
The Gamecocks, though, are happy to be playing anyone, anywhere in the tournament this week considering they missed the postseason as a 12-16 club last season.
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"If there's a team in this country that has come 180 degrees, it's our club," USC coach Dave Odom said. "I think we can finally say that. All year long it's been, 'Yes, I'm pleased with where we are right now but we've got to keep playing.' While that is still the theme, I think we can say without any fear of contradiction that our team has come 180 degrees."
The impact of that turnaround hit the players Sunday night when, while watching the pairings telecast at Odom's home, USC's named popped up.
"I'm almost about to cry," said Boynton, a 6-2 senior guard. "The tears just aren't coming out right now. For me, it's very special."
Boynton's play during the previous three days in leading USC to the SEC Tournament's semifinals not only earned him a spot on the all-tournament team, but also likely carried the team over its final hurdle and into the tournament.
Three of the four No. 10 seeds (USC, Louisville and Dayton) in the tournament were granted at-large bids. Only four at-large teams (No. 11s Air Force and Richmond, No. 12 BYU and No. 13 UTEP) were seeded below those three, meaning that group made up the final seven to get in the field.
USC coach Dave Odom said he felt good about his team's chances but admitted having a few doubts before the 6 p.m. bracket announcement.
His players felt a similar nervousness.
"I was hoping we were in there," USC junior Carlos Powell said. "A lot of people said we were in there. But, we got in there and I was happy. I can breathe now that we're in."
USC faces two familiar things in its first-round site and opponent.
Friday's game will be USC's first postseason contest since the 2002 National Invitation Tournament final in New York City, where Memphis beat the Gamecocks 72-62.
On a positive note, this year's USC team happens to be 2-0 in Kansas City. In the Guardians Classic Tournament semifinals and final in November, the Gamecocks beat Southwest Missouri State 77-64 and Richmond 67-61.
Even though those games were played at the Municipal Auditorium and the NCAA Tournament games will be at Kemper Arena, the Gamecocks feel like karma is on their side.
"We had pretty good luck in Kansas City earlier in the season," Powell said. "We hope for more luck when we go there again."
The Gamecocks were one of six SEC teams to make the field of 65. It's the sixth consecutive year the league has been granted six bids. USC's RPI of 45 was the lowest among the six SEC teams and the Gamecocks also received the lowest seed of any SEC team.
But again, the Gamecocks have no complaints.
It was one year ago this weekend that a physically and emotionally defeated USC team traveled home from New Orleans after losing in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
With a sub-.500 record, the season was done. But before the returning players scattered for the offseason, Odom gathered them together to make a promise.
"Never again," Odom remembered saying. "Never again will we come back here and not be in some sort of postseason tournament if I've got anything to do with it. That was the beginning."
Sunday's word of USC's eighth NCAA Tournament berth marked the end of that journey in one sense.
But USC's players have another goal in mind now - gaining the school's first NCAA Tournament win since 1973.
"I've got faith in all my teammates that we're not just going to the tournament to be there," Boynton said. "We're going there to win. We're not going there with any fear."