It’s March and there’s Madness and there’s the eternal spring-time question in these parts — when will the Gamecocks win another NCAA basketball tournament game?
It has been 40 years since the University of South Carolina won in the Big Dance.
Yes, the Gamecocks’ invitations have been few. Five times since their most recent NCAA win, in 1973, has a USC team played in the tournament.
There’s no doubt USC should have seized at least a couple of those opportunities, but what did that 1973 team have that its successors did not? What have been the missing ingredients all these years?
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Look at that 1973 lineup and the picture comes quickly into focus. Those Gamecocks, successors to the Roche-Owens powerhouses, started four future pros and another who barely missed. A senior and two freshmen added quality depth, and a Hall of Fame coach called the shots.
A team with that personnel ought to win and this one did, posting a 22-7 record and finishing on a 12-2 tear after shaking off illness and injury. The triumphs included beating Texas Tech 78-70 in the NCAA tourney’s first round on March 10, 1973.
Mark Greiner, one of four freshmen on the squad and a member of coach Frank McGuire’s final outstanding recruiting class, reflects on the ’73 squad and season and says, “Kevin’s team.”
Of course, he means Kevin Joyce, a senior that year who still is revered for winning the jump ball that led to the winning points in the 1971 ACC tournament championship game. But he did much more, including sinking the winning shot in the final seconds in USC’s 1972 NCAA tourney win against Temple.
Joyce, junior Brian Winters and freshmen Alex English and Mike Dunleavy formed the future-pro contingent and 7-foot senior Danny Traylor rounded out the starters. Senior Casey Manning and freshmen Greiner and Bob Mathias filled key back-up roles.
“That was the first year freshmen could play on the varsity, and that certainly worked to our advantage,” Joyce said of the ’73 team. “We needed them to compete. Carolina had gotten out of the ACC a couple of years earlier and those guys were coach McGuire’s last great class. Getting out of the ACC was the dumbest thing the University has ever done in terms of athletics, and the program suffered.”
Those were the caliber of players McGuire could recruit during the ACC years. Afterward, not so much; the power conferences picked most of the plums. Joyce had his NBA career cut short after a knee injury, but English averaged 21.5 points per game for his pro career and made the Hall of Fame. Winters averaged 16.2 in the NBA and Dunleavy gave clinics in point-guard play. Traylor was the final player cut by the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets.
“We had a lot of players who could play and score,” said Joyce, who led the team with a 20.4 average. English (14.6), Winters (13.2 despite being weakened with mononucleosis) and Dunleavy (10.4) followed.
“That’s the year we beat Indiana at home and Kevin scored 41,” Greiner said.
“I remember,” Joyce said and laughed about his performance against a team coached by defensive master Bob Knight. “To do that against a great coach who focused on defense is one of those moments. I just caught fire. I couldn’t miss.”
With Winters slowed by mono, the Gamecocks started the season 10-5, then began to sizzle after the lineup came together. They won 10 in a row, including a victory against Illinois in Chicago and successive road wins against Toledo, St. Bonaventure and Niagara, before Notre Dame snapped the streak with a 73-69 win in South Bend.
“We had a very talented team, a fun mix of guys,” Winters said. “I was really more of a facilitator that year because of the mono. I probably should have taken more time off in order to get in top physical condition. I would get tired and couldn’t sustain my effort and that was frustrating.
“But one player never wins a game by himself. Alex, Kevin, Mike ... they could all score and I just tried to set them up. And that’s what it takes. Everybody needs to know his role and take care of his responsibilities.”
Those Gamecocks knew their roles and a nine-game February winning streak earned them a spot in the national polls.
“Coach got us a good independent schedule, and he didn’t mind going on the road,” Joyce said. “We missed the grind of the ACC, but we got in the (NCAA) tournament again.”
Once there, they beat Texas Tech in Wichita, Kan.
BEATING TEXAS TECH
The teams battled to a 30-30 draw at halftime, then the Red Raiders opened a 47-42 lead and fouls began to pile up on the Gamecocks.
“We had players and we had depth,” Greiner said. “Everything started with Kevin and Brian, but the freshmen played significant roles. Everyone contributed.”
Winters fouled out with more than 11 minutes remaining, Traylor picked up his fourth with 15:48 to go and both he and English would foul out in the late stages.
“One thing that stands out to me is the freshmen played a lot of minutes in that game,” Greiner said. “A highlight to me was being on the floor with Kevin and the rest of us were freshmen.”
The freshmen responded. English made a three-point play to get Carolina within one point and Greiner added a crucial tip-in. Joyce iced the victory with six consecutive free throws in the final minutes.
“I don’t remember specifics, but I do know it was a very physical game,” Winters said. “(Texas Tech) had a nice team, big and physical, and it was nice to win.”
Joyce led Carolina with 21 points. Traylor contributed 16 points and 16 rebounds despite foul trouble, English added 15 and 15, Dunleavy 11 points and Winters nine.
The Gamecocks advanced to the Sweet 16 only to run into a buzz saw named Memphis State, which finished second to UCLA that year. Larry Finch and Larry Kenon combined for 59 points in a 90-76 victory.
Rules called for consolation games in those days, and the Gamecocks stopped Southwestern Louisiana 90-85 in the meaningless exhibition.
Forty years without another NCAA tourney win “is hard to believe,” Greiner said. “It sure doesn’t sound very good. That was a long time ago, and we had some very good players.”
The roster — and their later success in the pros — support his “very good players” observation, and Greiner said, “Talent is the name of the game. To win at that level, in the NCAA tournament, teams need two or three four- or five-star guys.”
Frank Martin, who just completed his first season at Carolina, knows that, and he works to fill the talent reservoir on the recruiting trail.
Meanwhile, the elephant in the room looms: When will the Gamecocks win another NCAA basketball tournament game?
It’s been a while, you know.