S.C. rates as hoops hotbed

Three state teams make NCAA tourney, a boast few other states can make

03/18/2010 12:00 AM

03/14/2015 1:02 PM

Fans across the country might not know the exact whereabouts of Clemson, Winthrop and Wofford, but the trio of NCAA participants is putting the state of South Carolina on the college basketball map.

For only the fourth time since 1989, the state has three or more representatives in the NCAA tournament. While that might not sound particularly impressive, consider that the basketball tradition-rich state of North Carolina has only two teams - Duke and Wake Forest - in the tournament field.

Or, consider that South Carolina has as many representatives in the 65-team bracket as Kentucky, where natives will tell you the game was invented and has flourished ever since. In the University of Kentucky, Louisville and Murray State, the state of Kentucky has nothing on South Carolina.

The most knowledgeable of sports fans might reasonably conclude football is the sport of choice in South Carolina. Still, the state deserves due recognition as fast developing into a hoops hotbed.

"There are players in this state, and it's a great basketball state," says no less an authority than Bobby Cremins, the head coach at College of Charleston. His 21-11 club opened play Wednesday night at Eastern Kentucky in the College Basketball Invitational.

Yet another in-state school, Coastal Carolina, which won the Big South Conference regular season, finished its season at 28-7 after a first-round loss to UAB in the National Invitation Tournament.

It all adds up to South Carolina being as well-represented in the postseason as almost any state in the country. Only Texas with seven teams, Pennsylvania with five and California with four have more teams in the NCAA tournament.

This marks the eighth time the state has placed multiple teams in the tournament, and the fourth time it has had at least three teams in the field. The state outdid itself in 1998 when Clemson, College of Charleston, USC and S.C. State made the tournament.

"It makes me think of coach (Frank) McGuire; it really does," Cremins says. "When I played in Columbia, seeing all those baskets go up in the backyards, I remember that time well. That was a great era."

Before McGuire arrived in Columbia in 1964, basketball was an afterthought at USC. It was generally an off-season distraction between football seasons. At the same time, Clemson had made some effort to field respectable basketball teams under coaches Press Maravich and Bobby Roberts, with only moderate success.

Still, the state had little passion for the game until McGuire began building his underground railroad of talent from New York to Columbia. His 1971 ACC championship team of 12 players included eight players from New York and only sophomore Casey Manning from South Carolina.

A year later, McGuire began to realize top-level basketball talent was available in South Carolina as well. Cremins, then a graduate assistant coach at USC, was first dispatched to scout Alex English, a 6-foot-8 forward from Dreher High School.

"Alex English was the real deal," Cremins said. "I don't think we had McDonald's All-Americans back then. But Alex English had to be one of the top five high school players in America. He was sensational."

A year later, Cremins was sent to take a gander at Nate Davis, a 6-4 forward from Eau Claire High. Immediately after the game, Cremins found a telephone and called USC assistant coach Donnie Walsh.

"Donnie, we're both from New York," Cremins remembers saying, "and I haven't ever seen anybody in New York jump like this kid."

English and Davis landed at USC. Then a parade of talent left S.C. high schools to join big-time programs across the country. Ray Allen, Tyrone Corbin, Raymond Felton, Kevin Garnett, Xavier McDaniel, Jermaine O'Neal and Stanley Roberts all eventually played in the NBA.

Unfortunately, none of those NBA players attended in-state schools. Only in the past decade have South Carolina programs been better able to keep top-level talent at home.

Chester's Devan Downey returned from Cincinnati to play at USC, and Florence's Sam Muldrow has one more season with the Gamecocks. Whitmire's Trevor Booker soon will complete an illustrious career with Clemson, and his brother, Devin, will replace him. One of Winthrop's top players, Robbie Dreher, hails from Greenville, and Junior Salters of Spartanburg has been a leader for Wofford.

George Glymph, the long-time high school coach in the Columbia area, says more and more players are remaining in-state because the level of basketball has improved greatly in recent years.

"Basketball in this state is as strong as it's ever been," Glymph says, "and it's going to get stronger because of the quality of coaches in the state."

Oliver Purnell has sent three consecutive teams to the NCAA tournament for the second time in Clemson history. USC's Darrin Horn is considered one of the up-and-comers on the coaching scene. Cremins has built a program at College of Charleston that should sustain success. In three years at Coastal Carolina, veteran coach Cliff Ellis already has won a Big South Conference regular-season title.

Truth is, South Carolina will never match the history and tradition of basketball states like North Carolina and Kentucky. Yet this state is solidly establishing itself as one in which top-notch basketball is played at the NCAA Division I level.

About Ron Morris

Ron Morris

Ron Morris

Morris has been employed at The State newspaper for 15 years, the last 11 as sports columnist. He is an Oklahoma native who was reared in Wyoming and graduated from UNC Charlotte. He previously worked for the Durham (N.C.) Morning Herald and the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat.Along the way, Morris has written a book, "An Illustrated History of ACC Basketball" and won numerous national and state awards for sports column writing, enterprise reporting and feature stories. He is a five-time sportswriter of the year winner in South Carolina by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. Morris has run a marathon, hitch-hiked across the country and appeared in Sports Illustrated for counting the number of times the ball bounced in a men's basketball game between Catawba College and Appalachian State. Email Ron at rmorris@thestate.com or call him at (803) 771-8432.

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