Mike DeCourcy has been covering college basketball so long and so closely that when he drove into Irmo this week, his first thought was “BJ McKie was from here.”
Until this weekend, DeCourcy, a college basketball columnist for Sporting News, hadn’t covered a college basketball game in Columbia since McKie played for South Carolina. That changed Friday when the NCAA Tournament made its first appearance in Columbia since 1970.
“I don’t want to insult the town but when I drove in it was a couple of office buildings, a Hardee’s and a gas station. I came back and I’m like, ‘This is not the place I was at before,’ ” DeCourcy said. “The development that has happened around here, I don’t know what you call the district down here (the Vista), it’s phenomenal.”
DeCourcy was happy for March Madness’ return to the Palmetto State for a reason beyond just the changing complexion of the capital city.
“I get that (North Carolinians) love the game, and I get that they have four great venues, but come on, it doesn’t have to be there every year,” said DeCourcy, who is covering his 32nd NCAA Tournament this year. “There are more than four cities in the East and the South. I have complained about that for a long time. There are other places to have it. I love the state of North Carolina, but it shouldn’t be there every single year, so it’s great that a place like this gets a shot.”
The state of South Carolina is getting that shot this year because it finally stopped shooting itself in the foot. From 2001-2015, the NCAA refused to host any predetermined championship sites in the state because of the Confederate flag flying on the State House grounds.
The flag came down in 2015.
“The second it came down, the NCAA said, ‘You’re back on our radar. The soonest we can get back there, we are coming,’ ” said USC president Harris Pastides, who in 2015 was serving as chairman of the NCAA’s board of directors.
The return came this year in dramatic fashion as home state product and Duke All-ACC freshman Zion Williamson headlined an eight-team lineup that featured the No. 1 seeded Blue Devils, No. 1 seed Virginia, Oklahoma, UCF, VCU, Ole Miss, Gardner-Webb and North Dakota State.
The Colonial Life Arena portion of March Madness concluded Sunday night as Duke beat UCF 77-76 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the East Region, and Virginia and Oklahoma played in the late game.
The 575 media credentialed for the event were at least 100 more than the average for first and second round sites, according to an NCAA representative, and the combined attendance for the three sessions was 47,968.
USC will attempt to get the tournament back to Columbia “as soon as possible,” Pastides said.
The earliest the event could return to Columbia is 2023. Tournament game sites have been scheduled through the 2022 event. First and second round games will be held in Greenville in 2022.
“They promised they would come here as often as they could, Columbia, Greenville. They love to come South Carolina,” Pastides said. “We’ve always been a great basketball town. Now we have a great arena, great marketing.”
Columbia also has the endorsement of one high-profile coach.
“By the way,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said as his postgame news conference concluded, “just thank you to the city of Columbia. Wow. What a beautiful city.”