David Cloninger

Gamecocks are the Cinderellas of men’s tournament

After the frantic filing of the story Sunday, booking flights and calling the NYPD to tell them I’d be coming to town, it really hit me – South Carolina is in the Sweet 16.

The Gamecocks won the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and beat one of the sport’s most esteemed programs to do it. They’re one of 16 teams still alive and if they can win three more games, they’re going to play for the national championship.

You can say what you want – and man, would you be right – about what we’ve all had to witness for the past 10, 20, 44 years. Most seasons, watching USC basketball has been a very depressing way to spend your time.

But that’s over. After 39 years of following this tournament, I’m watching USC, alive and well, during the second weekend. And what’s better than that – the Gamecocks are the Cinderellas.

Think about it. Xavier is an 11 seed while Wisconsin’s an 8 and Michigan’s a 7, but you expect those teams to do something in March regardless of seed. The Gamecocks?

They’re not supposed to be here.

But they are, and because they’re the underdogs and because they beat Duke, who everyone either loves or loves to hate, they’ll get the cheers from everybody in the Garden this weekend that’s not pulling for Baylor or anybody else USC plays.

After nearly half a century, March Madness has found USC. It’s doubly special because Dawn Staley’s women’s team is in the Sweet 16 for a fourth consecutive year. It’s incredibly unique because the men have shucked history, realized that they can make a run at this thing and, for the first time in maybe forever, nobody’s betting against them.

I was going back through old brackets, just since I started keeping them (1990), and remembering the other glass-slipper teams. There’s a 14-seed Tennessee-Chattanooga getting to the 16 in 1997, a 13-seed Valparaiso in 1998, a 12-seed Southwest Missouri State in 1999. Tulsa was a 7 when it reached the 2000 Elite Eight, Kent State was a 10 in 2002.

Then there were the mid-majors who struck a blow for little guys everywhere. George Mason went to the 2006 Final Four as an 11, VCU made it as an 11 in 2011 and Wichita State was a 9 in 2013.

N.C. State was a 6 in 1983, the year March really went mad, and Villanova was an 8 in 1985 when it became the lowest seed to win the national championship. I didn’t want to really start thinking of what could happen – channeling “Hoosiers,” don’t think about the next step in tournament play until you’ve taken the one in front of you – but don’t you have to think about it? Just a little?

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