They came from darkness and became dominant.
They rose from obscurity and obliterated all who stood in their way during a march to the Final Four that will become a memory never forgotten among all who enjoyed the ride.
The South Carolina Gamecocks — South Carolina! — won the East Region on Sunday by beating Florida. Believe it, this is no early April Fools’ joke. Two weeks ago — even seven days ago, before the Gamecocks sent Duke packing — the thought of Frank Martin’s team dashing to Arizona’s desert for the sport’s showcase event would have made college basketball pundits bust out in laughter.
The Gamecocks — a lean, mean March machine that now has Gonzaga in their sights — have earned the last laugh.
And other SEC programs are gifted hope.
If South Carolina can rub elbows with the sport’s best, why not Arkansas? If South Carolina can catch fire when it matters most, why not Vanderbilt? If South Carolina can become a comet shooting across college basketball’s universe, why not Ole Miss or Alabama or Georgia or someone else?
Anything seems possible after the Gamecocks’ magic at Madison Square Garden.
Consider the progress in Columbia. One year ago, South Carolina lost to Georgia Tech in the NIT’s second round. Two years ago, the Gamecocks went 17-16 and missed the postseason altogether. Three years ago, they finished 14-20.
In fact, before going 25-9 last season, South Carolina failed to win more than 17 games in each of the previous six campaigns.
The Gamecocks did more than rise the past nine days. They rocketed to heights few outside their locker room thought possible, burning dreams held by Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida along the way.
Sandstorm Nation has earned this zero-gravity feeling. South Carolina’s story represents the best of the NCAA Tournament. For as much attention is given to small-school Cinderellas and big blue-blood favorites, the event is a chance for all to catch fire. For all the predictions made and best guesses presented in the buildup before tip-off, these weeks are magical because a team like South Carolina can ride the momentum train to a destination few thought Martin’s group would see.
Let the Gamecocks’ tale serve as a lesson for middling SEC teams aching to make a March memory of their own. After all, we’re not talking about Kentucky or Florida, two programs that have climbed the Final Four mountain before this season.
If South Carolina can shake up college basketball’s world, why not others in the SEC? Everyone should dare to dream.
Still, with hope comes responsibility. South Carolina’s gains should make officials at SEC schools with average-or-worse basketball programs ask, “Why aren’t we better?”
The NCAA Tournament appearances by Arkansas (lost in the second round) and Vanderbilt (lost in the first) are encouraging. But Ole Miss, Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Auburn are in a similar position that South Carolina stood not long ago. Even LSU and Missouri fans should expect more after Will Wade and Cuonzo Martin were hired to deliver results.
The coming years will be fun to follow. So much goes into enjoying success in the NCAA Tournament: Luck and belief, vision and execution. But once Selection Sunday gives way to the grind of the games, anything is possible. History can be made.
The Gamecocks’ run is proof that nothing is out of reach after a ticket is punched to the show. Other SEC programs should desire to dance in a big way as well.