NEW YORK — South Carolina basketball is back in a city that mattered so much to its success decades ago.
It’s New York City that produced legendary coach Frank McGuire, who led the Gamecocks to a long stretch of great seasons in the 1970s, and many of the players on those teams. And it’s fitting that as the Gamecocks return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1973 that it comes in New York. Even more fitting is that many of the players from that team and era will be on hand.
“They definitely have paved the way for us,” sophomore guard PJ Dozier. “They paved the way for everyone after them. They set a great pedestal. … We thank those guys for putting us on the map and giving us something look up to.”
Players including Kevin Joyce, Mike Dunleavy Sr., Jimmy Walsh, Alex English, Mark Greiner, Chuck Sherwood, Jimmy Powell, Dennis Powell and more will be in New York City this weekend. They have a lunch planned Friday as a group prior to watching the Gamecocks take on Baylor at Madison Square Garden at 7:29 p.m. ET (TBS), as they gather to celebrate the success the program hasn’t seen since their playing days with hopes of more to come.
Really, they jumped at the opportunity after waiting for so many years to see the program they put solidly on the map back in the 1970s start to reach the same highs again.
“I think it’s overdue,” Greiner said. “We have had some spotty success here and there. … We just haven’t cleared the hurdle so to speak.”
Dunleavy Sr., English, Greiner, Joyce and Walsh were on the Sweet 16 team 44 years ago, the last team to reach the round until this season. At the time, reaching postseason success seemed like it was on its way to being a consistent achievement for the program. South Carolina finished in the top two in the ACC in its final few seasons in the league before becoming one of the nation’s top independent programs with 20-win seasons the norm in the early 1970s.
“I thought that South Carolina was one of the best basketball programs in the country,” said Dunleavy Sr., now the head coach at Tulane with a handful of NBA stints on his resume.
After an appearance in the 1974 NCAA Tournament saw the Gamecocks upset by Furman, a drought lasting all the way until this season began as USC lost in its tournament appearances in 1989, 1997, 1998 and 2004. But this season’s team has reversed the trend in dramatic fashion, with incredible second-half performances to beat Marquette and upset Duke.
The two wins in Greenville came much to the delight of former Gamecocks, as the program won two games in an NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history (excluding victories from regional third-place games).
Greiner, who lives in Columbia and has season tickets, was in attendance in Greenville and couldn’t help but think back to the 1970s as the buzzer sounded against Duke and Frank Martin’s squad celebrated a program-changing win.
“I thought of when we were playing and when we won our game and all the years that have gone by,” Greiner said. “Just to be part of it was really cool. For me, it brought South Carolina basketball and put us right back on the map where it used to be. Seeing the joy in the kids’ faces, that was very important to me, too. To see that happiness because Coach Martin is going to push you to the end and for them to get the reward was pretty cool.”
It has been a long time coming, but the trajectory to this moment started five years ago when Martin accepted the head coaching position. Dunleavy Sr. had the opportunity to check out some practices during the past few years, leaving impressed with the progress and the steady build that Martin had going in Columbia.
“I think that it has been something that has been on the rise,” Dunleavy Sr. said. “It has been surprising that it has taken this long.”
Even under Martin, it took time. He took lumps early, with difficult seasons and attrition before finding more and more success in the past two seasons. It all has left nostalgia and happiness among the former players, who never could have imagined the program would fall off the map it once was so squarely on.
But now they believe it’s here to stay again with Martin leading the charge.
“It has been a process,” Greiner said. “Coach Martin is definitely the right guy for the job. He has been amazing.”
Said Dunleavy Sr.: “I think that he has built something great and part of it is there is a lot of recognition. … I think Frank has done a great job of recognizing guys that will play well for him. I feel pretty confident that he will continue to do well.”
Martin has kept past members of the program involved since he arrived at South Carolina, with it not being an uncommon sight to see former players at practice. Current Gamecocks say the relationships they have formed with their predecessors mean a lot, but they are most thankful for the bar that was set high in their efforts to bring the program back to the NCAA Tournament and now deeper into it.
Martin credited past players with more, pointing to the facilities at South Carolina, apparel deals and luxuries afforded to the program because of those who came before him and his players. Now, having those players in the stands Friday means a great deal as these Gamecocks carry the flag for the program.
“This program has had incredible players and incredible coaches and they’ve all fought their tails off and unfortunately couldn’t find success at this time of year,” Martin said. “To know that we are making them smile, that’s our way of paying them back for everything that they have done for us.”
If Martin and the Gamecocks have their way, the trip to New York will be a long weekend instead of a quick trip. But there’s already so much that makes it special, as South Carolina basketball is back to where it was in 1973 and back in the city that made it so then.
“I’m excited about the game itself,” Greiner said. “I really believe that we have a legitimate shot to win Friday. I’m not going to jump ahead and say anything more than that. Just to be there in person to see us hopefully continue the momentum, that excites me almost as much as getting to New York City and hanging out with my friends.”