As the 2014-15 college basketball season gets ready to tip off Friday, my mind wanders off to some of the great moments of the madness that was last March (and April).
Although South Carolina unofficially set off the fire on March 1 with a stunning, court-storming worthy victory against eventual national runner-up Kentucky, its involvement in the Big Dance was mute. The Gamecocks missed the NCAA Tournament for the tenth straight year.
I hail from Connecticut, a land that boasts five good months of what a warm-blooded person would simply refer to as “indoor weather.” For the past 10 years, I have spent those months avidly following the University of Connecticut basketball team, which won its fourth national championship in April.
I grew up watching Big East basketball — the old one, that is — filled with historic rivalries between the likes of Syracuse, Georgetown, Villanova, St. Johns and many more. For years, the Big East consistently put the most teams in the NCAA Tournament field. It was high-quality college basketball.
But then, the Big East as we knew it broke up, and I left the Nutmeg State for school. I feared the impending void in my winters. I knew Frank Martin had taken the head-coaching gig at South Carolina, but come on, who wanted to go play at South Carolina?
I wanted to be a direct part of the madness. I wanted to conveniently be sick at 12:15 on a Thursday afternoon along with the rest of my buddies to watch our school compete. When I first arrived here, I had my doubts.
However, it became apparent from watching the team last season that Martin had supplied himself with a coachable, young nucleus. Sindarius Thornwell authoritatively took the final shot against Baylor in his second collegiate game, and continuously did so in tight contests throughout the year. Duane Notice continued to be aggressive and make plays even when he seemed to be in Martin’s doghouse.
The casual fan saw a 14-20 record and brushed it off to the mediocrity that has enveloped this program since the Frank McGuire days. After all, the Gamecocks have made the NCAA Tournament just four times since 1974.
But what shone through in the SEC Tournament was the impressive growth the team underwent throughout the season. The team that burst Arkansas's bubble in the SEC Tournament in March did not resemble the team that lost to Manhattan and USC Upstate in December.
The first two years of Martin’s tenure were essentially spent wiping the slate clean and laying a new foundation. Now, Martin has his team ready to ascend to new heights.
For anyone who has ever attended a Frank Martin press conference or listened to him speak, his emphasis on the culture in the locker room is impossible to ignore. When asked after the Benedict exhibition about the likelihood of bringing in walk-ons for practice help due to amassing injuries, Martin said he would rather practice with six guys than bring someone in who doesn’t fully understand his role.
The priority Martin places on attitude, work ethic and structure is the fundamental reason he has his players believing in this year’s team and this program moving forward.
Because lasting success comes from a lasting culture. Tom Brady may be a great quarterback, but if he didn’t take his linemen out for nice steak dinners after a hard-fought win, the incentive and the bond might not last. Culture.
That is why the team believes. And that is why you should believe, too.