By Harry Allison
Not long after South Carolina won its fourth consecutive game of the 2017 NCAA tournament, a sequence that guarantees a trip to the Final Four, Gamecocks star Sindarius Thornwell proclaimed, “I feel like our team is the most underrated team in the country.”
At that moment, the Gamecocks probably were.
But if they win two more games at University of Phoenix Stadium, they’ll really feel what it’s like to be underrated. Because that will mean being presented with a trophy as NCAA champion — but also the label of the biggest shock champion in this tournament’s grand history.
If on Monday night South Carolina wins the NCAA Championship, these are some of the statistical measures of their improbability:
- The Gamecocks almost certainly would have the worst KenPom team ranking of any champion since 2002. The lowest to date was Connecticut in 2014, at No. 15. USC is ranked 25th. Eight of the past 15 champions finished ranked No. 1.
- The Gamecocks would have the worst ranking in either offensive or defensive efficiency since Ken Pomeroy began gathering stats on teams’ points per possession. Every champion since then but one has ranked in the top 20 in both offense and defense. The exception is, again, the 2014 Connecticut team, which was 39th in offensive efficiency. South Carolina would have to play and win two more games to fulfill this hypothetical, so their offensive ranking could rise some, but it’s currently 103rd.
- The Gamecocks would become only the fourth champion ever with double-digit losses on the season. Kansas in 1988 (27-11), Villanova in 1985 (25-10) and N.C. State in 1983 (26-10) are the others. USC would be 28-10, and at least would have the best winning percentage of that quartet.
- The Gamecocks, who were the East Region No. 7 seed, would have one of the lowest tournament seeds of any champion in the expanded bracket era. Villanova was a No. 8 in 1985. Connecticut was a No. 7 in 2014.
Why would South Carolina be a bigger shock than Kansas ’88? Two words: Danny Manning. Bigger than Villanova ’85? The Wildcats had two first-round picks on that team, Eddie Pinckney and Harold Pressley. N.C. State ’83? After Dereck Whittenburg’s injured wrist healed, the Wolfpack won the ACC Tournament that year over Ralph Sampson’s Virginia and Michael Jordan’s North Carolina. The Gamecocks lost their first SEC Tournament game to an 18-13 Alabama team. By 11 points.
South Carolina has beaten more NCAA Tournament teams in the past two weeks than in the four previous months. On Selection Sunday, the Gamecocks owned a 3-5 record against teams in the field — and also five losses against teams that didn’t make it, which is one reason their seed was viewed by so many as overly generous.
They are a 6.5-point underdog to West No. 1 seed Gonzaga (36-1) in the first semifinal. This is nothing new for the Gamecocks. They’ve been an underdog in every NCAA Tournament game they’ve played to date. And they won each of them, by an average margin of 13.5 points. There’s a lot about this team that doesn’t add up.
Who are these guys? To some, they are no-names that no one saw coming. To those who saw them coming, though, they are nothing like the team that wore these same uniforms through much of the 2016-17 season.
“We’re not going to settle for this and we still feel like we’ve got one more game,” star wing Sindarius Thornwell said. “We’re not going into that game thinking — we’re going into that game thinking we can win. Why not? Why not us? Why not go win it all? And that’s our mindset. We feel like we can compete with anybody right now in the country.”
It’s hard to understand how a team can suddenly reinvent itself under the greatest pressure and against the best competition. The teams South Carolina has beaten in this tournament had a combined record of 101-39 and were seeded No. 10, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4. The Gamecocks dropped consecutive games against non-tournament teams to close the season, which gave them five losses in the final seven games. But their offense has been reinvented during the tournament.
They’ve averaged between 1.06 (Baylor) and 1.29 (Marquette) points per possession during the tournament. During the regular season, they didn’t top a point per possession in any four consecutive games. In their final seven games, they fell below the one-point mark five times.
Coach Frank Martin explains it as a matter of will. “When we weren’t good enough to win, they never threw in the towel,” he said. “At halftimes of games, our guys don’t panic. I’m the one that loses my mind. They don’t panic, they stay the course, they hold onto that rope. Doesn’t mean we’re going to win, but they don’t give in to a difficult moment … They don’t run away from difficult times.”
They will face some in the Final Four. Only the rare team blows through the last two games of the season to take home the title. But it’s hard to know whether South Carolina at this moment more resembles 2009 North Carolina (which won its Final Four games by a combined 31 points) or 2000 North Carolina (which made a shocking run to the Final Four after losing 13 regular-season games).
It certainly doesn’t look like any South Carolina team we’ve ever seen.