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Apathy, coaching, recruits: At South Carolina, a recipe for a sad basketball history

Frank Martin has taken South Carolina to new heights. The Gamecocks’ other coaches weren’t so successful. (Elsa/Getty Images)

It’s hard to call South Carolina a Cinderella considering its place in the Southeastern Conference. But in terms of power-conference programs, the Gamecocks’ run to the Final Four after decades in the college basketball wilderness is about as Cinderella as it gets: This year’s NCAA tournament berth is just their fourth over the last 43 seasons.

But why has it been such a struggle for such a large public university — a member of the money-printing SEC and one that has a relatively new arena (opened in 2002)  — to field a consistently competitive basketball team?

One of SB Nation’s South Carolina bloggers summed up the school’s feelings about the hardwood in a 2012 rundown of the school’s sad basketball history: “We’re a football and baseball school. No one cares about basketball at South Carolina.”

That may be an oversimplification, and so might be many of the reasons listed below. But taken together, they all add up at a school that simply didn’t seem to put much thought into basketball. At least until about two weeks ago.

South Carolina willingly left the ACC

A founding member of the ACC, South Carolina left the conference in 1971 after years of disputes over recruiting and admissions regulations, mainly with the four North Carolina schools that ruled the conference roost back then. So began a rather aimless two-decade run as an independent and then as a member of the Metro Conference, an ungainly conglomeration of mostly big-city schools from the Midwest and Deep South.

The school entered negotiations to rejoin the ACC in 1976 but reportedly balked at the conference’s demand for a sizable reentry fee. It joined the SEC in 1991, mainly for football reasons. Not much changed for the Gamecocks, basketball-wise.

Recruiting struggles

The state of South Carolina simply does not produce many high-level basketball recruits, with just 13 who ranked in 247 Sports’ composite top 200 over the past five recruiting classes (in other words, 13 out of 1,000). The Gamecocks landed only three of those 13 players (the same number as North Carolina), and while two of them have formed the nucleus of this year’s wildly successful team, the rest spurned their in-state school, sometimes for programs that aren’t exactly blue-bloods.

There are three players from South Carolina in this year’s 247 Sports top 200. None have chosen the Gamecocks.

Here’s the list, showing how many top 200 recruits hailed from South Carolina in recent years and where they decided to attend college.

Class of 2012: 4 (North Carolina, Furman, Long Beach State, Charleston Southern)
Class of 2013: 1 (South Carolina)
— Sindarius Thornwell has been the impetus of the Gamecocks’ Final Four run and one of the best players in the country this season.
Class of 2014: 3 (Georgetown, South Carolina, Tulane)
— Marcus Stroman transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette after two seasons.
Class of 2015: 2 (South Carolina, Texas)
— PJ Dozier started every game this season and is the Gamecocks’ second-leading scorer.
Class of 2016: 3 (VCU, North Carolina, Yale)
Class of 2017: 3 (North Carolina, Ole Miss, Clemson)

The Gamecocks’ last five recruiting classes have ranked 63rd, 33rd, 43rd, 21st and 61st in the country. This year’s class ranks 53rd. Nevertheless, Martin cobbled together a Final Four lineup prominently featuring two native sons, despite everyone and everything that might have told those players to head elsewhere.

“Convincing of my vision was really hard because one thing I had to overcome with local guys is they kind of saw there was apathy in place,” Martin said this week. “There weren’t too many fans coming to games. It was hard to get them to see what they’ve seen and put my goggles on and get them to see what I see.

Bad coaches?

Hall of Fame coach Frank McGuire took South Carolina to four straight NCAA tournaments from 1971 to 1974, but since then the Gamecocks haven’t had much luck with coaching hires. Here are the men who have coached the Gamecocks since McGuire was forced into retirement in 1980. I cribbed a lot from the aforementioned SB Nation post. It’s a good read.

Bill E. Foster (1980-86): Made just three NCAA tournaments in a 30-year NCAA coaching career. To be fair, many of those years were spent coaching when few teams actually made the NCAA tournament, and Foster did take Duke to the 1978 title game. But he was impacted by heart troubles during his six seasons at South Carolina.

George Felton (1986-91): Went 87-62 in five seasons at South Carolina, with one NCAA tournament berth, but he never was an NCAA head coach again after the Gamecocks let him go.

Steve Newton (1991-93): Made three NCAA tournaments … at Murray State. He went 20-35 in two seasons at South Carolina. Newton was only hired after an embarrassing coaching search that saw a number of big names — Eddie Fogler, Larry Brown, Wimp Sanderson — turn down the school.

Bobby Cremins (1993): Wait, what? Cremins, a South Carolina alum, actually accepted the school’s head coaching job in 1993 but then changed his mind three days later and returned to Georgia Tech.

Eddie Fogler (1993-2001): Took the Gamecocks to two NCAA tournaments but had a winning record in just one of the six other seasons he coached the team. His tenure — and perhaps the program’s history — likely would have been quite different had South Carolina natives Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal decided to play for the Gamecocks instead of becoming some of the first high school players to jump to the NBA.

Dave Odom (2001-08): Hired after South Carolina swung and missed at luring Tubby Smith away from Kentucky. Odom won at least 20 games four times at South Carolina but had just one NCAA tournament bid to show for it. He won the NIT twice, though.

Darrin Horn (2008-12): Spent four seasons at South Carolina after taking Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16 in 2008. Each year of his Gamecocks tenure featured fewer wins than the one that preceded it.

Frank Martin (2012-present): After much speculation that the school would hire South Carolina native Gregg Marshall away from Wichita State, Martin is the guy. It took five seasons, but the Gamecocks seem to be headed in the right direction.

You gotta spend money …

The following table shows the ranking of SEC schools in men’s basketball operating expenses from the years 2003 to 2015. As you can see, South Carolina has ranked at or near the bottom of the SEC rankings in most of those years. (For Texas A&M and Missouri, which began SEC play in 2012-13, the numbers for the years before they joined the conference reflect where their spending would have ranked had they been in the SEC previously.)

The data was compiled from the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics database.

In 2014-15, the most recent year in which the numbers were available, South Carolina spent an SEC-low $1.165 million on its men’s basketball program. Kentucky, by comparison, spent more than twice that number at $2.633 million. The Wildcats, ranked No. 1 in SEC men’s basketball spending in every year since 2003, made the NCAA tournament in all but two of the years surveyed above, making four Final Fours and winning one national title. Florida, which ranked either second or third in SEC men’s basketball spending in all but one of the years, made the NCAA tournament 11 times over that span, advancing to the Final Four three times and winning two national titles.

Before this season’s run to the Final Four, South Carolina had just one NCAA tournament appearance since 2003, losing by 16 to Memphis in the 2004 first round. Mississippi State, another low-spending team, has missed the last eight NCAA tournaments; LSU has missed the tournament in seven of the past eight and nine of the past 11 seasons.

It’s not a perfect metric: As you can see, Arkansas consistently ranks near the top of the SEC basketball spending charts yet has only five NCAA tournament appearances since 2003. But the data does show that South Carolina lags behind its compatriots in spending on its men’s basketball program. It also lags behind in college basketball pedigree, but this year’s team is making up the gap in a hurry.