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"May I Have This Dance?"

For the first time since 2017, the South Carolina Gamecocks Men’s Basketball team is participating in the NCAA tournament.

It started as a long shot with second-year coach Lamont Paris’ team picked to finish last in the conference at SEC media day. He drew media attention for his comments on why the Gamecocks had a brighter outlook this year.

“There were 14 picks last year,” he said. “Does anybody know how many of those were right? ... Zero. Not one team last year was picked in this spot and then finished in that same spot... I know my team is more experienced [this year].”

While contending that his team would not finish last, most did not see the Gamecocks contending for an SEC title and easily cementing a spot in the NCAA tourney. I often joke with my co-hosts on The Burner that I was the earliest one to say we could make the tournament, but this team continues to exceed even my expectations as an optimist. I remember sitting in CLA against our game vs. USC Upstate and having this inclination that the team looked... good. Much better than I expected.

After an impressive 12-1 non-conference record, I figured a simple 9-9 conference resume would be enough for us to get in. But there were doubts about the competition we played before conference opponents.

What has happened since January has blown me away. Who knew that fans would have the opportunity to rush the court against Kentucky? Or beat Tennessee, the SEC champion, in their house? Who knew that a collection of experienced transfers like Ta’lon Cooper, Myles Stute, and BJ Mack would pair with freshman Colin Murray-Boyles and returning Gamecock Meechie Johnson to go on one of the more memorable men’s basketball runs in school history? Who knew that we would go 13-5 in conference play (our best since 1996-1997) and challenge for the SEC regular season title up until the last minute?

Despite all this fun so far, the story is still unwritten. The Gamecocks take on the recently crowned Pac-12 Champion Oregon Ducks in Pittsburgh, PA, on Thursday at 4 PM. USC faces an uphill battle to win the entire thing, but so did the 2017 Gamecocks. No one would have expected wins against Marquette, Duke, Baylor, and Florida, but before they knew it, USC found themselves in the Final Four. You never know what March will bring.

Keys to the Game:

The Gamecocks started the year looking like a three-point shooting team but developed more as a defensive team. They say, “Defense wins championships.” For the Gamecocks to go on any type of run, it must be grounded in defense first.

The Ducks are led by former Gamecock Jermaine Couisnard, averaging 15.4 points in his best statistical season yet. I have fond memories of watching Jermaine keep us in games during my freshman year when the rest of the team was painfully mediocre. While the breakup between USC and Couisnard was civil, you know there will be some strong emotions on both sides.

The Gamecocks have struggled with slumping players at different points of the season. But time and time again, others have picked up the slack. Ta’lon Cooper shined when Meechie Johnson struggled early and “The General” has had several clutch performances to beat teams like Missouri and Kentucky. Zach Davis has improved offensively from last year to make up for Myles Stute missing a handful of games. Colin Murray-Boyles combines the best qualities of Josh Gray and BJ Mack to add much-needed depth down low. Jacobi Wright has continued to develop in his third season and is known for hitting clutch, tough mid-range shots down the stretch. He provides a different style of play than Cooper as a point guard.

Finally, it sounds cliche, but the Gamecocks need to play their “brand of basketball”. To the dismay of many fans, most of our games this year have been nail-biters; it’s usually not easy. Wins are wins, but each game has taken years off my life it feels like.

But the same cannot be said about the losses. When the Cocks lose, we LOSE. Three of seven losses have been over thirty-point deficits. In those games (particularly against Auburn) it looked like the opposing team took us away from our rhythm. That is, a pass-first team that plays a disciplined game of good defense, pounding the inside, and taking the open three. Teams that have unraveled us have forced us to rush on offense, leading to poor shots and excessive turnovers. We must control the pace of the game against a vibrant Oregon offense.

It’s tough to come all this way and start the “It’s been a good season” talk. But, regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s game or any ones beyond that, we have so much to be grateful for and build upon as Gamecock basketball fans.

It has been the highlight of my school year sitting down on Tuesdays and Saturdays to watch this team continue to amaze. And while we will miss the departing Cooper, Stute, Mack, and others, the future is bright with Murray-Boyles returning and Coach Paris signing a long-term contract to stay in Columbia. With Dawn Staley and the Lady Gamecocks’ continued success, there is much to be excited about at USC and we are several steps closer to being the college basketball capital of the world.

But for March Madness 2024, let’s enjoy this dance.

Eddie Hagigh

My cohosts and I discuss collegiate and professional sports. We are a sports news show with spirited debate, similar to the well-known “First Take” on ESPN. We focus primarily on basketball, football, and baseball but cover major moments in other sports. *SIDEBAR* The only music involved will likely be some type of intro, instrumental type music

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