South Carolina back on the map Resurgence fueled by Clemson, S.C., 2 Charleston schools

March 11, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

It's not quite the center of college basketball's ever-widening universe, not yet the kind of place where rooting interests fuel those family feuds you see in other states. In North Carolina, a person who says he's an "ABC" fan means Anybody But Carolina. In South Carolina, it doesn't mean Anybody But Clemson. Or Charleston.

Then again, you're not quite sure which Charleston is being talked about.

These days, this suddenly hoop-hip state has found a new love: March Madness.

When play begins Thursday in this year's NCAA tournament, four South Carolina schools will be part of the field of 64 teams. Aside from the state's two biggest schools, there are also two from a city known mostly for its cobblestone streets and historic downtown mansions.

The College of Charleston will play Maryland in the opening round of the Southeast Regional in Memphis, Tenn., and the school it long has been confused with, Charleston Southern, will meet UCLA in Auburn Hills, Mich., in the Midwest. South Carolina plays Coppin State in Pittsburgh in the East, and Clemson is matched in the Midwest against Miami of Ohio in Kansas City, Mo.

That's four teams, as many as basketball-insane North Carolina and two fewer than California. Oh yes, three more than New York, which some used to think of as the game's mecca.

While distinctly different in nature, these four schools have benefited from an increase of talent and fan interest in a sport that until 10 years ago was looked down upon by most of those who figured that a ball should be kicked, passed or run with rather than dunked, shot or dribbled.

"I think our state's got some good basketball players," said Rick Barnes, who came to Clemson from Providence three years ago but grew up across state lines in Hickory, N.C. "We have four schools in the tournament and two of the best high school players in the last 20 years have come out of here. The mind-set [about basketball] is changing."

The change has come slowly, in no small part because most of the state's big stars -- including Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neil -- fail to qualify academically for Division I programs.

While Garnett and O'Neil were fortunate to go straight to the NBA, others wind up going to prep schools, junior colleges or nowhere at all.

"That's one of the biggest problems because so many of these kids come from families where no one even thinks about going to college," said Citadel coach Pat Dennis, a former assistant at Towson State and Loyola. "By the time they get to be a pretty good player, they have no chance."

Dennis credits Barnes and South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler for creating the atmosphere that led to a season in which the Tigers reached as high as No. 2 in the national rankings, the Gamecocks went to No. 4, and the College of Charleston, despite a Rating Percentage Index in the mid-70s, is currently No. 16.

A change in the air

"There's a different attitude about basketball in the state," said Dennis, whose team's 13-13 record this year is a major accomplishment in itself.

Barnes has helped change it by reversing the fortunes of the Tigers, who are playing in back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time in seven years. When Clemson came within a Kansas loss of getting to No. 1, students were camping outside of Littlejohn Coliseum, just as they do at places like Duke.

But Barnes isn't alone. When Fogler went to South Carolina four years ago from Vanderbilt, the folks in Columbia had forgotten what it was like to get excited about basketball. The Gamecocks had had more controversy than success in the 17 years since the legendary Frank McGuire retired.

Three coaches had produced as many NCAA probations as NCAA tournament appearances: one.

"I knew it had been done before and the background I had coming here as a player helped me," said Fogler, who played against the Gamecocks while at North Carolina. "It's not as if it was something I had never been to or seen before. But the program was at ground zero."

That's a pretty apt description of the entire state when it came to basketball until McGuire arrived in 1965. He had left St. John's for North Carolina a decade before, developing what was called "The Underground Railroad" for bringing talent from the playgrounds of New York.

It went a little farther south when McGuire, who coached the Tar Heels to a national championship in 1957 before going briefly to the pros -- and turning the job over to his young assistant, some fellow named Dean Smith -- wound up in Columbia. Among those brought with him to South Carolina was a feisty point guard from the Bronx named Bobby Cremins.

"When I got there, it was just starting," Cremins recalled yesterday. "The fan support was unbelievable. It was a great atmosphere to go to school and play ball. Beautiful weather, great beaches, beautiful girls, the ACC. The biggest thing that hurt them was leaving the ACC."

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