This April Fools Day, we’ll look at a time when South Carolina Athletics were duped. This particular instance occurred in the 2015-16 basketball season following a fantastic year from Frank Martin’s Gamecocks.
South Carolina began the 2015 basketball season with hope. The Gamecocks were coming off of their fist winning season in five years, and Frank Martin was beginning to lay a foundation for success following a massive rebuild.
The roster consisted of a nice mix of upper- and under-classmen, with freshmen PJ Dozier and Chris Silva joining Sindarius Thornwell, Michael Carrera, and Duane Notice. Thornwell and Carrera would both receive All-SEC accolades following the year, with Carrera being named First Team All-Conference, and Thornwell being recognized for outstanding defense.
Carolina jumped out of the gates hot, winning its first 15 games, on their way to a 19-2 start. They’d go on to finish the regular season at 24-7 (11-7), and earn the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament. The Gamecocks were ranked in the Top 25 for a total of 11 weeks, and actually finished around the No. 32 spot nationally after receiving five votes in the final Top 25 poll. The 24 wins is still the highest total of the Frank Martin era, which includes the following year’s Final Four team that was 22-9 at season’s end.
The Gamecocks would lose to Georgia in its first SEC Tournament game, but still seemed relatively safe in regards to Selection Sunday. That feeling of safety grew into assurance when the NCAA called Head Coach Frank Martin during the selection show to inform him that his team was going dancing.
That assurance, unfortunately, wouldn’t last long. NCAA officials soon retracted the invite, blaming a junior staff member of mistaking South Carolina for Southern California. The feeling only grew worse when the Gamecocks saw the teams that would slide ahead of them to fill the final tournament spots.
South Carolina’s resume consisted of wins over three eventual NCAA tournament teams, future NIT participants Florida and Alabama, and a Ben Simmons led LSU squad. The Gamecocks’ best win came against Texas A&M, who would finish the year ranked inside the Top 20 nationally. The non-conference slate is what held Frank Martin’s team back in the eyes of the selection committee.
The schedule included a few traditional basketball programs, like St. Johns, Memphis, and DePaul, but unfortunately for the Gamecocks, those teams were in transition. The out-of-conference lineup ranked 265th nationally, even though the Gamecocks played in (and won) both the Paradise Jam Tournament and the Naismith Hall of Fame Shootout, on its way to an undefeated start ahead of SEC play.
Two of the final four Big Dance invites went to teams that were on the South Carolina schedule, whom the Gamecocks had already beaten.
One of those teams was Tulsa, who finished the season at 20-10 in the American Athletic Conference. The AAC had only one ranked team, and the Golden Hurricane finished 5th in the conference standings. They, too, lost in the first round of their conference tournament to a lower seeded foe in Memphis (another team that the Gamecocks had previously defeated). Tulsa finished 65th in the final KenPom standings, which were used to compare tournament resumes at the time. The Gamecocks finished 58th.
The other team was SEC opponent Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks defeated the Commodores head-to-head and finished higher in the conference standings. Vandy entered the year ranked 18th nationally, but would conclude its regular season at 19-12, also going one-and-done in its conference tournament after losing to the 12th seed Tennessee. The Commodores still finished 25th in the KenPom standings due to a higher out-of-conference strength of schedule, even though the team would lose four of its six non-conference games against eventual NCAA tournament opponents. Those two wins came against eventual No. 16 seed Austin Peay and No. 13 seed Stony Brook. Hardly powerhouses when evaluating resume building wins.
Both Vanderbilt and Tulsa would lose their first NCAA Tournament matchups, with the Commodores being blown out 70-50 against Wichita State, and Tulsa being defeated 67-62 by Michigan.
The Gamecocks would end up in the NIT, where’d they’d lose in the second round to Georgia Tech. It was a disappointing end to the year, particularly for seniors Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius, Mindaugas Kacinas, and Brian Steele, players that never got the chance to compete in the Big Dance. Fortunately for Frank Martin and the Gamecock basketball program, the grieving wouldn’t last long. The next season, South Carolina would earn a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, taking down Duke and Marquette in front of Gamecock Faithful in Greenville, before marching to Madison Square Garden to play in the Final Four.