South Carolina has been called a lot of things over the years, not all of them favorable. On the football field especially, the Gamecocks have been labeled underachievers, disappointments, and "the school where coaches go to retire."
A few more names may be hurled at the South Carolina basketball team (overrated, "bubble team") after getting shellacked at Vanderbilt 96-83 on Saturday.
As someone who married into a Gamecock household, I've dodged more than my share of objects directed at a television set displaying Steve Spurrier's quarterbacks.
My wife informed me that this is to be expected by now, as the Gamecocks suffer from what she (and other fans, apparently) terms "The Chicken Curse."
As best as I can figure, the Curse goes something like this: If a South Carolina team has low expectations, it will either meet them or wildly exceed them only to leave you that much more devastated when they collapse in the end.
And on the rare occasions that there are high expectations, fans should prepare themselves early to be disappointed.
The football disappointments (including two straight bowl losses and the 2007 season that started out 6-1 only to end at 6-6 without a bowl bid) are especially painful to Gamecock fans because, for all the attempts to change its image over the years, Columbia remains a football campus and a football city.
Enter fresh-faced coach Darrin Horn and his newly-christened "Garnet Army," the aptly named legion of fans who are ready to change all of that in just one exemplary season.
The Gamecock players, led by stirring PG Devan Downey, have brought USC basketball to a level not seen since the days of Frank McGuire, the namesake of the court they used to play on.
A loss to Vanderbilt aside, the current streak that has South Carolina (20-7, 9-5 SEC) leading the SEC East cannot be appreciated without a brief history lesson.
The program reached national prominence under Coach McGuire during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the school was still in the Atlantic Coast Conference. After an undefeated ACC regular season in 1969-70 and an ACC Tourney Championship the following year, things got a bit ugly.
To make a long story short, the Tobacco Road stalwarts who held most of the power in the ACC held a strong dislike for South Carolina and McGuire, claiming that USC's lower eligibility standards and "irregular" recruiting behavior gave them unfair advantages and were, for lack of a better word, "unsportsmanlike" and not befitting of the ACC.
Crowds (especially in the state of North Carolina) were incredibly hostile, and even the opposing coaches and athletic directors shunned McGuire. McGuire took his ball and left, and the school became an Independent in 1971.
Their success continued for a few more years, though it was never the same after 1973, the last time the Gamecocks made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
The basketball program entered a period of long decline, punctuated by single seasons in which they excelled, only to be devastated by shocking disappointments in the NCAA Tournament.
South Carolina has suffered some of the worst upsets in the history of the NCAA. Coach Eddie Fogler led the Gamecocks to an SEC Championship and a 15-1 conference record in 1996-97, only to lose as a No. 2 seed to No. 15 seed Coppin State.
They returned to the East Region as a No. 3 seed the following season, only to be upended by the No. 14 seed Richmond Spiders in yet another stunner.
Memphis handled South Carolina easily in their only NCAA bid this decade, a 2004 loss as a No. 10 seed in the first round.
Back-to-back NIT Championships in 2005 and 2006 under Wake Forest refugee Dave Odom did little to bring enthusiasm to a program that had once seen sustained success.
Will it be different this year?
South Carolina is poised to enter their first NCAA Tournament in five years, and there is something about this team that tells me the first-round "Chicken Curse" might finally be broken.
Darrin Horn has the team and the fans believing, and Devan Downey is producing like the All-American he deserves to be.
They are likely to draw a No. 8 or No. 9 seed, but Horn knows how to play Cinderella at the Big Dance, bringing No. 12 seed Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16 just one year ago.
Like any team with a superstar, the Gamecocks are infinitely better when everyone becomes involved, rather than expecting the athletic point guard to work miracles on his own.
They have a tendency to play up or down to the level of their opposition, not a trend that is particularly favorable in March.
Still, with a new coach, a revved-up fan base, an All-American point guard, and a completely new attitude within not only the team but the state itself, there is every reason to believe that South Carolina may be on the positive end of an NCAA surprise, for the first time in decades.
If nothing else, the team that meets them in the first round may not need to do much unpacking.
My wife tells me not to hold my breath.
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