NEW YORK — Justin McKie was sure he was injured. It was the summer of 2013, the morning after his first weightlifting session as a South Carolina freshman, and he’d never felt so sore. “There’s no way I’m supposed to feel like this,” he told Mark Rodger, the team’s athletic trainer.
Rodger assured McKie that his body was not broken. “Your muscle is just building,” he said.
Three years later, McKie is barrel-chested with sculpted arms—toned, tough and tenacious. The same goes for fellow senior guards Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice. Together, they are part of a perimeter group that’s as physically intimidating as any you’ll find in college basketball, the key to a defense that ranks second in the nation in adjusted efficiency. Think South Carolina is heading to Phoenix to get pushed around by the Final Four’s big boys? You haven’t met this group of Gamecocks.
“I’ve seen teams argue with each other like, ‘Pass the ball,’” sophomore guard Hassani Gravett says of South Carolina’s opponents. “You can’t pass it. We’re in line. We’re sitting there. We’re waiting for that pass. We control their offense.”
Florida became the latest team to learn that lesson in the NCAA tournament during a 77-70 loss Sunday at Madison Square Garden in the East Regional final. The Gators turned the ball over 16 times, shot just 31.4 percent in the second half and, after taking a 63-61 lead with 3:48 left in the game, scored on just one of their next five possessions. And that was a good offensive day against South Carolina. The Gators scored 70 points on 69 possessions; South Carolina normally allows an adjusted 87.9 points per 100 possessions, according to Kenpom.com.
“There’s not much you can do when they can bump you every time you have the ball,” Florida guard Chris Chiozza said while seated in a somber postgame locker room. “If they’re stronger than you and they’re allowed to play more physical, there’s not much you can do. We tried to use our speed, we got around them, and then we get to the rim and there’s three guys coming and swinging for the ball. It’s on the refs to give us a foul at the rim when we get there, or they say it’s not a foul. They didn’t call any in the second half, and that’s pretty much how it went down the stretch.”
Talk to a guard from Baylor or Duke or Marquette and you’ll probably get a similar description of what it’s like to go up against the Gamecocks. They don’t hide their aggressiveness. They embrace it. Only 17 teams fouled more often than South Carolina this season (45.3 percent FTA/FGA rate), and just one of those teams made the NCAA tournament. But that’s a necessary trade-off for the way Frank Martin wants the Gamecocks to defend.
The Gamecocks keep their opponents from running their offense by denying the wings and encouraging them to go one-on-one. They force turnovers on 24.5 percent of opponents’ possessions, which ranks fourth in the nation and allow teams to hit just 29.8 percent of their three-point attempts (eighth). They body up ball-handlers and bump cutters and spend more time sliding across the floor than a Roomba, which is precisely the mentality Martin sought to install when he came to Columbia in 2012.
The following year, Thornwell, Notice and McKie arrived on campus. Thornwell and McKie “were twigs,” Notice recalls, and even the thickly built Toronto native wasn’t sure how long he’d last as a Gamecock. “My freshman year, all I thought about was if I should transfer,” Notice says. “We lost a whole bunch of games and I didn’t know if it was for me. I didn’t know if I was tough enough to play under Frank Martin.”
It fell on Scott Greenawalt to get him to that point. South Carolina’s strength and conditioning coach worked with Martin at Cincinnati and Kansas State and knows exactly how to build a player to fit the coach’s system. “I know that these guys have got to have an attitude about working hard,” Greenawalt says. “If you see how [Martin] coaches these guys, I’ve got to mirror that. He practices them hard, so I’ve got to get them ready for his practices.”
So Greenawalt pushes the players through grueling sessions in the sweltering South Carolina summer. They lift and run, pound shakes and protein bars, then lift some more. Every Friday is a competition day—sled work, rope pull, hanging from monkey bars—and it’s common to see various Gamecocks hunched over garbage cans as they rid themselves of their breakfast.
“I’m very proud of the seniors because their first couple of years, they fought it a little bit,” Greenawalt says. “They didn’t understand it. Now it’s like they are strength coaches.”
That toughness—both mental and physical—will be the Gamecocks’ greatest asset in Phoenix. College basketball history is filled with teams who have grinded their way to championships, content to muck the game up and put the onus on the officials to blow their whistles. No ref is going to call a foul on every play, after all. It may not be an aesthetically pleasing approach, but it has worked beautifully for South Carolina on the way to beating three higher-seeded teams this March.
Says McKie, “Coach Martin has a saying: They don’t ask you how you won. They ask you, ‘Did you win?’ So whether it looks good or whether it looks bad, as long as you win that’s the good thing at the end of the day.”
Jordan Brenner is a Senior Writer who covers the NBA and college basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JordanBrenner.