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October 10, 2005

Felder: Season ripe with opportunity, peril

Commentary by Ted Felder

Dave Odom's fifth basketball season at South Carolina seems to be surrounded by good karma and dangerous pitfalls. The veteran coach seemed to shake off his self-admitted recruiting malaise by cranking things up recently, adding size and depth to an already experienced Gamecock roster. Carlos Powell will be sorely missed, but almost the entire rest of the squad is back as the defending NIT Champions prepare to tip things off in November.

Odom has truly had a fascinating four years in Columbia. By USC standards, he has been a big success and no one can deny that. He's been to the postseason three times in four years, gotten to the Big Dance once and won a national postseason tournament. He is 3-1 against Clemson and his program is squeaky clean. His players play hard and for the most part give the fans their money's worth when they take the floor. Add to all of that the positive energy about this year's team and you can feel the buildup.

Carolina hoops fans haven't been this excited about a basketball season since 1997-98, when Eddie Fogler, also a big success by USC standards, returned three starters and a deep bench from his 1996-97 SEC Championship team. Those were two of the finest seasons in USC's basketball history. They went a combined 47-16 (26-6 in the SEC), won a conference title, went to the SEC Tournament finals the other year and landed a No. 2 seed and a No. 3 seed in the corresponding NCAA tournaments. Then there is the fly in the ointment: neither team won a game in either big dance and both years ended with crushing losses.

If asked, Odom would likely admit that an SEC Coach after five years in his tenure should have won an SEC championship, an SEC Tournament Championship, or at least one game in the real postseason tournament. (For anyone who wants a very low bar of expectations, change SEC Championship to SEC East Championship.) This is very reasonable and should be the case regardless of Carolina's past failures.

Critics of Odom point to the fact that he has had only one 20-win regular season (2003-04), and that season ended with a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Memphis. Many of those same fans also feel that the season and bid were largely the creation of a smoke-and-mirror assist from one of the softer non-conference schedules in the program's history. Regardless, it is time for South Carolina to no longer sit at the NIT "kiddy table" and join the NCAA "adults" for a while.

Why this is such a difficult step for USC is just one of those unique little quirks about the Gamecocks. Heartbreaking disappointment in March is nothing new to the featherheads in Columbia. The birds are 2-8 all-time in non-consolation NCAA tournament games. It's hard to believe, but USC's last meaningful tournament win was on March 10, 1973. Carolina defeated Texas Tech that night in Wichita, 78-70.

Thirty-two years later, Odom has a golden opportunity to end that drought. No one in the Palmetto State is demanding a Final Four, an Elite 8 or even a Sweet 16 from this year's Gamecocks. (Heck, it's hard to get Carolina's boosters to "demand" anything.) There doesn't have to be a magical run to "one shining moment" in the cards to keep things rocking and rolling at the Colonial Center. Nope, just a visit to the second round will suffice for now to get that three-decade old monkey off of USC's back.

If Odom gets this done, he will permanently carve out a fine legacy in the annals of Gamecock hoops. Any criticism of him will sound like mild background chirping, and genuine interest in the program will explode. Without that, the apathy and boredom surrounding the Colonial will continue (except when the Wiggles are in town). Roughly 4,600 days is enough of a wait to win one game during March Madness.

To contact Felder or view other articles he's written, click here.

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