Tom Sorensen

Your team out of NCAA tournament? Root for this joyful underdog, its enlightened coach

If you need a team to root for in the NCAA tournament now, how do South Carolina and head coach Frank Martin suit you?
If you need a team to root for in the NCAA tournament now, how do South Carolina and head coach Frank Martin suit you? AP

I’d love to see Princeton, Middle Tennessee or FGCU in the Sweet 16 – even though FGCU sounds like an insult. Oh, yeah? Well FGCU.

But we don’t get those upsets anymore. Power conferences dominate, and in this group I include the ACC. The only outsider to attain the Sweet 16 is Gonzaga, and the Bulldogs are an entity unto themselves.

We do get an 11 seed (Xavier), an eight seed (Wisconsin), and we two seven seeds (Michigan and South Carolina).

Last week Frank Martin dramatically raised the profile of his South Carolina program. He also raised his own. A Confederate flag was for some reason flown from a parking garage at Greenville, S.C.’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena, where on Sunday Martin’s Gamecocks upset Duke.

Only when the Confederate flag was removed from the S.C. statehouse did S.C. become eligible to host NCAA championship events. When N.C. forfeited the tournament because of HB2, Greenville became a gracious (and prepared) host.

Martin was asked about the Confederate flag.

He said: “There are things that I don’t like. But I can’t force people to do what I want them to do. All I know is this unbelievable university and state has taken in the son of Cuban immigrants that’s married to a Jamaican woman, has mixed kids, and they’ve treated me like I’m one of their own since Day 1.

“I wouldn’t want to coach in any other state or with any other group of people, for any other bosses than the ones I’ve got. Our alums – our community – is a beautiful place. It’s a United State.”

Read those words. I have repeatedly. If your team is out, and you need somebody to cheer, why not cheer Martin?

The Gamecocks play third-seeded Baylor Friday at 7:29 p.m. in Madison Square Garden. Baylor is a 3 1/2-point favorite.

South Carolina’s basketball mission has long been to give dozens of fans something to do until football arrives. Frank McGuire left in 1980. The Gamecocks have hired good coaches since then, among them Dave Odom. But until last weekend, the Gamecocks had played five NCAA tournament games since 1973, and lost them all.

I don’t know Martin. His bench demeanor is such that the only time you’d call him is when your kids refuse to go to bed.

“OK, you guys, either go to sleep now or I’m calling Frank Martin.”

“No, dad, don’t. We’ll be asleep by the time you pick up the phone, we promise.”

Martin is more than an intense game coach, and oh, he did he prove it when asked about the flag.

South Carolina, he says, is a United State. On Friday, his state will unite against Baylor.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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