May 7, 2021

What past Cinderella team is most similar to South Carolina?

As South Carolina prepares for the Sweet 16, which recent Cinderella team do the Gamecocks most resemble?

Photo by bp6316 https://www.flickr.com/photos/bp6316/

The excitement that comes with the possibility of a Cinderella story each season ranks as one of the top reasons for the popularity of March Madness. Fans enjoy the unpredictably of the NCAA tournament and tend to unite in embracing the underdogs who make it out of the first weekend. Double-digit seeds typically gain more attention, but the Nos. 7-9 seeds that often outlast a 1-seed to make it to the Sweet 16 deserve as much credit. Another aspect to the labeling of a Cinderella team is the program’s history in the NCAA tournament. For instance, a mid-major team or a typically irrelevant Power Five team fits the description that sweetens a Cinderella story.

Back in 2010, Northern Iowa entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region. Coming off a 28-4 season, the Missouri Valley tournament champion beat UNLV 69-66, with senior guard Ali Farokhmanesh hitting the game-winning 3-pointer with roughly five seconds to go. After that, they took down the No. 1-overall seed, Kansas. Again, Farokhmanesh knocked down a clutch go-ahead 3-pointer to give the Panthers their first trip to the Sweet 16 in program history. Northern Iowa’s run was cut short in that round when it lost to Michigan State, 59-52.

This year, South Carolina came in to the tournament as a No. 7 seed in the East Region. The Gamecocks obliterated Marquette by 20 in the opening round. In their Round of 32 matchup with Duke, the seven-point underdog trailed by seven at half. What happened in the last 20 minutes is still hard to fathom. South Carolina scored 65 points in the second half and ultimately won the game 88-81. SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell averaged 26.5 points during the opening weekend, representing the conference admirably. In Frank Martin’s fifth season in Columbia, he’s taking South Carolina to its first Sweet 16 appearance since the field expanded to 64 teams.

Sound familiar?

Beyond the historic accomplishments made by both programs during their respective tournament runs, the two teams share several similarities when it comes to the style of play. Northern Iowa gave up roughly 55 points per game during the 2009-10 season, while the Gamecocks were considered one of the toughest teams to score against this past season. They finished fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions (89.0), one of the best indicators of a team’s defensive play.

In addition, they both mainly relied on four players for a majority of their scoring. South Carolina’s top four scorers contributed to roughly 76 percent of its points while Northern Iowa’s top four were responsible for around 70 percent of its scoring.

When it comes to teams being under-seeded in the tournament, both the Gamecocks and Panthers have a legitimate argument. Due to Northern Iowa’s lack of “impressive wins,” the committee’s decision to place them as a No. 8 seed came despite them finishing in the top 20 in RPI on Selection Sunday. On the other hand, two of the Panthers’ losses came to teams with an RPI of over 200.

As for South Carolina, the Gamecocks came into the home stretch of the regular season in their fifth consecutive week in the AP Top 25. Unfortunately, a 3-6 finish to the regular season not only dropped them out of the polls, but turned them from a No. 4 or No. 5 seed to a No. 7 seed. Sorry, Duke.

The experience possessed by both teams played a big part in their tournament success as well. Seniors Thornwell (21.4 points per game) and Duane Notice (10.3 points per game) are two of South Carolina’s top three scoring leaders.

Three of Northern Iowa’s top four scorers were also seniors during its 2010 run. Seven-foot beast Jordan Eglesder, Adam Koch and Farokhmanesh combined to score over half of the team’s total points per game.

There are some differences in the two teams’ styles, which could bode well for the Gamecocks in their pursuit to advance past the Sweet 16. While both teams thrived on suffocating defenses, neither team possesses the ideal amount of offensive power. That said, South Carolina probably does have the upper hand. The Panthers played a style and tempo similar to present-day Virginia, indicated by Northern Iowa’s 61.3 possessions per 40 minutes, good for No. 343 in the country. While the Panthers were somewhat efficient offensively, this stat explains the low number of 63.3 points per game.

South Carolina, on the other hand, was more in the middle of the pack in terms of possessions per 40 minutes this season. While slightly less efficient, the Gamecocks managed to score nearly 10 more points per game compared to the 2010 Northern Iowa team.

This speaks to their ability to take advantage of pushing the ball up the floor following an opposing team’s miss. Since South Carolina’s half-court offense isn’t the most trusted, these opportunities allow them to get easier looks in transition when opportunities present itself.

If one were to ask Frank Martin, surely he’d oppose the comparison given his desire to advance farther than the Sweet 16. Luckily for the Gamecocks, South Carolina should be considered the more legitimate threat, especially with Thornwell leading the way. If Thornwell and company can ride their momentum from last weekend, Baylor’s going to have its hands full. As of now, the similarities between this South Carolina team and the 2009-10 Northern Iowa team are striking. Time will tell if the Gamecocks suffer the same fate or if they can survive and advance at least one more game. It’s March. Anything can happen.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Featured image by bp6316, courtesy of CreativeCommons.org

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