Baylor and South Carolina played two close games in 2013 and ’14, but multiple friendships began well before that. The Bears and Gamecocks will be facing familiar foes Friday night in the Sweet 16.
Frank Martin witnessed Scott Drew rebuild the Baylor program from also-ran to perennial national contender while an assistant and then the head coach at Kansas State.
A friendship developed through Baylor’s director of basketball operations Tim Maloney, and when Martin took the job at South Carolina, Drew didn’t hesitate to schedule a home-and-home series with Martin’s Gamecocks.
“When I got (to) South Carolina, nobody would schedule us,” said Martin, who left Kansas State following the 2011-12 season. “I’m talking about other (top) schools. Scott said, ‘Lets do this.’ I don’t like playing (against) friends, but he said ‘Let’s do this,’ because he knew he would have a lot more to lose if they lost to South Carolina than we would (losing to Baylor). But he wasn’t scared of giving us the opportunity.”
The Bears beat the Gamecocks in two defensive battles, winning 66-63 at home in 2013-14 and 69-65 the following season. In those two seasons, Martin’s teams finished 14-20 and 17-16, respectively, but he’s since helped South Carolina become a respected program nationally, just like Drew did at Baylor.
Now the two friends will face each other Friday night at Madison Square Garden with much higher stakes on the line in one of the more underrated of the eight Sweet 16 matchups.
“We continue to speak and we watch each other’s teams,” Martin said. “And I know he’s proud of the way we have built our program and I know I’m extremely proud of the way he continues to win at a national level.”
South Carolina’s defense is the main reason has advanced to its first Sweet 16 since 1973, which also stood as the year the Gamecocks last won an NCAA Tournament game of any kind. They rank last in the SEC in field goal percentage at 41.8, but they are 18th nationally with opponents shooting an even 40 percent.
South Carolina erased second-seeded Duke’s seven-point halftime lead Sunday and pulled off an 88-81 upset, after which Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said it was the the toughest defense his team had faced all season.
Third-seeded Baylor had seen similar defenses, especially in the case of West Virginia, which is coached by one of Martin’s mentors, Bob Huggins. The Bears committed 29 turnovers in a blowout loss to the Mountaineers earlier this season.
Guard Ish Wainright witnessed the Gamecocks’ pressure first-hand his freshman and sophomore years when the Bears faced South Carolina and kept those games tight.
“Their defense is amazing,” Wainright said. “That’s one thing that they pride their self about. So I do see a lot of similarity with West Virginia and South Carolina, and if we just take care of business and do what our coaches tell us to do, we should be successful.”
Drew doesn’t believe the previous games against the Gamecocks will provide much in preparation for the highly intense battle that awaits Friday night, though.
“The only thing I liked when you watched old film is it reminds you of your past players and brings a smile to your face,” Drew said. “We had some great games with them and there was some great players in those games. I think I had more hair back in that day.”
Drew is hoping he’s not forced to rip more of it out fretting over South Carolina star guard Sindarius Thornwell. The senior scored 29 points in the Gamecocks’ first-round win over Marquette and 24 against Duke, improving his average to 21.4 on the season.
The Bears said they watched roughly three hours of tape on Thornwell trying to learn his game in hopes of keeping him in check. But they know it won’t be easy.
“He’s a great player,” Wainright said. “I’ve known him since high school. We had our battles, he’s a close friend. He can do everything. And I know he has a great chance to go to the next level and do great things at the next level, too.”
Thornwell scored 20 points in his first college road game at Baylor for a team that didn’t win many games. Now the Gamecocks are two victories from the Final Four, and he’s savoring every moment.
“We are here to show people that we can compete with the best in the country,” Thornwell said.