As Kyle has written here before, much of us do not grow up mid-major people. Growing up I liked seeing mid-major games on ESPN during "Championship Week" in part to see unfamiliar teams playing in small gyms. But I chose instead to root for South Carolina of the SEC. South Carolina's campus in Columbia was the closest Division I school to me, being a 40 mile drive. My mom taught at a regional 2 year campus of USC in Sumter, which got my family access to football tickets occasionally and free tickets to baseball games at South Carolina. While I liked seeing upsets by mid-majors in the NCAA Tournament (and scoffed at upsets by power conference teams as not being true upsets), it devastated me to see the Gamecocks fall in their one two-year chance at basketball success to 15 seed Coppin State in 1997 and 14 seed Richmond in 1998. I always wanted to attend USC and watch all Gamecock games from the student section. But I did not get good grades my first two years in my high school, and my high school GPA ended up just below the threshold for automatic acceptance for an in-state student at USC. So I chose not to apply to USC, but still wanted to attend a Division I school.
As I got mail from Division II schools in high school, I scoffed at going to such an irrelevant school. I decided that any Division I school that sent me mail would get a serious look. In December 2002, I received mail from High Point University in North Carolina. I had seen High Point play in the Big South Championship on ESPN the previous March, so I gave them a close look. They seemed to fit my academic profile and were in a location I found more ideal than anywhere in South Carolina, so I started to follow the school's basketball games. I attended my first mid-major game in 2003 as High Point lost at Charleston Southern. While High Point lost, I had quickly become a fan and would ultimately choose to attend High Point over Coastal Carolina.
During high school, my loyalty to the Gamecocks began to weaken and once at HPU it was pretty much dead. All of my Gamecock clothing was donated away. I did not appreciate seeing students at High Point who retained loyalties to their schools growing up. As an HPU fan I felt let down seeing a few of our students who went on our bus to Chapel Hill trip my junior year root for UNC. While most HPU students would always root for the Panthers, most would also remain somewhat loyal to a college they had no real ties to. This made me upset as this type of fan behavior prevents mid-majors from catching the big boys if their own students can't root for them. When I did get to see HPU play the Gamecocks in Columbia in women's basketball on my Christmas break, I loudly supported my Panthers even as they were getting beat by 38 points. At this point of my life, South Carolina was just another major conference school, and I did not like major conference schools.
But in May 2008 I would graduate from High Point and return home. While I did part-time and volunteer work locally, I attended USC sporting events where I had access to tickets. Once again, they were the closest Division I school for me. I still closely followed High Point, and usually rooted for mid-majors as they played South Carolina.
During the 2008-2009 school year, I also started planning the next step of my life with graduate school applications. I applied to two schools at first: UNC Greensboro and UNC Charlotte. I figured these were both schools I could get into, and were both quality mid-major schools in nice metro areas. As I was bothered by the wait for acceptance to these schools, I decided to throw in an application to USC as well. I figured that of the three schools, USC would be the hardest to get in to as a major flagship university.
But UNCG rejected me, as the history department did not have enough open slots for new students due to the tanking economy. The sociology program at Charlotte also rejected me, as I did not meet the course requirements. But South Carolina did accept me into the program of public administration. While I had wanted to go to the other two schools more, USC provided cheaper in-state tuition and was a school I could commute to. So now I would head above the Red Line.
At HPU, I had always wondered what life was like at a major conference school. I had always wanted to see the community support the local team, and have families whose identity was with my school. This unfortunately is often not the case with mid-majors, especially those who are near the big schools. But as I discovered at USC, mid-major communities are smaller and as a result are more closely knit. Everybody on the High Point campus knew who I was. The players from every HPU team knew who their biggest supporter was, and coaches and players would often come and thank me for my support. At South Carolina, there are thousands of students and fans who are just like me. While I have gone to many Gamecock games as a student as I had dreamed of doing as a kid, it just is not the same experience as at High Point. At a mid-major, you begin to feel a personal connection which just is not there at a large university.
But I have adopted the Gamecocks as my #2 team to High Point, and root for them even against all mid-majors besides HPU. Anytime in any sport the Panthers and Gamecocks play excites me, as it provides me a chance to affirm my loyalty to High Point. South Carolina athletics have generally been more successful than High Point was when I was in school; even adjusting for how they do within their respective conferences, the SEC and the Big South which are worlds apart. The football team just clinched 9 wins for the second straight year, the first time in school history that has happened. The baseball team has won the last two national titles, by far the most noteworthy feat in the history of South Carolina athletics.
But the basketball team is a distant third for Gamecock fans behind football and baseball. The resources to excel in basketball are there, as is the case with most schools above the Red Line. The school spends close to 80 million dollars on athletics, and has a modern 18,000 seat arena built 9 years ago. Darrin Horn was lured away from Western Kentucky and is paid over a million a year, and after making the NIT his first year in 2009 his contract was extended through 2015. But aside from defeating the last undefeated team in #1 Kentucky two years ago, the Gamecocks have had very little success in basketball recently. USC has not won a NCAA Tournament game in nearly 40 years, and last year lost to an Auburn team that suffered a string of Red Line Upsets early in the season. For the fourth straight year, the Gamecocks suffered a Red Line Upset playing at a SoCon school, losing at Elon.
And so in their first game since losing at Elon, the Gamecocks faced Tennessee State of the Ohio Valley in the Las Vegas Invitational. The early rounds of the tournament have no real connection to the main event in Las Vegas, which only consists of major teams. This round was essentially a series of guarantee games made to look like part of a tournament. Not many in the Columbia community were excited to see the Gamecocks play tonight in the corporate and very sterile Colonial Life Arena. This was another early season game that did not excite the fanbase during football season. Announced attendance was 9,000, but in reality it was probably no more than 4,000. Fans who had attended the women's game in the afternoon, a 55-50 Gamecock loss to Penn State, were welcome to stick around and take up vacant seats in the student section. The Gamecock players also did not seem to show much enthusiasm coming out, and seemed to be going through the motions against a team they should handle easily.
But Tennessee State was a mid-major that was there to prove themselves. They came out was great intensity on defense and knocked down their shots as the game progressed, and it was clear USC was not ready for the Tigers. TSU took a 14 point lead into halftime, and a Red Line Upset was very possible.
As a USC grad student now in my last semester, I rooted for USC. I know despite being an Oregon alum Kyle roots for the Ducks to lose games to mid-major opponents. I respect mid-majors far more than any other USC fan, but I have a hard time rooting against a school I now have real ties to. But as the game progressed, I started to stop caring. It was clear nothing good could happen as a South Carolina fan at this point. Even if the Gamecocks came back and won, it would only serve to prevent Tennessee State from getting the coveted Red Line Upset while not being a good Gamecock win.
The Tigers began pulled ahead by 21 early in the second half, but the Gamecocks finally started to make their shots. Yet as USC was quickly cutting into the TSU lead, the Tigers never backed down or folded. By the end of the game, I just wanted the game to not go to overtime. When R.J. Slawson missed a free throw that would have tied the game with seven seconds left, OT would not happen. The Tigers would miss the front end of a bonus free throw, but Gamecocks PG Eric Smith lost control of the ball coming across mid-court with time running out. Tennessee State players fell on the ball, and then jumped on each other as they had come away with the Red Line Upset, the third ever I have seen, winning 64-63.
The Gamecocks play again at home Tuesday in the Las Vegas Invitational against Mississippi Valley State of the SWAC. While a Red Line Upset seems even less likely here, it certainly could happen. And the fact that I have begun to not care about that is a good thing. Mid-majors have a greater sense of community and purpose, and provide cheaper and better entertainment than anything above the Red Line, and I look forward to seeing everybody in the state this year.
TENNESSEE STATE 64, at SOUTH CAROLINA 63 11/20/2011
TENNESSEE STATE 2-2 (0-0) -- R. Covington 5-12 3-4 16; W. Peters 3-7 0-0 8; P. Miller 4-8 2-5 11; K. Moore 2-7 3-6 7; K. Thornton 3-3 1-2 7; J. Cyphers 3-7 3-4 12; M. Rhett 0-1 0-0 0; K. Butcher 1-1 0-0 3; M. Green 0-0 0-0 0; M. Bawa 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-47 12-21 64. SOUTH CAROLINA 1-2 (0-0) -- M. Cooke 4-12 1-2 10; R. Slawson 3-7 4-6 10; L. Jackson 5-6 2-4 12; D. Leonard 1-5 2-4 5; A. Gill 1-3 0-0 2; E. Smith 6-10 1-1 18; D. Harris 2-2 1-1 5; B. Richardson 0-8 0-0 0; C. Geathers 0-1 0-0 0; B. Williams 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 22-55 12-20 63.
Three-point goals: TSU 10-22 (W. Peters 2-5; J. Cyphers 3-5; R. Covington 3-7; P. Miller 1-1; K. Moore 0-3; K. Butcher 1-1), SC 7-26 (M. Cooke 1-6; B. Richardson 0-5; R. Slawson 0-2; E. Smith 5-7; D. Leonard 1-5; B. Williams 0-1); Rebounds: TSU 23 (R. Covington 9), SC 29 (D. Harris 7); Assists: TSU 15 (P. Miller 6), SC 13 (L. Jackson 3); Total Fouls -- TSU 23, SC 21; Fouled Out: TSU-K. Thornton; SC-None.