Like much of the Atlantic Sun, the history of USC Upstate is fairly brief. The school was established in the mid-1960s as USC Spartanburg, and played their first game in 1967 against against USC Florence (now Francis Marion), losing 68-52. The then-two-year school, then known as the Rifles, followed that up with their first-ever win against USC Union, 52-51, over a school that no longer can afford athletics. USC Spartanburg only seven years later became a four-year university, and its athletic programs joined the NAIA. The Rifles got off to an awful start as a NAIA program, going 18-88 in their first four seasons as a four-year school. But USC Spartanburg continued to grow quickly, and only a few years later the Rifles went 27-5 and were NAIA champions in 1982. In 1990, the Rifles joined the NCAA Division II Peach Belt Conference, and would continue to re-brand themselves. USC Spartanburg decided with their growth to rename themselves USC Upstate to identify themselves with the entire northwestern part of South Carolina rather than just the city of Spartanburg. They kept their city name by using it as a mascot, becoming the Spartans after dumping the politically incorrect Rifles moniker. And in 2007, about 40 years after the school was established, USC Upstate became a Division I member of the Atlantic Sun.
The Atlantic Sun Conference has a lot of schools that have grown quickly. Florida Gulf Coast, North Florida, and Kennesaw State are all schools established relatively recently that have experienced a lot of growth. These newer schools have a lot of challenges that face them. The schools above the Red Line, as well as the more successful mid-majors, usually have a historical tradition to fall back upon. These new schools do not, and as a result do not have fanbases that are created from family loyalty. In addition, many newer schools are not far removed from a time where the construction of their current facilities were for programs with no intention of joining Division I. This is very much the case in the Big South as well, with Charleston Southern and Coastal Carolina playing in gyms that seat less than 1,100. USC Upstate plays at the Hodge Center, with a claimed capacity of 1,535. But I have always thought it looked smaller than Coastal's Kimbel Arena, and the NCAA website now gives a listed seating capacity for the Hodge Center at 818. If that is the case, then Charleston Southern does not have the smallest arena in Division I, but rather Upstate. And yet the Spartans do not fill the arena on a regular basis. Across town is the small private Wofford College, with a much more established athletic program, and Spartanburg is also a hotbed for some of the best high-school sports in the region. Spartanburg is also near bigger cities, 30 minutes from Greenville and 90 minutes from Asheville and Charlotte. The newly established Spartans are not at the top of people's minds in Spartanburg.
The newer schools also have the challenge of being primarily serving commuter students. Anytime a college's student body is usually not on campus on evenings or weekends, student life takes a hit. Many of the school's students would rather join the bandwagons of Clemson and South Carolina, especially with Upstate not having a football team. Most students go to class and go home, and their connection with Upstate isn't any stronger than they would have with a high school.
As a result, the Spartans and other new schools have fewer fans their fellow Division I schools. But I have discovered that often the best fans are those who follow teams that do not have a lot of followers. The Upstate student section is one of the best I have seen in mid-major basketball. The students, led by the Spartan baseball team, are very enthusiastic in rattling their opponents. The students wear bright green wigs and fake mustaches and use green mini-megaphones. Under NCAA policy these artificial noisemakers are restricted, as somebody tried to use a vuvuzela in pregame warmups. But these fans did a good job of pumping up the Spartans, and did the chant that serves as the header for this site to start the second half.
Despite the small size of the arena, USC Upstate has invested a lot recently to improve its quality. The seats are all cushioned, and the scoreboard is as high in quality as those above the Red Line, with stats and a HD video screen on it. Upstate also has plans displayed in the lobby of adding a balcony on one side of the gym, but that would take major reconstruction given the gym's current architecture.
In addition, Upstate tries to pump up the fans through the use of NBA-style hype. Like many mid-majors now, there is a video introduction that goes with the lights turned off for the starting introductions. The video mentions various principles such as "tradition," which it does through highlight footage of the school's 1982 run to the NAIA title. This makes the hyped entrance even more ironic, considering that this tradition was established by the USC Spartanburg Rifles rather than the USC Upstate Spartans. The PA announcer also talks with an excited an aggressive sounding voice that sounds like he is introducing wrestlers for the WWE. While having a NBA-style atmosphere is probably not for the best, it at least makes for an interesting fit with the size of the arena and crowd which is not what one would expect with this kind of hype.
While the Spartans struggled initially in the Atlantic Sun, USC Upstate has continued its growth with a successful 2011-12 basketball season. The Spartans entered third in the Atlantic Sun behind only league power Belmont and Mercer. Tonight they would face Lipscomb, in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic Sun. The Spartans played Atlantic-10 power Dayton close this year, and would need another good outing to continue their progress. Upstate is now finally eligible for the postseason, and under the leadership of sophomore Torrey Craig is making a run in the Atlantic Sun.
Throughout the game, Upstate almost always led by leads that widen and then narrow again. Upstate was cold from the field, shooting 30 percent. Yet whenever the Bisons went on a charge, Upstate would fight back by out-rebounding Lipscomb and forcing turnovers. It was a high tempo game with many turnovers and shots, but not a lot of points. Kyle has referred to the A-Sun as the A-Fun with its fast style of play, but the fast style of play becomes less fun when it is not leading to more points. But playing at home, it was the defensive efficiency of Upstate that won the game for them. Lipscomb was held to 52 points on 73 trips down the court, allowing the Spartans to win with just 61 points on 74 possessions.
I admire schools like USC Upstate that can go from in 40 years from being a small two-year community college to being a full college with competitive Division I sports. It shows that any school that serves its community well can aspire to go from small-time to big-time status. And the students of these schools need to take pride in their universities, so they can develop a sense of belonging and help advance their school to new heights. All schools start somewhere, and the new members of the Atlantic Sun face unique challenges without much of a history. This has upset the status quo, with many members feeling the increased need to find a new home and create more separation again between themselves and these newer universities. Hopefully like the rest of Our Schools the new members of the Atlantic Sun will be able to take off and eventually become big-names in their towns. And it will be then that their small and loyal fanbases will be rewarded.
at SOUTH CAROLINA-UPSTATE 61, LIPSCOMB 52 01/23/2012
LIPSCOMB 10-11 (5-4) -- J. Burgason 3-9 0-3 9; J. Arnett 3-10 0-1 7; J. Glenn 2-4 2-4 6; M. Smith 4-7 0-0 10; D. Alexander 3-11 2-2 10; Z. Williams 0-4 2-2 2; M. Smith 3-6 2-4 8; D. Smith 0-2 0-0 0; M. Williams 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 18-55 8-16 52. SOUTH CAROLINA-UPSTATE 12-9 (6-3) -- T. Craig 5-12 3-5 14; T. Greene 0-7 5-6 5; R. Glenn 1-6 1-2 3; J. Maxey 3-9 3-4 9; M. Blessing 3-8 1-3 9; A. Rodgers 3-10 0-2 6; B. Olumuyiwa 2-4 0-0 4; F. Miller 3-8 1-1 8; C. Rogers 1-3 0-0 3; S. Porchea 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 21-69 14-23 61.
Three-point goals: LIP 8-24 (J. Arnett 1-3; J. Burgason 3-5; Z. Williams 0-2; D. Alexander 2-8; M. Smith 2-5; M. Williams 0-1), SCU 5-21 (C. Rogers 1-3; S. Porchea 0-1; T. Craig 1-5; T. Greene 0-3; F. Miller 1-2; A. Rodgers 0-2; M. Blessing 2-5); Rebounds: LIP 37 (J. Glenn 7), SCU 49 (R. Glenn 14); Assists: LIP 11 (J. Arnett 3), SCU 10 (R. Glenn 4); Total Fouls -- LIP 18, SCU 12; Fouled Out: LIP-J. Arnett; SCU-None.