There's something vaguely untoward about self-identifying fandom (not to mention boosterism), set against the backdrop of as commercial an enterprise as the NCAA. But somehow Darius Rucker’s tearful response was different. South Carolina, a team that hasn’t won a tournament game since 1973, reached its first Final Four last Sunday. Rucker, a Charleston lifer, was six at the time of that last win. Intimations of futility were still a long way off. As a freshman at the college, he threw in with the Gamecocks’ fortunes, and in short order met his Hootie & the Blowfish bandmates (Rucker has a new single out now). But after graduation, even as his career took off, the dud Marches piled up with an increasingly grim certitude.
In 2012, after three straight losing seasons, Carolina hired away Kansas State head coach Frank Martin, an ex-bouncer with brimstone eyes and a Puritanical conception of defense. He promptly posted two more losing seasons, publicly eviscerated the team, and was suspended a game for the repeat offense of “inappropriate verbal communication” with his players. But some of those players were buying in, including Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year.
Between going in person and watching “whenever it’s on TV and I’m around,” Rucker was able to catch 20-plus games this season, and he’ll be in Glendale on Saturday to see his seventh-seeded team take on No. 1 Gonzaga for a shot at the title.
How are you feeling now?
I’m ready to go. I’m ready for them to play the game. I’m anxious, and excited for the team, excited for Coach Martin, excited for all those Gamecocks that have been loyal fans for all these years. You want to say it’s all gravy, but it’s not. You get to a point like this, and you want them to win it all.
Did you expect it to hit you the way it did?
No. I was shocked that I reacted like that. I mean, I know how much I love the Gamecocks, I know all the things that have happened to us as a university and all of our sports teams, but I was really surprised. I was just overcome. I was overcome being there with my son, and [about] Coach Martin coming there and saying he was gonna turn it around, and having the naysayers. And thinking back to the mid ’90s when we had a really good basketball team. We had the No. 2 seed and we lost to Coppin State in the first round. And thinking back to my freshman year of college when our football team gets to No. 2 in the country, and being blown out by Navy. I was thinking about all those things and about getting to that point, having to beat Duke, and having to beat these powerhouses — and getting by them.
What was it like having your son there? How old is he?
Jack’s 12. He’s a bigger fan than me. It was great to be there knowing that he and I were together the first time that South Carolina won a game at the Garden to go to the Final Four. That’s something that we’ll talk about for the rest of our lives.
How did you become a [South] Carolina fan?
When I was younger, it was either Carolina or Clemson. I wasn’t a big college fan back then, but I leaned towards Carolina, and then I ended up going to school there. When I went to school there, it was over. I can’t explain the atmosphere to people. Once you go to school there, you’re a diehard forever.
Were you more into football or basketball?
I’m a football guy. I love football. But we went to tons of basketball games — we went to tons of women’s basketball games, back in the day. For us it was all about Carolina.
You know Frank Martin . . .
He’s the best. Ever since he came to the school he’s been awesome to me. I love his intensity. People will say Frank’s really hard on the players, but those players love it. They know why he’s hard on them. He’s hard on them because he expects them to be great. And they’ve gone out in this tournament and been great. That’s all a testament to Frank. It’s a testament to the way he coaches defense, the way he loves his players. We’re lucky to have him.
In watching the games this year did you see a specific turning point, when things were really beginning to click?
I remember going to the South Carolina State game [in November]. Jack and I were sitting there and we were like, “Our defense is unbelievable.” It’s pretty amazing how cynical we are about defense. But instead of fouling, we’re just up on you and playing you as hard as we can. Early on, Jack’s asking, “Do you think we can make the tournament?” I said, “I think we’re gonna make the tournament this year because our defense is gonna take us there.” Then we lost six of nine at the end, lost in the SEC tournament. You know, you’re a bubble team, so you don’t know. But they let us in, and we proved we belonged there.
What do you need to do to beat Gonzaga?
I think we need to do what we’ve done to everybody else: Play defense. The Zags are good and they’ve got that big guy who rebounds like crazy [Game of Thrones understudy Przemek Karnowski]. We need to do what we did to Duke, what we did to Florida: Play defense, man. That’s your second half. That’s the one thing I haven’t heard anybody talk about: Coach Martin’s adjustments at halftime have been genius. We come out like a different team. We just need to stay in it the first half, make some adjustments, and play defense. Defense is gonna win it for us, because our scoring comes from our defense. We know Sindarius is gonna go out and put up 26, 28, maybe 35 if we need him to. But we need to play D.
Speaking of Thornwell, it seems like he’s really improved from last year.
Oh, absolutely. He was a great player last year, but he’s gone to a whole 'nother level this year. He’s gonna score. Like the last game, I’m watching and I look up and I say to Jack, “Do you know that Sindarius has 15 at the half?” And you’re thinking, How did he get 15 points? But that’s what he does. He gets his and he makes everyone around him better while he’s doing it.
Everybody’s talking about UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, but Thornwell seems to me the most NBA-ready guy I’ve seen play in the tournament.
I think so too. Ball is gonna be great, and that other kid from Washington [projected No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz]. But Sin looks like he’s ready to play in the NBA right now. And that comes from being there four years, being a senior. He’s a man. I think the team that gets him is gonna be real happy.
So you guys going all the way?
I think we’re going all the way. [Laughs.] I always do.
Darius Rucker is on tour through August.