Sapakoff: S.C. State’s ‘special group’ clobbers the basketball odds

S.C. State head coach Murray Garvin, a former assistant coach at Charleston Southern, is trying to get the Bulldogs into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.

There are good NCAA Division I men’s college basketball stories all around the Palmetto State this season.

Frank Martin has South Carolina on the verge of sewing up its first NCAA Tournament trip since 2004. Clemson is the biggest positive surprise in the ACC.

Injury-riddled College of Charleston has improved so much in Earl Grant’s second season, he is a strong candidate for Coach of the Year honors in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Winthrop and Coastal Carolina are among the teams fighting it out atop the Big South. Furman and Wofford are in position for high seeds in the Southern Conference Tournament.

But there isn’t a better overachievement tale than S.C. State, 10-3 and in second place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (15-12 overall) after Saturday’s 62-58 win at Maryland-Eastern Shore.

None of the other teams in the state are linked to a debt-ridden school threatened last year with a shutdown and forced this year to deal with massive financial cuts.

It’s not easy going 9-1 at home despite such paltry fan support (333 attendance average).

S.C. State was picked eighth in the preseason MEAC poll, which means Murray Garvin is probably the Coach of the Year in South Carolina even if the Bulldogs lose the rest of their games.

Junior guard Eric Eaves is third in the MEAC in scoring (16.8 points per game). Sophomore Ty Solomon (Charleston Collegiate High School) leads the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio. Senior Daryll Palmer (Timberland High School) is on pace to become S.C. State’s career blocked shot leader.

“We have a special group of guys that we thought could have a successful season when we first saw them come together this fall,” Garvin said. “They’ve continued to work and have bought in to everything we’ve asked them to do, and it has transferred over on the court.”

The teamwork turning point came in a meeting room, not on the court.

Not in Orangeburg, but inside a hotel in Akron, Ohio, on Dec. 30. The Bulldogs were nearing the end of one of the school’s typically rugged non-conference road schedules, which included games at College of Charleston, Eastern Kentucky, Longwood, Duquesne, Ball State, St. Bonaventure, East Carolina and a 68-66 loss at Kansas State.

“We had just played at Ohio State and Akron,” said Garvin, a 42-year-old former Charleston Southern assistant in his third full year as S.C. State head coach. “The Ohio State game was close much of the way and we had our chances against Akron. Then we were on our way to Miami of Ohio, another Mid-America Conference team. We got together and said that if could win that game, it would transfer over to our conference schedule.”

The Bulldogs upset Miami of Ohio, 71-67. Seven weeks later, they are in good shape to challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid at the MEAC Tournament set for March 7-12 in Norfolk, Va.

Garvin and his assistant coaches, Ken Spencer and Rio Pitt, handled the S.C. State shutdown buzz with creative calm.

It wasn’t like they could call coaches around the country with “whaddya do when your school might go under?” Questions as if trying to figure out how to handle the 2-1-2 zone press.

“The circumstances were really unprecedented,” Garvin said. “But we always talked about just worrying about things we could control.”

Solomon got the message. The 5-10 point guard sees things on the court he didn’t recognize last season.

“Ty is the consummate point guard,” Garvin said. “He’s done an outstanding job of running our basketball team and getting the ball to people in a position where they can be successful.”

Palmer, a 6-8, 225-pound center, has been a program staple for four seasons.

“Daryll Palmer is the glue to our basketball team,” Garvin said. “He’s finishing his career the right way. Daryll exemplifies the type of person we want in our program at S.C. State.”

Slowly, basketball interest is coming back at S.C. State, which sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament from 1989 to 2003.

“I’ve had alums tell me they’re going to Norfolk, that they will attend the conference tournament for the first time in several years,” Garvin said.

The way S.C. State has played since that night at Miami of Ohio, it might be best to book a hotel room for the whole tournament.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff