How South Carolina basketball is soaking in its March Madness appearance

It’s quiet inside PPG Paints Arena. Thousands of seats in worn black faux leather with pops of a muddy, gold accent surround the pristine court below them.

There are banners in the rafters honoring NHL players, hanging next to the Canadian and American flags. Underneath them, basketball hoops with shot clocks and cameras strapped on top sit motionless.

The jumbotron above displays the South Carolina Gamecocks logo. Meechie Johnson walks onto the court, camera in hand, looking around at the scene in front of him. Myles Stute is two steps behind, also looking around. There’s a sense of awe on their faces.

It happened. South Carolina’s stepped foot into the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s been a blessing to be here with these guys,” Johnson said. “We’ve been working, putting a lot of work in. We believe we can be in this moment, and since being here we’ve had a lot of fun bonding, watching film, went to dinner, enjoying every moment we can making memories.”

A lot happens between Selection Sunday and the first round of March Madness. There’s the excitement of just hearing “South Carolina” being called on the CBS broadcast. Then there’s the preparation, a quick 48-hour turnaround before hopping on a plane and traveling to a brand new city.

So much of the whirlwind to prepare for the NCAA Tournament doesn’t allow the Gamecocks a lot of time to soak all of it in. They have to find that on their own.

Even Ta’Lon Cooper, the only player South Carolina has with tournament experience, hasn’t witnessed the full experience. His March Madness in 2021 was filled with COVID-19 tests, limited interactions and Zoom press conferences.

“It’s exciting,” Cooper said. “But also, some of these guys on the team, it’s their first March Madness. And seeing their excitement and see how they’re reacting just makes me happy.”

Just stepping into PPG Paints Arena is a big deal for South Carolina. It’s the first time in seven years this program made it to the tournament. Every current member of USC’s roster was in middle school, or just starting high school, when it happened in 2017.

“It’s a big, big reason why I came to the school and wear it across my chest,” Jacobi Wright said. “So just being able to be here with this school and making it this far, it’s just a blessing to me.”

Finding a moment to soak in that feat might be Johnson bringing that camera onto the court for Wednesday’s open practice, or Stute taking a few deep breaths while looking up at the rafters.

It means the little dance parties on the court and in the locker room. It means Jacobi Wright can feel like he’s bringing more pride to his home state. It means BJ Mack and Stephen Clark end their collegiate careers on the biggest stage of college basketball.

There’s a task at hand, but knowing where the Gamecocks are at this moment isn’t lost on the team. Because the next time they step foot in PPG Paints Arena, it won’t be quiet anymore.

The chances to just be in the moment are few and far between in the postseason chaos. South Carolina might use its shoot-around as its opportunity, or even during fleeting moments before, during and after Thursday’s game.

The hope is to just appreciate being one of the 68 vying for a title in a year no one ever thought it would happen.

“It feels like this is everything we worked for all year,” Johnson said. “In the summer running the hills, pushing each other through the hard times, like, this is what we work for. It’s nothing but smiles and just embracing the moment and embracing the feeling. It’s just a wonderful thing to be a part of.”

How to watch South Carolina in March Madness

Who: No. 6 South Carolina (27-6) vs. No. 11 Oregon (23-11)

When: 4 p.m. Thursday

Where: PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh