BillRafterysaw South Carolina lose its first game of the season against Seton Hallon Dec. 12 at Madison Square Garden.
Raftery, who will call the Final Four semifinals inPhoenix on Saturday, says that improvement on defense is the big reason why the Gamecocks will faceGonzagain the first national semifinal.That's not the only reason the No. 7 seed made it this far, however.
"I just think getting during the course of the year, and I think they got tougher-minded,"Rafterytold Sporting News. "I'm sure they did the same drills in December and didn't have the same results they got as the year progressed, but I think that's a process where guys become more demanding.
"Every year a team gets hotter, gets better,"Rafterysaid. "I saw them early in the year. They lost to Seton Hall. They were good defensively, but nothing like they are now."
South Carolina's timing was unexpected, to say the least. The Gamecocks finished 5-5 in their last 10 regular-season games and lost 64-53 to Alabama in the SEC tournament. South Carolina, however, advanced through the first weekend with an 88-81 victory against No. 2 seed Duke before returning to Madison Square Garden last weekend. From there, the Gamecocks held Baylor and Florida to an average of 60 points per game in two more impressive wins.
In some ways, it resembles one of those patented runs by a Tom Izzo-Michigan State team.
"I think hard-nosed,constant effort, rebound, pressure the ball, that would be a good comparison, probably going back to(Bob)Knight and(Gene)Keady too with the intensity."
That leads to coach Frank Martin, who made his first Final Four in his fifthseason with the program.Rafterysaid he talked to Martin at the Final Four last year and again after the loss to Seton Hall, and he saw a coach who was sticking with the formula.
"I think sticking to his core beliefs and not changing, softening maybe, but not changing,"Rafterysaid.
The players certainly have responded to Martin on and off the court, and that's another big reasonwhythe Gamecocks are still alive – and have a chance to advance to the nationalchampionshipgame.
"The players see that side but they certainly don't seeit through the course of practice, preparation or game,"Rafterysaid. "He's all about business. All the good ones are. I think he's going to be around for a long time and do exceedingly well."
Allstate will featureRaftery, Dick Vitale and Steve Nash at the Final Four Fan Fest on Sunday. Fans will be able to meet-and-greet while receiving autographs and test their shooting skills with "Hoops of Mayhem" for a chance to win prizes.
"It'sa chance to come in and meet Steve Nash, Dick Vitale, shoot some hoops and get some pictures and some little gifts,"Rafterysaid. "It's a nice little atmosphere. You can get some pictures with these guys,and they throw me in as an extra."