The USC Aiken men’s basketball team is on a journey unlike anything in program history.
The Pacers will play in the Elite Eight of the men’s Division II NCAA Tournament on Thursday after winning the Southeast Regional last week, a pair of firsts. While the destination is unique, the steps the Pacers take to get to Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., won’t deviate from the route they’ve followed all season that has led to so much success.
“We’re doing the same thing we’ve done all year. We’re going to take care of business,” USCA head coach Vince Alexander said Monday of the approach he’s instilling in his 20th-ranked Pacers (25-7) as they prepare to play No. 7 Drury (28-4). “We’re not going for a social event.”
To that end, Alexander’s putting his players through the same steps they’ve taken all season. Whether it has been a game against Augusta State, the Peach Belt Conference Tournament in Columbus, Ga. or this trip for the national quarterfinal game that’s scheduled to tip-off at 8:30 p.m., Alexander has worked his players hard in practice. He said he considered taking a different approach before being reassured to continue doing what has worked so well.
“I talked to Frank Martin,” Alexander said of the head men’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina who just completed his first year with the Gamecocks after several successful seasons at Kansas State. “We’ve become good friends and he was there with Kansas State when they lost to Butler (in 2010).”
Alexander said that Martin regretted going easier on his players in practice. That hasn’t been an issue for Alexander, who in his eighth season as USCA head coach has compiled 150 wins, the most in program history.
“This is the first time we’ve gotten here. I’m trying to get us over the hump,” Alexander said. “I’ve relayed that to the players and told them we need to focus on what we need to do. We’ve had quality practices and get after it.”
Since beating Barton on March 19 for the Southeast Regional crown, Alexander said the Pacers have only had two days off. Even the days when their practice sessions have been abbreviated, the coach said the action on the floor at the Convocation Center has been spirited. That has been the approach since an early-season meeting following a Dec. 1 loss to Benedict College. Since then, USCA has posted a 23-5 record.
While Alexander, his staff and the players are approaching this game like any other, that’s definitely not the case for the people coordinating the journey to Louisville. Chief among them are athletic director Randy Warrick and assistant athletic director for communications and promotions/sports information director Brian Hand.
“It’s not simple,” Warrick said Monday, prior to the Pacers being honored by the Aiken City Council at 7 p.m., just a few hours before they embarked on the trip, starting today with an early-morning flight out of Augusta Regional Airport.
Since beating Barton last week; Warrick, Hand and their staff at USCA have been busy putting together the details of the trip. It started with Warrick getting eligibility from the NCAA for the Pacers, coaches and immediate support staff to fly to Kentucky. It wasn’t as simple as procuring tickets, Warrick had to supply everybody’s exact name as it appears on a passport, their weight and the number of bags the Pacers would be bringing.
He had to arrange for transportation to the airport – and its safe return to campus while the team is gone – as well as on the ground in Louisville. USCA, and all the participants in the Elite Eight, had to book return tickets for Friday should they lose on Thursday. They also had to have the details of a trip back on Sunday confirmed, should the Pacers advance to the Final Four.
While Alexander wants things to be as normal as possible, there will be a few unique wrinkles worked in immediately.
“When we arrive (today) we’ll have lunch, then go on the floor for practice, then have a banquet at Churchill Downs,” Hand said of a special ceremony for the players at the world-famous race course’s ultra-exclusive Millionaires Row.
“Then on Wednesday, there’s a community service project for the athletes, a press conference and another practice,” Warrick said of more unusual elements of the itinerary.
That will ultimately be followed by an early-morning practice on Thursday then a lot of time waiting for the USCA players, coaches, staff and fans as the Pacers’ game is the final of the four quarterfinal contests on the day. During that down time, and certainly before, the players and coaches will utilize a room at the team’s hotel set up for viewing film, as well as a special student-athlete room that will allow these college students to do class work if needed.
While advancing this far into the postseason creates unique issues for Warrick, Hand and their staff, they are challenges they welcome.
“The further you go, there’s more headaches. But these are good headaches,” Hand said. “We’ve done everything we can do on our end. Now it’s up to them.”
Warrick echoed those sentiments, saying, “I’ll take this for every sport. … We’re sitting on go, everybody’s excited.”
Among those excited are some area fans who will also make the trip to support the Pacers. Among them will be retired New York City firefighter Rick Doran and his wife Gail.
“We’ve been living in the community for 3½ years, and we’re all in,” Doran said. “My wife and I have been to every home game and a lot of away games. I told (Alexander) if they win the regional, we’re going to Louisville. Now we’re going and hope to support the team.”
Doran and his wife are part of a group of five Pacer Club fans who will make the long 550-plus mile drive. He said he expects even more USCA fans to make the trip, something Warrick also believed to be the case.
“We’re heading out Wednesday,” Doran said. “Hopefully we don’t have to come home until late Saturday or Sunday.”
For those fans who can’t make the trip to Freedom Hall, they won’t be blacked out. The USCA Office of Student Life and the Athletic Department announced Monday that the university will hold a special viewing party at the Convocation Center for the Elite Eight game. The will be live streamed on NCAA.com.
All Pacer fans are invited to attend the special viewing party. There’s no cost and the game will be shown on the large viewing screens in the Convocation Center. Free pizza and drinks will also be available during the evening while supplies last. Doors will open at 8 p.m.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.
Staff photo by Noah Feit Practicing in an empty Convocation Center, head coach Vince Alexander (far right) leads the USC Aiken men’s basketball team through final drills before it embarks on its trip to Louisville, Ky., where it will compete in the Elite Eight of the men’s Division II NCAA Tournament.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Practicing in an empty Convocation Center, head coach Vince Alexander (center) leads the USC Aiken men's basketball team through final drills before it embarks on its trip to Louisville, Ky., where it will compete in the Elite Eight of the men's Division II NCAA Tournament.×
Staff photo by Noah Feit Practicing in an empty Convocation Center, the USC Aiken men's basketball team runs through final drills before embarking on its trip to Louisville, Ky., where it will compete in the Elite Eight of the men's Division II NCAA Tournament.×