Could This Former NBA Star Have Saved The Gamecocks 1996-1997 Men’s Basketball Team?

Before the 2017 NCAA Tournament run, South Carolina basketball for the most part had suffered a rather disappointing history. The Gamecocks managed only eight NCAA Tournament appearances, and their greatest accomplishment was three straight Sweet 16s appearances under South Carolina coaching legend Frank McGuire.

One of the most notable appearances came in 1997, as the 6th ranked 2nd seed gamecocks were upset in the first round by 15th seed Coppin State 78-65.

Not only does this loss come as a grim memory for Carolina basketball fans; it is also considered one of the most epic collapses by a 2nd seeded team in NCAA Tournament history.

To make matters worse, South Carolina missed out on a top commit and later NCAA Allstar who possibly could have turned the tides for the Gamecocks that season. 

Jermaine O’Neal played 18 seasons in the NBA. Before going pro. He was a standout Basketball star at Eau Claire Fine Arts School in Columbia, South Carolina.

In his senior season, he was awarded the title “Mr. Basketball” for the state of South Carolina. He was drafted 17th overall by the Portland Trailblazers. During O’Neal’s NBA tenure, he was recognized as an Allstar six consecutive times.

O’Neal was also a contributing member of the “Greatest Team that Never Was” with the Indiana Pacers. A strong championship contender that was ripped apart by suspensions from the infamous “Malice at the Palace.” A game in which the Pacers defeated the Defending Champion Pistons 97-82.

Overall, O’Neal’s NBA career was long-lived with several seasons as a top player. However, one might wonder, what would have happened if O’Neal played in college? Where would he have played?

Believe it South Carolina was one of O’Neal’s college choices. According to, “O’Neal says the school was “all in” on him.

He was very familiar with the University of South Carolina, which he says is 10 minutes from his childhood home” ( The University made a strong push for O’Neal as students and fans wore t-shirts with slogans and placed bumper stickers on their cars with the hopes the O’Neal would commit to Carolina (

Unfortunately, he made the decision to enter the 1996 NBA draft and opted out of playing college ball. Had O’Neal committed to South Carolina, his freshman year for the Gamecocks would have been during the 1996-1997 season. The same year Carolina was defeated by Coppin State in the first round of the tournament. 

Is it fair to say that South Carolina would have won a National Championship with O’Neal? No. Is it fair to say that South Carolina would have not been a first-round exit had he committed? No. Is it fair to say that O’Neal would have even committed to South Carolina? No.

Because of O’Neal’s decision to opt out of college ball, it is unfair to make any sort of profound claim about his possible career with the Gamecocks because it simply never happened. O’Neal’s first several seasons in the NBA seemed rather disappointing as he never really seemed to get his feet set until his 2002 season with the Pacers.

Perhaps his college career would have been disappointing as well. On the other hand, South Carolina’s Center play in 1997 was mediocre at best. Perhaps he would have given the Gamecocks a boost at the Center position.

This idea could have led to a different outcome for the 1996-1997 men’s team. But who knows? 

The idea of Jermaine O’Neal playing for an already strong Carolina basketball team will only be considered a vision and a topic of conversation. Nobody knows what would have happened if he decided to play for the Gamecocks in 96-97; therefore, no clear statements can be made about it.

However, it is interesting to think about what could have been.

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