Sindarius Thornwell was 17 when he put his future on the line and committed to South Carolina. Everyone tried to talk him out of it — there were other schools, better schools, schools that actually made the playoffs that year, and there was no reason for Thornwell, a native son of the state, to play savior for a program that hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973.
But Thornwell was through with compromising. His senior year of high school, he was all but forced to leave his Lancaster team to join the prestigious Oak Hill Academy, the Virginia-based crown jewel of NBA player factories, Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. Finally, with his own destiny firmly in hand, he would be the one to decide what was important.
“When I first met coach I just got the feel of the way he was and he didn’t even care about winning as much as he cared about me as a person and developing as a man on and off the court,” Thornwell said Saturday as South Carolina got set to play its Elite Eight game against No. 4 Florida. “That’s what you want because you’re only going to be here for four years and what you learn in four years, I feel that’s going to carry me to be successful after South Carolina and that’s what it’s all about.”
If you’re a casual college basketball fan, there’s every chance you hadn’t heard a lot about Thornwell before March. He is the heart and soul of a South Carolina team that has plenty of both; he’s a devastating two-way player, a guard who can score off the dribble, and shoot at will.
In two weeks, Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year, has captivated basketball nation, helping No. 7 South Carolina unseat second-seeded Duke, and leading them over No. 3 Baylor Friday. This is the furthest South Carolina has ever gone in program history, and in exchange, March has made a sweetheart out of Thornwell.
The senior is piquing the interest of NBA executives ahead of the draft, according to published reports, and Mike Krzyzewski called him the “best unheralded player” in the nation. Martin says no one in South Carolina is surprised. They know what type of player he is. Thornwell is averaging 21.4 points, 2.2 steals and 7.2 rebounds per game. He’s shooting a hair under 40 percent from three-point range.
“When he could have gone to one of the blue bloods, he wanted to help us build,” Martin said. “He wanted to surround his heart with his state name that means so much to him and his family name on the back of his jersey. And that’s powerful.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. In December, Thornwell was arrested for marijuana possession and driving with a suspended license. He was forced to sit for six games. The Gamecocks suffered and Thornwell suffered with them. The experience humbled him, he said, and motivated him to work harder. He didn’t want to be remembered for this, not after four years of trying to build the program.
“I just felt like I disappointed coach and I let him down because I knew my team relied on me,” he said. “I just had a mindset when I came back of just giving them all I’ve got every game until the season is over.”
It appears that all is forgiven, at least as far as Martin is concerned. He heaps praise on Thornwell in postgame news conferences, but doesn’t hesitate to scream at him in the middle of games. That’s just how Martin is, and Thornwell seems to thrive in it.
“I’ve known Sindarius forever,” teammate Duane Notice said. “I’ve always amazed at his work ethic. Every time I go to the gym to shoot late at night, he’s there. If I go in the morning, we shoot together, we work out together. It was only a matter of time [before people took notice]. Obviously he has raised his game and everybody is starting to recognize it.”
Thornwell said it’s nice that everyone is noticing now, but this has always been here. “It’s just a matter of everyone paying attention,” he said. And though they’ve been long shots from the very beginning, there’s every chance that the stage could be getting bigger after Sunday afternoon. After all, they’ve gotten this far against the odds, haven’t they?
“It’s March,” Thornwell said, reflecting on Florida’s last-second win Friday. “The basketball gods come alive in March. They were all over the court. They’re all floating around in March.”
And they apparently like Sindarius Thornwell very much.