Sweet 16: The moment Martin knew Thornwell was 'the one' for the Gamecocks

Scott Hood, GamecockCentral.com
Gamecock Central
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Gamecock Central

NEW YORK, NY -- Frank Martin doesn’t recruit based on talent alone - character means as much to him as anything else - and he knew Sindarius Martin was the right fit for South Carolina prior to the Lancaster native’s senior year of high school.

Rated a four-star prospect (Rivals.com ranked him as the No. 43 overall prospect in the 2013 signing class) and the top player in the Palmetto State, Thornwell was given the opportunity to attend the prestigious Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, an institution many elite prospects had attended throughout the years prior to signing with major Division I programs.

Except Thornwell didn’t want to go. Loyal to his local school and community, He wanted to remain in Lancaster and continue playing for his local high school. Only when an insistent uncle drive him to Oak Hill did he finally relent.

Impressed with Thornwell’s loyalty, Martin viewed the episode as an impressive display of his star player’s character, making him even more eager to make Thornwell a Gamecocks.

As a Top 50 prospect in the country, though, Thornwell had every major school pursuing him. At the time, Martin was entering his second season as the Gamecocks coach and his fiery sideline demeanor was well known. But Thornwell saw something in the second-year coach and signed with USC.

Four years later, the Gamecocks are competing in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden, the epicenter of college basketball, with dreams of a national championship still alive and kicking.

Thursday, Martin reflected on the moment when he realized Thornwell was the player he needed for the USC program.

“It's what convinced me that he was the one,” Martin said. “He had a chance to go to Oak Hill Academy. Ninety-nine percent of the kids in the country that are high-profile recruits right now and have a chance to go to Oak Hill Academy, they jump. They don't even wait for you to finish the sentence, they go. They had to force him (Thornwell) to go.

“Because he did not want to leave his state, did not want to leave his high school team, did not want to leave his high school coach, did not want to leave his family. He was not about himself. The easy thing to have done there is go there (Oak Hill) so Sindarius Thornwell can move forward. Instead he was worried about his high school team, his high school coach, his family and his community.”

That same loyalty has been revealed in his four years with the Gamecocks. His sophomore season was challenging due to tendonitis in his knee. He kept pushing past obstacles, though, to get to where he and the rest of his teammates are today.

“The day I got the phone call from him telling me, ‘I want to do this with you,’ when he could have gone to some of the blue bloods (was special),” Martin said. “He wanted to help us build. He wanted to surround his heart with the state name that means so much to him and his family's name on the back of his jersey. And that's powerful. You have a young man that wanted to take on that moment, that responsibility, and he's done it.”

Thornwell goes into Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup averaging 21.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and has become one of the breakthrough players of the NCAA Tournament, those that move from being virtually unknown on a national level to being a household name.

Here in the City that Doesn’t Sleep, the national media has awaken to the magical things Thornwell and the Gamecocks have accomplished during the NCAA Tournament.

A week ago, most national media couldn’t name the SEC Player of the Year. Now they are sit around the campfire, eager to hear Thornwell’s life story.

“He's had an unbelievable year,” Martin said. “And then to be able to have the same performance he's had all year on the big stage last weekend, I'm real happy and proud of him regardless of whether he plays well or not. He's always given of himself for everyone else. I'm happy he's finally getting the recognition he deserves.”

HOW SHOULD A SEASON BE JUDGED?: For blueblood programs such as Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, Duke, Arizona and UCLA (just to name some of the more prominent ones), the success or failure of any campaign is judged strictly by how they fare in the NCAA Tournament. Once March Madness begins, everything that happened previously is quickly forgotten. Best example is Duke, which won the ACC Tournament but lost to the Gamecocks in the NCAA second round in Greenville. Now most Blue Devil fans probably regard the 2016-17 season as a disappointment. Is that fair? Likely not. But that’s life at the top of the mountain in major college hoops.

“You can be undefeated going into the NCAA Tournament, but if you don't make a run in this tournament, all your accomplishments go out the window,” Martin said. “Or you can be a team that lost 12 games, and you make a run in this tournament and everyone forgets all your sins before you got into the tournament.”

Another good example? The 1996-97 Gamecocks team led by Eddie Fogler that won the SEC regular season championship with a 15-1 record and stunned Kentucky on Senior Day in Lexington. However, the second-seeded Gamecocks fell to No. 15 seed Coppin State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 78-65. Today, few USC fans remember the success that 1996-97 team had prior to the NCAA Tournament.

“Eddie's as good a coach as I've ever been around,” Martin said. “Eddie won a SEC championship at South Carolina. Got upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. No one ever validated how great that team was because of that.”

GATORS-BADGERS MEET IN SECOND SWEET 16 MATCHUP IN NYC: The second Sweet 16 showdown of the night at Madison Square Garden features Florida taking on Wisconsin, which upset No. 1 seed Villanova last Saturday in the second round. The Gators finished second in the SEC behind Kentucky and earned a No. 4 seed into the NCAA Tournament. They beat East Tennessee State (80-65) and Virginia (65-39) en route to the Sweet 16.

“They play well with one another, they like each other, they play hard and they have sold out to defending at the highest possible level,” Florida coach Mike White said about his team on Thursday. “We feel like when we continue to do that and we're focused and locked in and we compliment that with some made shots, we can compete with anybody in the country.”

SWEET 16 SCHEDULE/RESULTS (March 23-24)

Thur., March 23

Oregon 69, Michigan 68

Gonzaga 61, West Virginia 58

Kansas 98, Purdue 66

Xavier 73, Arizona 71

Fri., March 24

North Carolina vs. Butler, 7:09 p.m. (CBS)

South Carolina vs. Baylor, 7:29 p.m. (TBS)

UCLA vs. Kentucky, Approx. 9:39 p.m. (CBS)

Florida vs. Wisconsin, Approx. 9:59 p.m. (TBS)

(All Times Eastern)

ELITE EIGHT MATCHUPS:

Gonzaga vs. Xavier (West)

Kansas vs. Oregon (Midwest)

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