There are many reasons South Carolina was an afterthought heading in the 2017 NCAA tournament, but there is one main one — one broad one — that stands above the rest: The Gamecocks, by major conference standards, were frankly a bad offensive team. They scored 1.00 points per possession during SEC play, a mark that ranked 11th in a weak conference, and a mark that, at the time, was in no way deceiving. South Carolina was on the decline, too. It had scored a season-low 53 points in an SEC tournament loss to Alabama.
Then, out of nowhere, something changed, and two weeks later South Carolina is in the Final Four. That something is actually many things. But more than anything else, it is Sindarius Thornwell.
Thornwell is both the reason South Carolina has wildly exceeded expectations in the NCAA tournament and the reason there were any expectations at all. He is an inside-out defensive force and the leader of the nation’s second best defense, the reason the Gamecocks are even in the tournament. He is also the one-man wrecking crew who has driven South Carolina’s offensive resurgence in the tournament with over 100 total points in four games so far. He is a contact-seeker and a shot-maker, an attacker and a late-clock bucket-getter, and the best player left in the Final Four.
In fact, Thornwell has been so outstanding on both ends of the floor that it’s not only fair to compare him to past tournament stars, it’s necessary. Thornwell has gradually put together one of the great one-man NCAA tournament runs of the past two decades.
The standard of excellence in recent years for team-on-back rampages through round after round is Kemba Walker, who took a flawed UConn team all the way to a trophy celebration in Houston in 2011. Walker’s run has been referenced ever since, every time a player catches fire in March. Others have emulated the former Huskies star, but none have surpassed him. There’s a chance, however, that that could soon change.
Whereas Walker’s recurring dominance came to feel inevitable, it’s the opposite sensation that has made Thornwell’s run so thrilling. This can’t continue … can it? is the sentiment. But Thornwell does continue — he continues to score, he continues to shut down opposing wings, and continues to impose his will on games. He continues to prove us wrong. He is relentless, and is the face of a South Carolina team that mirrors both his basketball attributes and his bulldog-like mentality.
Both feelings are similarly spectacular, and both narratives similarly compelling. The big difference, of course, is that Walker finished the job; Thornwell’s run is incomplete. Four wins can’t measure up to six wins unless the four individual performances are especially herculean. Thornwell hasn’t quite reached that point.
But what Thornwell has done so far is something nobody has done since the turn of the century. His combination of consistent scoring, all-around impact, and the carrying of a non-top-four seed to the Final Four is unparalleled over the past 17 years. Some players have had two of the three components. Others, like Steph Curry and Blake Griffin, have had one exceptional component. But no player since 2000 has taken a No. 7 seed to this stage while scoring 25 points per game and having such a sizable influence in all phases of the game.
Thornwell still needs at least one more win, and one more transcendent performance, to jump to the top of the list of great 21st century one-man tournament runs. But he’s already cracked the top 10.
Below is a look at that top 10. It’s not simply the top 10 NCAA tournament performances since 2000 — both Jay Williams and Shane Battier, for example, would probably crack that list, but because both were so influential, neither went on a “one-man run.” Same goes for Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker in 2015, Anthony Davis in 2012, Sean May in 2005, and so on. Not every great NCAA tournament run is propelled by a single protagonist. But some are:
BEST ONE-MAN NCAA TOURNAMENT RUNS SINCE 2000
1. Kemba Walker, UConn, 2011
No. 3 seed — Won national championship
Walker scored 23.5 points per game in a tournament that featured a dreadfully low-scoring Final Four. He took over second- and third- round games against sixth-seeded Cincinnati and second-seeded San Diego State, scoring a combined 69 points in the two contests. He led UConn in scoring in all six games, and accounted for over 35 percent of the team’s points. He had 18, seven assists and six boards in a 56-55 semifinal win over Kentucky and tallied 16 and nine rebounds in a 53-41 win over Butler in the title game. Walker wasn’t the most efficient offensive player, and he had a bit of help from Jeremy Lamb, but not much; his run is the best of the 21st century.
2. Juan Dixon, Maryland, 2002
No. 1 seed — Won national championship
Dixon had Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox at his side, but he put them and the rest of the 2002 Terps on his back. He scored 27 or more points in four of the six games, and averaged 25.8 for the tournament. He shot 51 percent from beyond the arc, had 33 points in a semifinal victory over Kansas, and 18, plus five steals, in the title-clinching win over Indiana.
3. Steph Curry, Davidson, 2008
No. 10 seed — Lost in Elite Eight to No. 1 Kansas
Curry didn’t even reach the Final Four, but his run was as memorable as any on this list. He took out Gonzaga with 40 points, took down Georgetown (and captured the imagination of hoops fans everywhere) with 30 in the second round, and beat Wisconsin with 33 — none of his teammates had more than 12 in that Sweet 16 victory. Even in an Elite Eight loss to Kansas, with the Jayhawks’ defense solely focused on him, the sophomore sharpshooter poured in 25 points. He was a one-man show, scored 45 percent of his teams points throughout the tournament, and wrote the first notable chapter in the story of his rise to stardom.
4. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina, 2017
No. 7 seed — Playing in Final Four Saturday
Thornwell hasn’t exactly been a one-man show, and he hasn’t been as flashy as players like Curry and Walker, but he’s been just as effective. He’s averaging 25.8 points per game on 15 field goal attempts, and is rebounding (7.5 per game), swatting shots and swiping steals. He’s the biggest block in the wall South Carolina’s defense has built around the perimeter, and has been the best player on the floor in all four rounds. He’s certainly No. 1 on this list with two more wins. With zero or one, it depends on how he plays.
5. Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse, 2003
No. 3 seed — Won national championship
It’s perhaps controversial to have Melo this low, but a closer look shows why he’s here. Anthony is revered for two reasons: 1. He led ‘Cuse to the title as a freshman in a time when freshman didn’t regularly do that, and 2. He had one massive game in the Final Four, going for 33 points and 14 rebounds in a win over Texas. But even with that outburst, Anthony averaged just a hair above 20 points per game, scored just 26.2 percent of his team’s total output — the lowest percentage of anybody on this list — and had the help of Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick. Anthony was a special college player in his one season, but his tournament numbers were actually less impressive than his season-long numbers, and he wasn’t a one-man team.
6. Russ Smith, Louisville, 2013
No. 1 seed — Won national championship
Smith was awesome for five games before falling flat in the national championship. Luke Hancock stepped up for the Cardinals in the Final Four, won most outstanding player and delivered the two performances casual fans remember, but it was Smith who really single-handedly propelled Louisville to the Final Four. He averaged 25 points over the first five wins, and often there was a double-digit gap between him and the Cardinals’ second-leading scorer. “Russdiculous” was also at the forefront of the nation’s best defense.
7. Shabazz Napier, UConn, 2014
No. 7 seed — Won national championship
Napier is another guy who seems like he should be higher on this list, and was billed as Kemba 2.0 as he led a similar run three years later. But his average of 21.2 points per game wasn’t extraordinary, and he was more of a 1A to DeAndre Daniels’ 1B, with Ryan Boatright as a good third option. If it weren’t for Daniels, UConn’s season would have ended in either the Sweet 16 or Final Four. The junior scored 27 in the regional semifinal and 20 in the national semi (Napier had 12). And while Napier and the Huskies were a No. 7 seed, they certainly weren’t the surprise that Curry and Davidson were or that Thornwell and South Carolina are.
8. Blake Griffin, Oklahoma, 2009
No. 2 seed — Lost in Elite Eight to No. 1 North Carolina
Griffin’s tourney exploits are forgotten because they fell short of the Final Four, and because they didn’t come as part of a Cinderella run. But his numbers were insane: 28.5 points and 15 rebounds per game, plus a 78 percent field goal percentage. And that Sooners team was all him. Griffin had a couple shooters around him, but he consistently drew double teams — and consistently destroyed them. It felt like the future NBA star was playing one-on-five in the regional final against North Carolina.
9. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma, 2016
No. 2 seed — Lost in Final Four to No. 2 Villanova
Through four tournament games last season, Hield came closer to Curry than anybody has since 2008. He was irrepressible in the Elite Eight against Oregon with eight 3-pointers and 37 points overall. What keeps Buddy away from the upper half of this list is 1. the fact that he had Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard alongside him, and 2. his dud of a Final Four game. The senior scored nine points, and the Sooners lost by 44 to Villanova.
10. Dwyane Wade, Marquette, 2003
No. 3 seed — Lost in Final Four to No. 2 Kansas
Wade carried Marquette to the Final Four with consistent scoring and all-around excellence, but he actually had a fair amount of help from Travis Diener and Robert Jackson. He scored just 27.7 percent of his team’s points, the second-lowest percentage on this list, and, similar to Hield, lost his Final Four game by 33.
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