You'd think a four-star, top-40 prospect committing to lowly South Carolina would make headlines, especially one from revered Oak Hill Academy who was coming home to play for the Gamecocks.
Oddly, it was hardly a shock at the time. Despite winning 64 total games between 2006-10 and making only three NCAA Tournaments since 1974, then-South Carolina head coach Darrin Horn reeled in big fish in the 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes. His six-man 2010 class included two four-star players — Bruce Ellington and Damontre Harris — the program's first four-star recruits since Tre Kelley in 2003. A year later, he nabbed another one, Damien Leonard from nearby Greenville.
Therefore, when four-star guard Sindarius Thornwell (and four-star forward Demetrius Henry) signed in 2013, it was big news but not on the monumental level you'd expect for South Carolina, a team still struggling to compete for SEC wins, let alone an NCAA Tournament berth. Little did we know, Thornwell would become one of the most important players in South Carolina basketball history.
A native of Lancaster, S.C., a tiny town roughly halfway between Columbia and Charlotte, Thornwell dominated the local prep circuit (26.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and five assists as a junior at Lancaster High School) before transferring to Oak Hill Academy in 2012 for his senior season. It was under legendary coach Steve Smith that the 6-foot-5, 180-pound shooting guard developed into an elite player, with scouts drooling over his aggressiveness and versatility. Average shooting is arguably only thing that kept Thornwell from being a five-star, top-30 recruit (he was ranked 43rd by Rivals).
Carrying a couple dozen offers, he trimmed his list to North Carolina State and South Carolina in 2012 before picking the Gamecocks and their first-year head coach Frank Martin in October.
"It is home,” Thornwell told the TheBigSpur.com. “I have never been a recruit with them, I have always felt like a priority. I always felt comfortable and good with them which is what matters the most.”
He shot 39 percent from the floor (37 percent from three) and committed six combined fouls and turnovers as a freshman in 2013-14. Even with the shaky games, Thornwell was one of few bright spots in a 14-win season — the program's fifth straight with 15 or fewer wins — that included more highlights of Martin berating players on the sideline than actual highlights.
His shooting woes continued as a sophomore. The clip dipped to 37 percent overall and 26 percent from deep, and he was still committing about one foul or turnover every five minutes. Last season, the first signs of improvement began showing, both individually and as a team.
Thornwell shot better (38 percent overall, 33 percent from three), trimmed back the fouls (2.5 per game in 2014-15 to 1.9 in 2015-16) and had a few huge outings — scored 24 and 25 points in back-to-back wins over Texas A&M and LSU, respectively — in leading South Carolina to a program record 25 wins.
In three of their last four games, he scored 65 points on 55-percent shooting (26 of 47), including 9-for-16 from three. Sindarius Thornwell was turning a corner.
He flew out of the gates last November, averaging 18.7 points (48-percent shooting from deep) in seven games, all wins. Then Thornwell ran into a brick wall; he was suspended indefinitely on Dec. 4 for a "violation of athletic department policy". He misses six games, three of which his team lost — they averaged 59 points in losses to Seton Hall, Clemson and Memphis.
Thornwell returned a month later, issuing an apology to fans and his teammates before scoring 19 points in their win over Georgia.
"He makes such a big difference on the team," teammate P.J. Dozier said of Thornwell. "This game speaks for itself how much we missed him in all aspects of the game, rebounding, scoring, defending, everything. Just having him back was great for us."
Three months later, the nation is seeing what difference he makes. He's averaging 25.8 points in the tournament, delivering both the program's first Elite Eight and Final Four bid. The shooting woes are gone — 45 percent overall and 39 percent from deep — and he's posting career highs in rebounding (7.2 per game), free-throwing shooting (83 percent), blocks (0.9) and steals (2.2).
And after falling from NBA Draft rankings the last three years, Thornwell is back on their radar too.
Once a fringe one-and-done candidate from an powerhouse prep program, Sindarius Thornwell is playing like many expected him to, even if it did take longer than expected and included a long shooting yips rehabilitation. But it also included a historical run to the Final Four.