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Sindarius Thornwell’s arrival triggered South Carolina’s turnaround

South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell puts up a shot against Florida in East Regional championship game Sunday. (JULIO CORTEZ / AP)
South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell puts up a shot against Florida in East Regional championship game Sunday. (JULIO CORTEZ / AP)

Frank Martin was early in his coaching tenure at South Carolina when he put the full-court press on in-state product Sindarius Thornwell.

Martin’s first season didn’t go well. The Gamecocks finished 14-18, tied for 12th in the SEC. South Carolina’s recruitment of the state’s best prep prospects hadn’t gone well for years.

The previous staff identified Thornwell as an impact player and Martin saw the same in the 6-foot-5 guard. But Martin, a former bouncer who is confident, forceful and possesses an all-world glare, wasn’t exactly coming from a position of strength.

The Gamecocks’ last winning season was 2009. They’d been to just four NCAA tournaments since Frank McGuire’s heydays in the early 1970s. Fan indifference was evident with the empty seats at home basketball games in a football-crazy state.

“You had a ton of tradition and it was mostly bad tradition,” said Derek Scott, radio voice of South Carolina basketball. “People here call it the ‘Chicken Curse.’ They really believe at times the program is cursed, not just basketball but most of the sports. It’s a loyal fan base but it always expected the worst.”

Martin ignored the obstacles. He had one other thing working in his favor. Thornwell was a fan of North Carolina, not uncommon for residents in the northern part of the state, but he was also a fan of Devan Downey, a Gamecocks’ standout from 2007-10. Downey was from Chester, not far from Thornwell’s hometown of Lancaster.

Thornwell, who was recruited by Indiana, Louisville and Syracuse, made numerous trips to Columbia to watch Downey’s games.

“Convincing (Thornwell) of my vision was really hard because one thing I had to overcome with local guys is they kind of saw there was apathy in place,” Martin said. “There weren’t too many fans coming to games. It was hard to get them to see what they’ve seen and put my goggles on and get them to see what I see.

“I convinced him to wrap his heart with two names, the state he comes from and his family name to help us build something special. (Former South Carolina football standouts) Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney, I told him you can be what they were to our basketball program.”

After a few lean seasons, that’s essentially what has happened, though there was bitter disappointment last year when South Carolina’s 25-win team didn’t land an NCAA tournament berth.

Thornwell has been the cornerstone of the Gamecocks’ turnaround. The senior guard averaged in double figures in his first three seasons before elevating his points to 21.6 and rebounds to 7.2 to earn SEC player of the year, a program first.

Thornwell has been even better in the tournament at 25.7 points and 7.5 boards. He’s also a two-time SEC All-Defensive team selection.

“He’s going to be a really hard guard,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose Zags face the Gamecocks in a national semifinal Saturday.

Still, Thornwell needed help around him to complete South Carolina’s transformation and it came a few years after his arrival. Martin zeroed in on Columbia native PJ. Dozier, who was rated higher than Thornwell by scouting services.

It was an easier sell with Dozier, whose dad, uncle and sister played for South Carolina. Being a hometown kid, Dozier had a close-up view of Thornwell’s success.

“Sindarius started doing what he does, helping us win, helping us recruit PJ,” Martin said. “Kids recruit each other. Those guys have been tremendous building this.”

Dozier, now a 6-6 sophomore, is the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.8 and has a team-high 99 assists.

The Gamecocks shook off losing five of its previous seven games to defeat Marquette for the program’s first NCAA win since 1973. They added victories over second-seeded Duke and No. 3 Baylor.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called Thornwell “the best, unheralded, great player in the United States.” That was the day before Thornwell scored 24 points in an 88-81 win over the Blue Devils.

In the East Regional final, Thornwell scored 26 points and Dozier 17 in a 77-70 win over No. 4 Florida, earning a date with Gonzaga in the Final Four.

“We’re going to play to our strengths and the way we’ve played all year and hope at the end it’s good enough,” Martin said.

Strengths that begin with Thornwell and Dozier.

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