In early December of 2012, I made plans with my college buddy and fellow hoops junkie, LL, who is a high school coach in Maryland, to meet up at the Nike National High School Hoops Festival which was taking place on the campus of legendary hoops powerhouse DeMatha Catholic.
A lot of the buzz centered around diminutive point guard Aquille "The Crimestopper" Carr, who was finishing up his prep career at Princeton Day in Maryland after an almost mythical three-year run at Baltimore's Patterson High School.
The most highly anticipated matchup for a lot of folks in attendance was Carr's game against the #1 prep player in the country, Huntington Prep's remarkable Andrew Wiggins.
But the two-day event was jam-packed with other talented teams and exceptional players. Nate Britt is now a North Carolina Tar Heel, Moses Kingsley and Xavier Rathan-Mayes were teammates with Wiggins at Huntington Prep who now star for Arkansas and Florida State respectively, current Maryland Terp Dion Wiley, DeMatha big man BeeJay Anya would go on to play for North Carolina State and current Georgetown Hoya Marcus Derrickson were all out there putting in work as well.
One of the players who made an impression on me was West Charlotte High School's Kennedy Meeks. The 6-foot-9 behemoth weighed close to 400 pounds at the time, but his hands, footwork and touch were exceptional. You could tell that once he got to Chapel Hill and began to train and take advantage of their nutrition program that he had a chance to be an exceptional big man for the Tar Heels down the road.
I also made plans to catch up with my buddy and a legend in the country's AAU apparatus, Boo Williams, who made the trip up from Hampton, Virginia to watch his nephew, Troy Williams. Currently in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies, Troy was finishing up his prep career at hoops powerhouse Oak Hill Academy.
Troy played great, but I walked away from that Oak Hill game intrigued by one of his teammates, Sindarius Thornwell.
Thornwell wasn't an explosive athlete like Williams or Wiggins, but I couldn't take my eyes off of him because of how easily he seemed to be getting buckets. He wasn't jumping out of the gym, but he was scoring all over the floor. He looked very comfortable pulling up off the dribble and seemed to get to the free throw line at will. His game wasn't about simply getting buckets though, because he was a force on the boards and played some tough defense as well. He had what cannot be taught, and that is an instinctual feel for the game.
Now let's fast forward to the upcoming Sweet Sixteen on the 2017 NCAA Tournament, and you'll find Thornwell to be the breakout star of March Madness thus far.
Despite being the SEC Player of the Year and leading South Carolina into the tourney, Thornwell has not received his share of the national attention that others like UCLA's Lonzo Ball have received. And I'm glad that that is starting to change.
Thornwell had perhaps the best individual performance of the regular season when he put up 44 points and grabbed 21 rebounds against Alabama, becoming just the third player in 20 years to have at least 40 points and 20 rebounds in a game, joining Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin and Cleveland State’s Norris Cole. He also became the only player in the past 20 years to have 40 points, 10 offensive rebounds and 10 defensive rebounds in one game.
“The thing that is unbelievable is that he shot 33 free throws,” South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said after the Alabama game. “That’s unbelievable. That’s just a relentless pursuit of the rim. I wish more of our guys would attack the rim that way.”
And Crimson Tide head coach Avery Johnson verbalized what opposing coaches in the NCAA Tournament are beginning to recognize, in case they didn't already know.
“We just couldn’t guard him,” Johnson said.
Thornwell scored a game-high 24 points, grabbed six boards and dished out five assists in the Gamecock's second round NCAA Tournament win over Duke. In his team's opening round game, he blazed Marquette for 29 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, delivering South Carolina’s first tourney win since Pam Grier was the Godmother of them all in Coffy back in 1973.
With all of the hype nowadays surrounding the exceptional one-and-done talents that flow through the college landscape for just a few months, it's great to see an underrated four-year player emerge on the game's biggest stage.
Thornwell and No. 7-seed South Carolina's next test will come against Baylor in the East Regional Semifinals on Friday night at Madison Square Garden. Earlier this season, I made the trip to MSG on December 9th to peep Thornwell when the Gamecock's played Seton Hall. I was disappointed to learn that he would not be playing due to an undisclosed violation of team rules.
The Pirates handed South Carolina their first loss of the season that night, as they had no consistent offense without Thornwell in the mix.
On Friday, I'll be back at The Garden to watch him try to get his squad to the Elite Eight. As he tries to take his program to new heights, don't miss the guy that you're just beginning to hear about as the breakout star of the tournament. Duke's Coach K called him, "...the best unheralded great player in the United States."
Luckily for me, I saw how special he was four years ago in that DeMatha gym while he was killing it for Oak Hill.
Now, in case you're late getting to the party, you'll get to see it too.