Sindarius Thornwell Destroyed Duke — and Shook Up March Madness

Get to know South Carolina's breakout star who busted brackets and now demands respect.
photo of Jason KingJason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 23, 2017

A few miles from downtown—where "For Rent" signs dangle in dusty windows of former gas stations, furniture stores and other shuttered businesses that line the main drag—a chestnut and white pitbull snarls in the gravel driveway of Lancaster, South Carolina's most famous citizen.

And the NCAA tournament's breakout star.

"Country!" Sindarius Thornwell's mother shouts as she bursts through the screen door and onto the porch of her tiny, one-bathroom home. "Stop that barking!"

The reigning SEC Player of the Year at South Carolina, Sindarius hasn't made the hourlong drive from Columbia to visit his 60-pound canine—not to mention his family—in more than a month. But on this Tuesday afternoon, his presence looms large in the living room, where relatives lounge on couches as a replay of Sunday's second-round upset of No. 2 seed Duke plays on Sharicka Thornwell's 50-inch Samsung TV.

Sindarius Thornwell reacts against Duke during the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 19, 2017.
Sindarius Thornwell reacts against Duke during the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 19, 2017.(Getty Images)

Sindarius had 24 points, six rebounds and five assists in the victory, which Sharicka has now watched four times. Her favorite moment, she says, came when her son smiled and stuck out his tongue after scoring the Gamecocks' first basket.

"You can just feel his confidence through the TV screen," Sharicka says. "It's like he's telling the world, 'I'm ready!'"

By propelling the Gamecocks into Friday's Sweet 16 against Baylor at New York's Madison Square Garden, Thornwell has created an air of excitement not just at South Carolina—which hadn't won an NCAA tournament game in 44 years—but also in Lancaster, an economically challenged town of about 9,000 that Forbes magazine once described as one of the "most vulnerable towns" in America.

Thornwell's older sister, Quasheka, says people have suggested renaming a street by the high school Sindarius Way. On Monday, she went to buy groceries at Food Lion and men insisted on carrying her bags. Sharicka hasn't left her house since Sunday for fear of being mobbed, but her phone has buzzed nonstop with calls and texts from well-wishers—sometimes as early as 6 a.m. She says she's hardly slept.

"The odds were against me from the jump. People said, 'You're not going to be able to do what you're trying to do.' We'd had good players before me, but they all ended up right back in Lancaster." — Sindarius Thornwell

A man named Robert Bufford, who owns a carpet-cleaning business on Main Street, has even indicated on Facebook that he's attempting to organize a parade in Thornwell's honor.

While relaxing in a leather chair inside South Carolina's athletic complex Tuesday morning, Thornwell chuckles at the celebration suggestion from back home.

"A parade all for one person?" Thornwell says. "That'd be a little awkward. If they asked me, I'd probably say 'no.'"

Make no mistake, though: He appreciates the support. When he tells people he's from Lancaster, he says it with pride.

While so many others use the town's shortcomings—unemployment, crime, drugs—as an excuse for failure, Thornwell says those same challenges are what shaped him and led him to flourish. They sparked a determination that helped him become the first Division I basketball player in Lancaster history. They enabled him to change the direction of South Carolina's long-suffering program and, on Sunday, they catapulted him and his teammates to this year's biggest NCAA tournament upset.

At least in the minds of most.

"I've been an underdog ever since high school," Thornwell says. "No one expected much from me. No one expected much from South Carolina basketball. No one thought we'd beat Duke. People didn't take us seriously."

Thornwell pauses.

"Maybe they will now."

Sindarius Thornwell's first basketball practice at Lancaster High School ended quickly.

"Get out!" head coach Ricardo Priester screamed at a 14-year-old Thornwell. "Take off that jersey, take off those shorts and get out! Don't come back until you're ready to work hard!"

Priester laughs when recalling that story now, eight years later. Thornwell, he says, was loafing during conditioning drills and he wanted to send a message. Deep down, though, he already knew the 6'2" freshman was going to be a star. His assistant coach, Kyle Gaither, had coached Thornwell's AAU team and vowed that Sindarius would be "the best player to ever come out of Lancaster."

"I hope you're a prophet," Priester said.

Thornwell during a game against Vanderbilt on January 9, 2016.
Thornwell during a game against Vanderbilt on January 9, 2016.(Getty Images)

Sure enough, after Thornwell led Lancaster to its first regional championship as a freshman, schools such as Tennessee State, Clemson and South Carolina extended scholarship offers. More than 30 others followed suit by the end of his junior season. When he wasn't starring for Lancaster or on the AAU circuit, Thornwell was toughening up in pickup games against 30- and 40-year-old men on an outdoor court known as The Hilltop, right next to Distinguished Kuts barbershop.

"They'd put together tournaments with teams from nearby cities," Thornwell's younger brother Quatavius says. "He was playing in those starting in the seventh or eighth grade. Even way back then, everyone could tell he had something special."

Talented as he was, though, Thornwell knows that most people believed he'd eventually succumb to the ills of his hometown, just like so many standout athletes had done before him.

"The odds were against me from the jump," Thornwell says. "People said, 'You're not going to be able to do what you're trying to do.' We'd had good players before me, but they all ended up right back in Lancaster.

"People don't want to leave their friends behind, or they get stuck in bad situations and just couldn't leave the hood, just couldn't leave that environment. That environment kept bringing them back in."

Thornwell shrugs his shoulders.

"It's like crabs in a bucket," he says. "You can't get out."

Along with talent, though, Thornwell had something many of his friends didn't.

Someone to push him.

As much as he credits his coaches, Thornwell says his uncle, Dajuan "Country" Thornwell, is the main reason he was able to persevere during times when so many others may have crumbled.

"He has ignited and resurrected the pride that this town once had. All walks of life—white, black, young, old—everybody loves Sindarius." — Ricardo Priester, Thornwell's high school coach

It was Dajuan, he says, who drove him, day after day, to gyms and blacktops around the city and rebounded for him for hours as he put up shots. It was Dajuan who made sure he was on the best AAU teams and competing in the country's top summer events. And it was Dajuan who convinced Sindarius to transfer to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia for his senior season, knowing that the instruction and exposure he'd receive would elevate his game to a new level.

The decision certainly wasn't easy.

Priester remembers watching Sindarius break down while informing his teammates of his intentions during a hastily called meeting in Room 222 of Lancaster High School. Sharicka recalls Sindarius wanting to back out of his plans shortly before it was time for him to leave.

And Frank Martin, South Carolina's coach, was taken aback by how difficult of a time Thornwell had making the move.

"It's the thing that stood out to me the most about his recruitment—the thing that made me like him the most," Martin says. "His uncle literally had to force him to go. He didn't want to turn his back on his high school, his coach, his community. If Dajuan had not been so influential in raising Darius, he wouldn't have done it.

"I'm seeing that whole dynamic, and I'm thinking, 'Wow. This kid is so loyal. He cares about others more than himself. This is exactly the type of kid I want on our roster.'"

Thornwell celebrates against Marquette on March 17, 2017.
Thornwell celebrates against Marquette on March 17, 2017.(Getty Images)

Thornwell was fond of Martin and South Carolina, too. But there was only one issue: He liked North Carolina more.

The Gamecocks were struggling at the time. But ACC games were regularly on television, and North Carolina (along with Duke) has long been one of the "it" teams for high school stars in the upper part of South Carolina. Thornwell's AAU teammate, Kennedy Meeks, was heading to Chapel Hill. So was Nate Britt, Thornwell's new teammate at Oak Hill.

Thornwell, though, never received an offer from the Tar Heels—but they did play a role in his final decision. UNC coach Roy Williams was visiting Britt at Oak Hill at the same time Martin was in town to see Thornwell. As he was leaving, Williams popped into the room and interrupted the conversation.

"Young man," Williams said as he shook Thornwell's hand, "I don't know where you're going to school, but I can tell you this: There's not going to be a finer human being to coach you than this man right here."

Williams pointed at Martin and then walked away.

"It was an amazing moment," Martin says. "He committed to us shortly after that."

Moments after South Carolina's 88-81 victory over Duke on Sunday—after players emptied water bottles on each other's heads and danced in a circle in the locker room—Frank Martin and Sindarius Thornwell shared a long embrace.

Thornwell (left) celebrates with teammates after beating Duke in the NCAA tournament on March 19, 2017.
Thornwell (left) celebrates with teammates after beating Duke in the NCAA tournament on March 19, 2017.(AP)

"He just said, 'Coach, I love you, man,'" Martin says before a long pause. "That kid...he's special."

Martin is close with all of his players. But he and Thornwell share a unique bond.

Ranked No. 30 nationally among prospects by Scout.com, Thornwell—who had offers from schools such as Connecticut, Ohio State, North Carolina State and others—was the first high-profile player to commit to the Gamecocks after Martin took over the moribund program in 2012.

"Other than the day they hired Frank, you could say the biggest step in this program turning the corner occurred the day Thornwell committed," says Derek Scott, the Gamecocks play-by-play voice. "It was important for Frank to show a community and state that was skeptical of the program's worth that we can compete with the big boys for brand-name guys.

"It really gave us some credibility."

Says Martin: "He made us relevant."

Still, there was something else—something more powerful—that led to the mutual respect between Thornwell and Martin.

Just as Thornwell was surrounded by people who doubted he'd ever make it—not to mention the Top 25-caliber schools like UNC and Duke who overlooked him—Martin had his share of doubters early in his career, too.

Martin came to South Carolina from Kansas State, where he was hired in 2007 to replace Bob Huggins despite having no head coaching experience beyond the high school level. At the time, Kansas State was ridiculed for the hire. Martin, though, proved his detractors wrong by leading the Wildcats to four NCAA tournament appearances in five seasons, including the Elite Eight in 2010.

"When you get down to the nitty gritty, we're very similar," Martin says.

Thornwell in a game against Duke on March 19, 2017.
Thornwell in a game against Duke on March 19, 2017.(Getty Images)

Martin and Thornwell's journeys haven't been without speed bumps. The Gamecocks went just 14-20 during Thornwell's freshman year, when he averaged 13.4 points. And lingering tendinitis in both knees affected his play as a sophomore and junior, when South Carolina had winning records but failed to make the NCAA tournament.

Off the court, Thornwell was arrested last May for possession of marijuana and driving with a suspended license. And this season he was suspended six games for violating an undisclosed athletic department policy.

"We sit around and want to judge others," Martin says, "but we forget…we’re as big a sinner as they are. I want my 18-year-old son to grow up and become the man Sindarius has become at 22."

Nothing was more difficult for Martin than the moment last fall when he summoned Thornwell to his office to inform him that his beloved uncle, Dajuan, had died during heart surgery. He was 42.

Making the death even more difficult for Sindarius was that his uncle had attempted to contact him from the hospital the night before, but he missed the call.

A few days after Dajuan's passing, Martin chartered a bus to transport the entire team and administrative staff—including strength coaches, managers, trainers and tutors—to the funeral.

"I'll never forget the sight of that big bus pulling up," says Priester, the high school coach. "That told me everything I needed to know about Frank Martin. He cares about people. He cares about relationships.

"Sindarius is the same way. There's no question in my mind that Frank Martin brought the best out of that young man."

This season, all their hard work paid off. Thornwell averaged 21.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists and was named SEC Player of the Year. After four years of high school and three-plus seasons of college, the 6'5" guard who often felt overlooked was finally given his due.

Thornwell dribbles against Alabama during the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament on March 10, 2017.
Thornwell dribbles against Alabama during the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament on March 10, 2017.(Getty Images)

Thornwell received the news about the award during a team meeting just before a weight room session. His teammates cheered and danced as they surrounded him, shaking him and hugging him as he covered his face.

It was an emotional moment, to be sure, and the experiences have only become more impactful since the beginning of the NCAA tournament.

The day before his team fell to South Carolina in the round of 32, Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s Hall of Fame coach, called Thornwell “the best, unheralded great player in the United States." One night later, Thornwell dropped 24 points on the Blue Devils, upping his postseason scoring average to 26.2 points—and elevating the buzz about his potential at the next level.

Draftexpress.com predicts Thornwell won’t be selected in this summer’s NBA draft. But at least one Western Conference scout believes he has “better than a 50 percent chance” of being chosen in the second round.

“He reminds me a lot of Tyreke Evans,” says the scout, who was on hand for Thornwell’s 44-point effort against Alabama on February 7.

“He’s just a tough guy that bulls his way to the basket and gets to the free throw line. I’m not sure I trust his perimeter stroke, but he’s so good in isolation, you just give him the ball and get out of his way and he’ll manufacture scoring opportunities.”

Thornwell shoots against Alabama on February 7, 2017.
Thornwell shoots against Alabama on February 7, 2017.(AP)

As much as he’d like to play in the NBA, Thornwell is determined to live in the moment and relish South Carolina’s postseason run.

When he and a teammate stopped by the campus Chick-fil-A for lunch Monday, they were bombarded by students asking for selfies. He tries to read all of the congratulatory messages on social media from both friends and strangers. Back at Lancaster High School, there’s talk about retiring his jersey.

"He has ignited and resurrected the pride that this town once had," Priester says. "Sindarius, with the way he plays, the toughness and grit and fight…that's a reflection of this community.

"All walks of life—white, black, young, old—everybody loves Sindarius. He is an ambassador for Lancaster High School. But he's an ambassador for this entire community, this entire county, this entire state."

Priester was in attendance for Sunday's win over Duke, but he wasn't able to make it onto the court to congratulate Thornwell. A few hours later, though, he reached his former player by phone as the Gamecocks were traveling back to Columbia. Thornwell thanked him for the call, paused and then laughed.

"You know, coach," he said, "they're still counting us out, man. They're still counting us out."

Priester chuckled.

"Just keeping doing what you do, Sin," he said. "Do what you've always done, and you'll be fine."

Jason King is a senior writer for B/R Mag, based in Kansas. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR.

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