Sindarius Thornwell had plenty of options when he was deciding on a college to attend in the summer of 2013. One of the best high school prospects in the country, the Lancaster, S.C. native was coming off an outstanding season at prestigious Oak Hill Academy.
He could've gone to prominent schools like N.C. State, Florida State, Miami, Ohio State or Syracuse, just to name a few.
Or he could start a new journey at the home-state school, South Carolina. Of course, the Gamecocks were coming off a 14-win season under first-year coach Frank Martin and the future was uncertain.
It was a tough spot for the school, but Thornwell bought into the program and what Martin was offering him. One day that summer, the 6-foot-5 guard woke up "with a feeling" and called Martin to commit to the University of South Carolina.
"Being a part of something instead of just going somewhere and playing a couple of years and getting by," Thornwell said. "Just come here and help coach build something here and build a winning tradition was my reason for coming here."
That decision has worked out well for South Carolina and Thornwell. It's no coincidence that the Gamecocks have increased their win total every season since Thornwell has been on campus. Sure, there have been other important players during that time, but the South Carolina native was the first major recruit to buy into Martin's message.
Nearly four years later, the Gamecocks are in the midst of a second straight 20-win season and are about to punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years. Thornwell has been a big part of that rise. He came on strong as a junior, and carried that momentum into his senior season, quickly becoming one of the best players in the country.
Before the season, Thornwell and the Gamecocks didn't get much national love. Thornwell was left off the media's preseason All-SEC team, and South Carolina was picked to finish eighth in the conference.
"We were so driven on wanting to prove a point," Thornwell said. "They had us projected like eighth or ninth at the bottom of the conference, and they didn't think we were going to be this good. They didn't know what to expect out of us so we came in with a chip. We were going to show them that we were better than what they think."
Those preseason predictions about Thornwell and South Carolina turned out to be way off.
The Gamecocks spent the entire SEC season at or near the top of the standings, and Thornwell has taken the league by storm. He averages more than 21 points and seven rebounds per game and has also contributed 73 assists and 55 steals in 25 games.
It was that do-everything mentality that allowed Thornwell to go from being a player absent on the preseason All-SEC team to being named SEC Player of the Year. It was a remarkable turnaround that Thornwell knew he had in him.
"How I'm playing right now is how I've played all my life," Thornwell said. "Everyone is surprised, but I'm not. It's just how I've played all my life. The people that have seen me play all my life are not surprised. It's just how I envisioned myself coming in and being part of the program and being part of the growth that we've become."
Thornwell led the SEC in scoring in league games (22.1) and steals (2.2 per game). He also was a top-10 rebounder in the league.
Martin saw the potential in Thornwell all along, and is incredibly proud of his senior guard. No one was happier to see Thornwell receive the well-deserved player of the year honor.
"It's been fun to watch," Martin said. "I'm real happy that he's had the year he's had. If you gave him a choice — postseason basketball or player of the year — he's going to say postseason basketball every single time. I'm trying to get him both. I'm being selfish. He deserves it, and I'm putting all my energy into making sure that happens for him."
While Thornwell is enjoying a career year and grabbing the attention of national pundits, it wasn't always like that. There was a reason he was left off a lot of preseason ballots. Thornwell was a top-100 player coming out of high school and had an impressive freshman season, but he fought chronic tendonitis in both knees all throughout the 2014-15 season, and his points average dropped off significantly.
Tendonitis is something that surgery can't fix. The best remedy is rest, but Thornwell still played in every game during his sophomore season. There were times he couldn't move when he woke up on game days, but he toughed it out and was able to get his body ready by tipoff. However, Thornwell clearly wasn't himself, and his performance suffered.
A lot of players would've told their coach their knees hurt too much to play. After all, tendonitis is a painful condition. But for Thornwell, calling it quits and sitting out the rest of the year was something that was just not going to happen.
"It's just in me, I can't miss a game," Thornwell said. "I don't even like missing practice. I think I could've sat out and just had surgery and been done and redshirted that year, but it was just in me. The competitiveness I have just wanting to play and wanting to be a part of something."
It took a while for Thornwell to get over his knee problems. The recovery went into his junior year, and it wasn't until about halfway through that season that he began feeling like himself again. Now, people everywhere are seeing what a truly healthy Thornwell is capable of.
Thornwell has a lot of memories that stick out from his time at South Carolina, many of them coming this season. However, there was one dark moment for the senior. In December, Thornwell was suspended indefinitely for violating athletic department policy. He ultimately missed six games, and the Gamecocks went 3-3 during that stretch.
It was the first time in his career that he missed a game.
Sitting on the bench watching his team struggle without him was an eye-opener for Thornwell. He returned for the SEC opener at Georgia, and promptly led the Gamecocks to victory. Thornwell has stated that the suspension has been a driving force for him this season.
That memory sticks out, as well as his historic 44-point, 21-rebound performance against Alabama. Although South Carolina lost in four overtimes, Thornwell was proud, not of his stat line, but of how he and his teammates never gave up, no matter how many times they were down.
Thornwell has nailed a lot of clutch shots during his career. It seems that whenever the Gamecocks need a basket, they turn to him to make a shot or get to the free throw line.
"You just have to want it," Thornwell said of what makes him a clutch player. "You can't be scared of the moment. Ever since I was in high school, my high school coach always told me, 'Embrace the moment. You can't be scared of it because when you're scared of the moment, that's when you let your team down.'"
There have already been several games this season where Thornwell was the difference between a win and a loss. With the Gamecocks about to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years, Thornwell has a chance to make even more lasting memories.
There was a lot of pain and heartbreak along the way, but Thornwell never gave up. He continued to be a great teammate and continued to work. That work is paying off in the twilight of his South Carolina career, and he's cementing himself as one of the best players in program history.
"Everything happens for a reason, and God has his way of making things happen," Thornwell said.
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Jenny Dilworth**