“The best unheralded great player in the United States.”
“He’s a talented basketball player. And I know he’s going to bring it, and the rest of their squad is going to bring it as well.”
“Scores the ball, rebounds, blocks shots, gets steals. And so he’s going to be a very tough matchup for us.”
Could be describing any one of Duke’s massively talented players, from Jayson Tatum to Luke Kennard to Grayson Allen to Frank Jackson.
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Duke’s players and Hall of Fame coach were describing South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell.
Thornwell cooked Marquette for 29 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals on Friday, setting up an NCAA tournament second-round matchup with the Blue Devils on Sunday. He was drawing Duke’s attention before the buzzer sounded.
“He’s really good. He’s an old player, he’s very tough,” Allen said. “And he does a bunch of different things for their team.”
“I think he’s him, you know?” Mike Krzyzewski said, declining to compare him with anybody. “And he leads their team in everything.”
Duke (28-8) was wary of Thornwell and the rest of USC’s swarming defense and talked about it on Saturday. The Gamecocks (23-10) were similarly respectful of their blue-blooded former conference brethren, who were eyeing top-seeded Villanova’s loss to Wisconsin on Saturday as a prime opportunity to reach another Final Four.
Not so fast. USC isn’t just satisfied to be here and planning to pack it up after winning its first tournament game in nearly half a century. Might as well stick around for a while.
Which means going through Duke.
“We’re going to attack them,” Thornwell said. “Coach told us a couple of things, a couple of ways that we’re going to attack them.”
Driving at Marquette yielded 42 points in the paint and 25 off turnovers. The Blue Devils, as elite offensively as they are, play defense about the same way the Golden Eagles did – go ahead, we’ll score more than you.
The Gamecocks spoke Saturday of being aggressive from the tip, of not settling for long-range shots like they did early against Marquette. The shots were there, but USC is not a great shooting team; when it gets in its element of backing opponents away, the Gamecocks become tough to beat.
“You don’t trick your way into winning in the NCAA Tournament. You earn your way into that,” coach Frank Martin said. “Duke is phenomenal. I think we’re pretty good, too.”
They are, and the Blue Devils were cognizant of it. They watched USC beat Marquette with almost all of the Bon Secours Wellness Arena crowd behind it.
With rival North Carolina playing before Duke-South Carolina on Sunday, it seems likely the Tar Heel faithful will stick around to boo their deeper-blue neighbors.
The Devils said they wouldn’t be intimidated – they’re used to being booed as the black hat-wearing villains of the planet. The Gamecocks, likewise, said they didn’t know anything about USC and Duke’s long ACC history together.
Although there might be a tiny bit of personal feeling, from the one guy Duke knows it has to stop.
“I was North Carolina,” Thornwell said, describing his youthful fan-dom. “You know how I feel.”
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(7) SOUTH CAROLINA (23-10) vs. (2) DUKE (28-8)
What: Second round, NCAA Tournament
When: Approximately 8:40 p.m. Sunday
Where: Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville
Radio: 107.5 FM
South Carolina’s probable starters: G P.J. Dozier 6-6 So. (13.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg); G Sindarius Thornwell 6-5 Sr. (21.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg); G Duane Notice 6-2 Sr. (10.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg); F Maik Kotsar 6-10 Fr. (6.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg); F Chris Silva 6-9 So. (9.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
Duke’s probable starters: G Frank Jackson 6-3 Fr. (10.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg); G Matt Jones 6-5 Sr. (7.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg); G Luke Kennard 6-6 So. (19.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg); F Amile Jefferson 6-9 Sr. (10.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg); F Jayson Tatum 6-8 Fr. (16.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg)
Next game: The winner plays in the Sweet 16 in New York against the Southern Cal-Baylor winner on Friday at a time to be determined.