They were brought in during the same season, one to build and one to sustain.
Midway through their freshman seasons, each has shown great talent and even better potential.
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He wasn’t the first commitment to Frank Martin’s second recruiting class at South Carolina, but he was the first to make the country snap its head around and say, “What?” Sindarius Thornwell could have gone almost anywhere, with a suitor’s list featuring N.C. State, Ohio State, Tennessee, Virginia and Missouri.
Instead, the national top-50 recruit and top-ranked player in South Carolina chose the Gamecocks. Despite playing his senior year at NBA breeding ground Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, the Lancaster native stayed close to his roots and returned home.
Martin knew he would play and play a lot. Thornwell has, starting every game and leading the team with 12.8 points per game. And any thought of a “freshman wall” has come tumbling down — in spite of Martin leaning on Thornwell more than he wants. The rookie has responded with increased minutes at point guard and three SEC games scoring at least 24 points.
“He’s starting to understand college basketball,” Martin said on his call-in show. “He’s starting to understand that he’s the penciled man on the scouting report, and he’s doing a better job of preparing. He’s understanding our offense better, and last but not least, he’s being aggressive. He’s got to be willing to shoot the ball.”
Particularly now. With Ty Johnson out indefinitely due to a broken foot and Bruce Ellington quitting basketball to train for the NFL, Martin lost two of his three projected point guards by the third game of the 18-game SEC gauntlet. While Duane Notice has played well at times, Martin needed more stability at the point. Thornwell was the option.
Martin sat Thornwell as much as he could during the non-conference season, knowing he was going to need his talents during the second half of the year. That was over Thornwell’s jibe at him before the season ever began.
Martin described Thornwell as quiet until he gets to know you — then he’ll start dropping small sarcastic jabs during an otherwise normal conversation. Walking by the coaches in October, Thornwell looked over at Martin.
“He walked right by and he says, ‘You know I’m your point guard, so why you wasting my time playing off the ball?,’ ” Martin said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ Well, here we are in January, and he wasn’t lying. He’s confident he can do it. He’s got a great mind for the game.”
With Johnson out, Thornwell has continued to light up the scoreboard. He battled stretches of inconsistency early, but Thornwell has put aside his struggles and blossomed.
“I think I got too comfortable because I thought some games would be easier, looking down on some teams,” Thornwell said. “It will all come together. You just have a short mind — next play and you keep working. That’s all you can do.”
Thornwell has been the breakout and the most consistent freshman on the roster, one of the most solid performers in a rocky season. If USC snaps out of its current rut and finishes strongly, there’s no doubt Thornwell will be leading the rush.
“He’s spending a lot of time with Lamont Evans one-on-one, to get better as an individual player, and that’s the beauty of having a guy like Sindarius,” Martin said. “You get him to work, get stronger with Scott Greenawalt, work with Lamont or (Matt Figger) or whoever, become a better player, then continue to learn the college game and our system, and just to see him blossom and grow there.”
USC has found success the past two years as Dawn Staley’s rebuilding project bore fruit. The Gamecocks became a contender in the SEC and have earned two straight NCAA tournament berths, but there was always the one missing piece.
Usually when the Gamecocks lost, it was because the opponents had the “big girl.” There was always some 6-foot-4 or taller force in the paint that USC simply didn’t have the height or muscle to compete with.
Staley knew the day was coming, though, when she was going to have her own “big girl.”
Alaina Coates is third on the team with 12 points per game, which also ranks 24th in the SEC, and also is first on the team and seventh in the SEC with 8.1 rebounds per game. It is clear Coates wasn’t the tall player in high school that succeeded because she was a few inches higher than everybody else. The Gamecocks got an already polished, skilled post player whose future is limitless. Coates is already great, and she doesn’t even start.
Coates joined a team that has won 50 games the past two years — and immediately made it better.
“We really haven’t had the luxury of playing bigs and putting that ball down on the block and really have people have to guard us, probably one and a half players or two players or doubling us down there,” Staley said. “She’s got to perform at a high level, because she’s capable. She’s a big-time recruit for us. We landed her, we want her to have the ball in her hands and obviously she does some good with it.”
Coates shook off a three-game slump to become a double-double machine. She has teamed with fellow center Elem Ibiam to give the Gamecocks the inside play they missed the past two years. Likely battling with Arkansas’ Jessica Jackson for the SEC Freshman of the Year award, Coates continues to receive the ball and place it in the basket, taking a lot of the pressure off what had been a guard-based offense in past years.
“I did think it was going to be a whole lot slower than it was,” Coates said. “But I kind of like where I’m at now, so I don’t mind.”
Coates missed a double-double in her most recent game, coming up a rebound short against Alabama. She has hit the mark six times, becoming the first Gamecock freshman to do it in her first two SEC games, and set a career-high in points (24) against Vanderbilt and rebounds (17) in a landmark win against Kentucky.
The challenge facing Coates is that she has to keep doing it. The Gamecocks are eyeing an SEC title and can win it if they can stay consistent.
“I basically prepared myself for anything,” Coates said. “Height, people taller than me, people being more physical than me. I’m making sure I do what I can do.”