David Cloninger

It’s up to Thornwell to make the most of second chance

Sindarius Thornwell made a mistake, and for what it’s worth, I don’t think he’s a bad kid. He screwed up, as college athletes often do, but his problem was he did it in the middle of his senior season.

That bump in the road cost his teammates a couple of games, though, so save the chorus of “Hail the Conquering Hero” after he was reinstated to the team on Monday. Thornwell was a hero in an 8-0 start, but he lost that when he had to sit for six games.

He can get it back by doing what he started out to do – lead South Carolina to the NCAA tournament.

Every player has bad days. Thornwell’s were the six games he couldn’t play. Of course it’s easy to play devil’s advocate and say USC would be undefeated right now if Thornwell was playing, but I have to disagree because I was at Memphis Friday. The Gamecocks could have had Oscar Robertson and they still would have gotten manhandled. That’s how physical the game was and how quickly the Tigers established their superiority at the rim.

Clemson and Seton Hall? Easy to say that since they were lost by a combined five points, Thornwell’s presence would have turned those into wins. Defensively, sure, he could have gotten the key rebound to preserve a late lead against the Tigers and could have stopped some of the Pirates’ second-half assault in the paint. Then again, who’s to say him being around would have removed the leash from P.J. Dozier and turned him into one of the most lethal scorers in the SEC?

Of course many of USC’s fans (a friend refers to them as “The Tin Foil Hat Brigade”) have already said the season is lost, because the Gamecocks are an “atrocious” 10-3. Yet the season and USC’s NCAA tournament hopes were always going to come down to the SEC season – even with an undefeated year in the non-conference games, having a .500 or below league record would have deep-sixed the Gamecocks. They won’t get much help from the SEC even if they beat a Kentucky or Florida.

So USC, and specifically Thornwell, has to make sure what they’ve done in the non-conference schedule isn’t hurt by what they do in the SEC. And frankly, it’s up to Thornwell to carry the Gamecocks through it.

I can’t say what they need to do numbers-wise because 11 conference wins and 24 overall wins last year wasn’t enough. I don’t want to say 10-3 plus whatever SEC record gets to a magic number of wins because again, last year didn’t heed it. All I can say is the Gamecocks need to win a lot more than they lose over the next 18 games, and they can’t lose to the really bad teams (Missouri last year was brutal).

Eighteen games. Starting Wednesday at Georgia, which beat USC three times last year. That game was going to be hard enough had Thornwell not been suspended, because the Bulldogs have J.J. Frazier and that cat (Dawg?) has cut out USC’s heart four straight times. But Thornwell will play, and while there are 17 games left no matter what happens, getting this one provides an immediate answer to how much better USC can be, and where it hopes to be in March.

He said he still considers himself a leader. He said he’s sorry for what he did. He realizes he let his team down and while he’s been around since, there was ever only one way he could lift it back up.

That time has come.

Ball’s in his court, now that he’s back on it.

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