David Cloninger

The choice is clear: Thornwell for SEC Player of the Year

Ask him and he’ll answer that he doesn’t think about it. All of his energy and focus is on winning Tuesday and Saturday and completing the journey he started four years ago when he signed with South Carolina. The Gamecocks are so close to the NCAA tournament they can almost pinch it, but he knows if USC doesn’t win its final two games, that dream could vanish one more time.

He’s just going to play, rebound, steal, block, run, inspire and encourage his teammates for these final two games, like he has for the 16 before them. Awards and honors aren’t in his control anyway, so why should he concern himself with them?

He’s right. Those will be voted on by SEC media at the conclusion of the regular season. He has no voice in it.

Others’ voices should say it for him – Sindarius Thornwell is the SEC Player of the Year.

“You tell me another player in the country that plays four different positions on the basketball court. Defends four different players on the court. Leads the team in scoring, rebounding, steals, and defends the best player on the other team, by the way,” Frank Martin said a week ago. “Tell me somebody else in the country that does that, let alone our conference.”

There is nobody else. While there are certainly other worthy candidates (Arkansas’ Dusty Hannahs, Kentucky’s Malik Monk, Mississippi State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon), Thornwell’s numbers are unable to be ignored.

He’s second in the SEC in scoring. He’s fifth in rebounding and first in steals per game, two numbers that just don’t go together, especially from a 6-foot-5 guard.

He entered the SEC’s record books this year, topping the legendary Pete Maravich for attempted free throws in a game and ranking second behind the Pistol in made free throws in a game. Thornwell is third in minutes played per game and doesn’t have bad nights – if he doesn’t play, the Gamecocks’ chances of winning are severely lessened (as evidenced by the 3-3 record they posted when he was suspended).

Let’s speak of that, since it may be weighing on some voters’ minds. Many cite the “moral clause” when looking at awards, not wishing to name a superlative with even a hint of off-the-floor trouble (see Cam Newton’s Heisman Trophy).

Thornwell was suspended for six games for a still-unknown reason. He has accepted and apologized for it. If this was a National Player of the Year honor, perhaps that would factor in (although his numbers should have him on the periphery of that discussion, too).

This is an SEC award, and Thornwell has played in every SEC game, and played extremely well. Martin pointed out that nobody would dock him votes if he was injured, so why should a suspension that had no bearing on his conference season come into play?

“He better be considered for SEC Player of the Year. If not, there’s something wrong with the people that vote, or nominate, whatever it takes to become that,” Martin said. “He’s phenomenal.”

Some have said Thornwell will have to beat out the “Kentucky bias,” citing some of the Wildcats’ massive media contingent who won’t vote for anybody not wearing blue. That isn’t a factor as much as some would believe, because if anybody knows great basketball players, it’s Kentucky writers. They see the same numbers as anybody, and of the last six SEC Players of the Year, only two were from Kentucky – there was no argument for either, considering Anthony Davis was the best player in the country in 2012 and Tyler Ulis was the best in the SEC last year.

Thornwell is on the tongue of every coach when asked to name the five best players in the league and if nothing else, is a slam-dunk choice for first-team all-conference. He won’t be thinking of it over the next two games and while it would be disappointing if he wasn’t named Player of the Year, he wouldn’t mind if he was going to the NCAA tournament instead.

If he keeps doing what he’s done, he could get both.

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SIMPLY THE BEST

Candidates for SEC Player of the Year (listed in alphabetical order):

Dusty Hannahs, Arkansas

Case for: Twelfth in scoring and third in free-throw and 3-point percentage, Hannahs is spearheading a late run to the NCAA tournament.

Case against: The Razorbacks were targeting SEC Preseason Player of the Year Moses Kingsley for points early in the year, which took away from Hannahs’ numbers.

Malik Monk, Kentucky

Case for: The top scorer (21.5 PPG) on the first-place team. He’s the guy that makes the Wildcats go.

Case against: When Monk is off, he’s really off. And, good reason or not, laughing on the bench when his teammates were being blitzed by Florida didn’t help his cause.

Sebastian Saiz, Ole Miss

Case for: The best rebounder in the league (10.8 RPG), ninth in scoring and one of the most versatile players in the country.

Case against: Team’s performance has to factor into a POY race, and the Rebels are 18-11 (9-7 SEC). Of the SEC teams on the bubble, Ole Miss isn’t one of them.

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina

Case for: The league’s second-leading scorer (21.0 PPG), who’s fifth in rebounding and first in steals per game. Name another guy who does that and also defends the opponent’s top scorer.

Case against: The Gamecocks stopped a plummet down the standings by beating Tennessee. If USC finishes top-four (which it will with one more win), he should be a shoo-in.

Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State

Case for: He’s averaging 16.5 points a game and 32.1 minutes, while playing with an injured wrist he thought would keep him out for the year.

Case against: The Bulldogs are 14-14, 5-11 SEC and going nowhere. They certainly wouldn’t have won the games they have without Weatherspoon.

-- David Cloninger

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