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Column: Thornwell has case as Gamecocks greatest player yet this millennium

Rolling out from a screen at the right elbow, Sindarius Thornwell received a pass at the top of the key from freshman guard Hassani Gravett, planting and shooting in one motion. With 1:25 in the first half, Thornwell sinks his fourth three-pointer of the night, giving South Carolina a commanding 42-25 lead over Auburn. There is a brief pause in the action for an official review, but the call stands. Lost in the offensive outburst is the fact Thornwell passed Carlos Powell for the No. 7 slot in South Carolina's all-time scoring leaders. 

Thornwell has quietly been making his ascent up the list. He ranked outside of the top ten just a few weeks ago, and in South Carolina's previous game against Kentucky he leaped two spots to pass Jim Slaughter and Art Whisnant. 

Thornwell's legacy is still developing in real time, but even before his suspension, it just always felt like he was in the middle of a historic senior season. He currently is tied with Georgia forward Yante Maten for second in scoring in the SEC behind Kentucky's "Diaper Dandy" Malik Monk. Depending on how opposing coaches view his suspension when casting their votes, Thornwell figures to be one of the frontrunners for SEC Player of the Year. 

So fill in the blank: Sindarius Thornwell is the greatest player in South Carolina basketball history since _____ ? 

With all due respect to Michael Carrera and Brenton Williams, Thornwell has clearly been the most impactful player of the Frank Martin era. As a freshman he stepped on to a team that won just five conference games and averaged 13.4 points a game. At times he has been the focal point of the offense, but for most of his first three seasons he functioned as an auxiliary piece to Williams and Carrera. This is unquestionably Thornwell's team now. 

If you move way back in program history, back to the golden years with Frank McGuire at the helm, Thornwell doesn't compare quite as favorably to the most dominant players of that era. Unlike Alex English, or even more recently B.J. McKie, Thornwell isn't a guy who seems destined to have his number hanging from the rafters of Colonial Life Arena. 

But Thornwell has a case to compete with the program's stars in the intermediate era. Specifically, Thornwell is probably on similar footing with three-time All-SEC guard Devan Downey. Admittedly, that seems like an odd comparison at first glance. Downey was an electrifying talent during his his three seasons in Columbia after transferring from Cincinnati before 2007. He averaged over 18 points per game in each season, including 22.5 points per game in final season. He was twice named an honorable All-American. For three years, South Carolina basketball was simply the Devan Downey show. 

Thornwell's career at South Carolina has been of a different stock. Martin's teams haven't showcased a primary scorer. Points are earned at the free-throw line. Thornwell doesn't have the same gaudy stats and accolades that Downey compiled during his collegiate career, but he also hasn't had the same opportunities. Downey averaged 6.4 more field goals per game while at South Carolina. 

When Thornwell needs to take over an offense, he can. Against Kentucky he essentially ran the offense at the point while also swinging down to the three and the four, finishing with 37 points. 

Against Auburn Thornwell scored 22 points, but also allowed Duane Notice to have a career night. He can score when he needs to, but he doesn't have to, and shouldn't be penalized for not being part of a system that inflates the numbers of a single player. 

Thornwell is primed to lead the Gamecocks to their first NCAA berth since 2004. Don't wait until then to appreciate his impact on the program, he might just be their greatest player yet of this millennium. 

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