Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to a 64-team field in 1985, only 13 teams seeded seven or lower have made it to the Final Four. South Carolina became that thirteenth team after defeating Florida last Sunday. I decided to take a look at some teams of the past to compare the Gamecocks run to others. I also looked at Sindarius Thornwell’s play during the tournament when compared to some of the best Marchs in college basketball history.
The Gamecocks became just the third 7-seed to make the Final Four since the expansion to 64-plus teams. All three have occurred in the last four years, with UConn doing it in 2014 and Michigan State doing it in 2015. No 7-seed made it last year but Syracuse made the Final Four as a 10-seed, meaning that at least one team from a 7/10 matchup has made the Final Four the last four seasons. Anyway, Carolina’s run is similar to both UConn and Michigan State: all three teams had the same path through the Elite 8, defeating a 10-seed, 2-seed, 3-seed and 4-seed. The Huskies and Spartans even played a 1-seed in the semifinals as the Gamecocks will do on Saturday. UConn knocked off top-seed Florida and then Kentucky to win the championship that season while Michigan State was blown out by Duke in 2015.
Carolina’s path compares well with the Huskies’ run. On their way to the Final Four in Dallas, UConn held their opponents to 69 points while scoring 76.6. The team was also carried by their top three scorers: Shabazz Napier averaged 23.3 points per game while DeAndre Daniels averaged 17 and Ryan Boatright put up 13.8 in the regional. South Carolina held their opponents to 68.5 points while scoring 82. Sindarius Thornwell averaged 25.7 points while P.J. Dozier averaged 15.3 and Chris Silva put up 13 points per game in the regional. UConn’s big three of Napier, Daniels and Boatright accounted for 70.6 percent of the offense, while Carolina’s has represented 65.8 percent of theirs.
Once they got to the Final Four, the Huskies dominated defensively, beating Florida 63-53 with Napier, Daniel and Boatright scoring 45 of their points. They then beat Kentucky in the final 60-54 with the three scoring 44 of their points.
While the team has stepped up, as it has needed to, to assist Thornwell in the run, there is no doubting the senior’s play is the main reason the Gamecocks are here. We all know he is playing fantastic basketball, but where exactly does he compare with great tournaments of the past? Well, he’s right up there with the best.
Three players that I found when trying to answer that question are all national champions and NBA All-stars. The first that came to mind was the most recent, which was Kemba Walker’s memorable March in 2011. The now Charlotte Hornets point guard lit up the scoreboard throughout the month, averaging 26.7 points per game in the regional to take his Huskies to the Final Four. As mentioned before, Thornwell has averaged 25.7 points so far, but Thornwell has been a little more efficient than Walker was. Walker shot 44 percent from the floor, 34 percent from three and 91.6 percent from the foul-line. Thornwell is currently shooting 50 percent from the floor, 42 percent from three and 82 percent from the foul line. Walker scored 18 against Kentucky and 16 against Butler in the final as UConn won the national championship.
Thornwell is much more than a scorer, though: his all-around play on both ends of the ball sparked another comparison. Along with the 25.7 points, he is averaging 7.5 rebounds, two steals and a blocks a game. In 2003, Carmelo Anthony averaged 20.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks per game for Syracuse during the entire NCAA Tournament. Where Walker’s numbers took a slight dip, Anthony raised his game at the Final Four with a double-double in both games. He scored 33 and gathered 14 rebounds against Texas in the semifinal before scoring 20 points with 10 rebounds in the win against Kansas in the final. Anthony also shot 49 percent from the floor, barley lower than Thornwell, but shot slightly better from three at 47 percent.
Syracuse and UConn were both three seeds when Anthony and Walker led them to the title. Another solid comparison would be Maryland’s Juan Dixon in 2002. He averaged 25.8 points per game, leading the ‘Terps to their lone national title. But they were a number one seed and had made the Final Four the year before. A better comparison is Danny Manning’s 1988 run with Kansas.
The Jayhawks were a six-seed at 21-11. Though Kansas is a blue-blood of college hoops, they had only one title from 1952 at the time. At 6’10”, Manning’s game is obviously different to Thornwell’s but Sindarius’ numbers still matchup with the big man’s. Manning shot 55 percent in the regional, putting up 26.7 points - slightly better - and seven rebounds, slightly less than Thornwell. Manning would put up 25 points and 10 boards in the semifinal along with 31 and 18 in the final to capture Kansas’ second title. The Jayhawk team was dubbed “Danny and the miracles” for their March run.
It is already a run that no Gamecock will ever forget. But If Thornwell leads Carolina to the title, that would compare with any “miracles.”