When the country was drawing up their March Madness brackets, not many would have predicted South Carolina to be in the Elite Eight. Yet this afternoon, the Gamecocks will take on fourth-seeded Florida in their first ever Elite Eight game as they find themselves on the cusp of the vaunted Final Four. Losing in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, South Carolina was not even a lock to make NCAA Tournament at all, but was ultimately chosen as the seventh seed in the East region. Since then, South Carolina has put the nation on notice, cruising by Marquette, downing heavily-favored Duke, and rolling past Baylor, all while masterfully controlling both ends of the floor. Perhaps more people would have seen this coming had they known more about the 6’5” guard from Lancester, South Carolina, SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell.
Thornwell has put on a show in three tournament games, accumulating at least 24 points and six rebounds in each one. But the senior’s game is much more than that. He’s also shown a knack for getting steals and playing rock solid defense, something that has been a staple for the Gamecocks throughout their run.
Those who doubted them have in many ways fueled Thornwell and his South Carolina teammates. “I’ve been an underdog ever since high school,” he says. “No one expected much from me. No one expected much from South Carolina basketball. No one thought we’d beat Duke. People didn’t take us seriously.”
South Carolina isn’t the only team that has surprised people in this tournament. On the other side of the bracket, the Oregon Ducks just reached the Final Four for the first time since 1939 – the inaugural year of the tournament. While the Ducks, who were seeded third in the Midwest region, wouldn’t be considered a major shock to reach the Final Four, they have done it without their excellent shot blocker Chris Boucher, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Someone had to step up for Oregon and as it would turn out, the whole team did in March. But one player who has particularly stood out is the junior forward Jordan Bell. Bell has had a historic tournament, grabbing at least twelve rebounds in each of his four games. Oregon’s win over perennial favorite Kansas may have been where Bell shined brightest. In addition to his 13 boards, Bell blocked eight shots in total, showcasing in ability to go up and down the court and make impact plays on both ends. Seven of his rebounds were of the offensive variety; no other Oregon player had one.
While the Ducks are celebrating up in the Northwest, reaching the Finals Four was just as special for another school in the Northwest. After years of falling just short, Gonzaga is headed to their first Final Four in school history. Among the Bulldogs’ most recognizable players is Przemek Karnowski, the hulking 300-pound center from Poland. Karnowski is an intimidating presence for anybody trying to defend him and is certainly difficult to win a battle against in the post. But Karnowski is also quite athletic and quick with his feet for a man his size. Here’s a cool tidbit about him – Karnowski has played in more victories than any other player in NCAA Division I history.
There are always impact players who fly under the radar throughout the year, and this year’s tournament has no shortage of them. NBA stars such as Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Kawhi Leonard would not have been the first guys that came to mind as future stars until they put on a show in March Madness, and still got drafted lower than they should have. NBA teams in the latter parts of the draft are always looking for a diamond in the rough, and players like Thornwell, Bell, and Karnowski fit that bill.
Thornwell is an especially intriguing player who wasn’t very much on the radar before the tournament. However, he’s shown an ability to be an impact player both offensively and defensively, and the senior would be a major steal for whoever is lucky enough to grab him. Karnowski is a unique physical presence who could provide a valuable role to an NBA team. And while Bell is only a junior and could very likely return to Oregon next year, he should be a major player to watch a year from now.
One of the truly great things about March Madness is that is it allows standout players to get noticed. Thousands of people who don’t watch much college basketball get to see these players. Those standout players who haven’t received a great deal of attention throughout the year get a chance to showcase their skills against the best competition in the country and put NBA scouts on notice. But one of the most satisfying parts of it is when a player like Thornwell, Bell, or Karnowski is able to lead their college to uncharted territory and never-before-reached heights. When that happens, they become immortalized in their school communities forever.