GREENVILLE, S.C. — The list of elite players Duke has seen this season is long, including the likes of Louisville’s Donavon Mitchell, North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Kansas’ Frank Mason.
But the Blue Devils say they haven’t seen a player quite like South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell.
“Usually, there are guys that you say, he’s a really good shooter or he plays really well with his back to the basket or he is a driver. This guy is a player,” Duke senior Amile Jefferson said. “He is a guy who does it from all over and he is hungry.”
Thornwell was a main topic of conversation in the Duke locker room at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on Saturday afternoon, as the Gamecocks will face Duke at 8:45 p.m. Sunday in Greenville with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.
The words used to describe Thornwell ranged from physical to unique to hungry to dynamic, while coach Mike Krzyzewski said he is “the best, unheralded great player in the United States.”
“He is going to be one of the toughest competitors we have faced based on how much he does,” Duke guard Grayson Allen said. “When they need a bucket or a stop or something, they look to him and he gets it for them. That is huge to have for a team. As far as how much he does for them, I don’t know if we have seen many guys that do that much for a team. …
“He is a very different player. He’s older and physical and you can’t really label him as a scorer. You just have to say he is a good basketball player.”
The Gamecocks senior guard poured in 29 points on Friday night in his first NCAA Tournament game, leading South Carolina to its first win in the tourney since 1973 and setting up its meeting with Duke. He also had 11 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive glass, two blocks, three steals and countless crucial plays in important moments.
“He’s so unique,” Krzyzewski said. “I think he’s him, you know? He learns their team in everything. But then he’s their leaders and you don’t see as much on tape until you see him in person.
“Last night, I saw a couple times where (Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski) was giving a signal to his team what to run. Then you would see him tell his teammates, ‘This is what they’re going to run.’ That’s not alive and well in our sport. He’s really an old-school great player. I say that with the highest level of compliment.”
Thornwell was named the SEC player of the year this season, the first Gamecock to earn the honor. The Lancaster, S.C., native is averaging 21.3 rebounds, 7.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game this season.
And the Blues Devils are very much aware of those facts heading into Friday night, as sophomore guard Luke Kennard said Thornwell is one of the best all-around players Duke has seen all season.
“He’s close to the top,” Kennard said. “He is a really, really unique player. He leads their team in a lot of categories, if not all of them. He’s strong. He is really talented. We have to be really locked in on him.”