The hottest player in the NCAA Tournament had to cool his heels the last time South Carolina played at The Garden.
Sindarius Thornwell, who has averaged a March Madness-best 26.5 points in the Gamecocks’ march to New York and the East Regional semifinals, was suspended for six games in December for a violation of athletic department policies.
When South Carolina lost, 67-64, to Seton Hall on Dec. 13, Thornwell had a courtside seat. Unfortunately for Thornwell, that seat was on the Gamecocks’ bench.
After an 8-0 start, it was the Gamecocks’ first loss of the season. They don’t have a course ‘Guilt 101’ at South Carolina, but if it did, Thornwell could be a guest lecturer.
“It was difficult for me to watch,” said Thornwell.
Thornwell said he didn’t think he’d get a second chance to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing at The Garden as a college athlete. Welcome to March Madness – where dreams come true.
“I just remember when we were playing Seton Hall, my emotions,’’ Thornwell said. “I was pumped like I was about to play. Coach could have been like, ‘Go get your jersey.’ I would have been ready.
“This is the Mecca of basketball. The is the most [well-known] basketball arena ever, anywhere. Everybody in the world that plays basketball dreams of playing in The Garden. Just to have that dream come true, it’s wonderful. It’s just a blessing.’’
The Gamecocks (24-10), the No. 7 seed in the East, will play No. 3 seed Baylor (27-7) Friday night (7:29 PM) in a game that could require some of the LEDs to be replaced in The Garden scoreboard.
South Carolina, a team built on defense, is averaging 90.2 points per game in the tournament. Meanwhile, Baylor is averaging 86.5. When asked how to defend Thornwell, Baylor star Ishmail Wainright issued what amounts to an all-points bulletin.
“The whole team will be defending him,’’ said Wainright, a close friend of Thornwell. “We have all watched at least about three hours of film on just Sindarius.’’
If you’re a defender, it wasn’t La La Land. If you’re a basketball fan, The Garden is.
“We all walked in and we were just in shock,’’ said Wainwright. “Madison Square Garden. Not too many people can be here.’’
Florida (26-8), the No. 4 seed, meets No. 8 seed Wisconsin (27-9) in the second game. The Badgers don’t have the tradition of a Duke, Kentucky or UCLA, but no program has won more NCAA Tournament games over the last four years than Wisconsin (13).
The Badgers played in the World’s Most Famous Arena on Jan. 28 when star forward Ethan Happ scored 32 points as the Badgers outlasted Rutgers, 61-54, in OT.
Florida dropped an 84-74 decision to Duke in the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 7. That was one of only two games this season in which the Gators allowed more than 80 points.
“I was too young to really understand what was going on watching it exactly,’’ Florida’s Kevarrius Hayes said. “But I have seen old videos. Trying to replicate what they did there to achieve greatness is kind of what we have to do here today.’’
This is the mentality shared by every player on the 16 teams remaining in the Big Dance. The season started with 351 Division I teams dreaming about celebrating One Shining Moment.
Teams are still playing in the other tournaments, such as NIT, which will play its semifinals and finals in the Mecca of college basketball on March 28th and 30th.
But this is the tournament that captures the nation’s attention and The Garden is the venue in which ballers dream of playing.
“I didn’t even know we were coming here till the day we played Duke,’’ Thornwell said. “I was like, ‘if we beat Duke, where do we end up playing?’ Everybody was like, ‘The Garden.’ I said, ‘We’re beating Duke.’’’