ATHENS – The main, and uncomfortable, subject at South Carolina basketball’s press conference on Monday was the reinstatement of Sindarius Thornwell. The team’s best player had served a six-game suspension, and Frank Martin answered questions about it before moving on.
Then somebody asked about Wednesday’s game at Georgia, and plans to stop J.J. Frazier.
Martin shook his head.
“Can’t we keep talking about the suspension?” he said, perhaps only half-joking.
There will be a lot of key players on the floor in a key game for two teams trying to build resume’s for the NCAA tournament. But the two at the center will be two close friends on opposite sides.
Thornwell was – and still is – South Carolina’s leading scorer before his suspension, and the Gamecocks struggled without him. They were 3-3, after winning their first seven games, including wins over Michigan and Syracuse.
So it was great news for one team, and met with a sigh from the other, that the suspension (for reasons that are still unknown) was lifted in time for this game.
“He makes them so dynamic,” Frazier said. “So he’s a great pick-up for them.”
So not great for Georgia. But it still has Frazier. And that makes Martin and South Carolina wince.
Frazier basically knocked the Gamecocks out of the NCAA tournament by himself last year. Frazier led Georgia to three wins over South Carolina, including a one-point victory in the SEC quarterfinals in which Frazier hit the game-tying jumper with 24 seconds left, then stripped Thornwell, was fouled and hit the game-winning free throw.
South Carolina was left out of the NCAA tournament, and may have made it if not for that SEC tournament loss.
“I hate playing against him,” Martin said last summer. “But I love watching him play.”
Frazier and Thornwell have known each other for years, though they grew up almost three hours apart. They talk and text regularly.
“We don’t talk about our head-to-head match-ups,” Frazier said. “Our friendship is solely a friendship. We talk about other games, but we don’t talk about ours.”
Both teams may end up needing the win: Georgia (9-4, 1-0 in the SEC) began Tuesday with a good RPI rank – 33 – while South Carolina (10-3) had fallen out of the RPI top 50. But both teams right now are shaping up as bubble candidates.
“Ever since I’ve been in this conference every time we’ve played USC we’ve gotten their best shot,” Frazier said. “So I don’t think that’s going to be anything different. A Frank Martin-coached team is going to give you the best they have, regardless of who’s playing or who’s not playing.”