COLUMBIA - Sindarius Thornwell had loads of talent when he arrived at South Carolina almost a year ago, and he often showed it on the court this past winter.
The Gamecocks guard was named to the All-SEC freshman team. Three times he earned SEC freshman of the week honors. Six times he reached at least 20 points in an SEC game, more than any of Kentucky's one-and-done freshmen.
By any measurement, it was a successful individual season for Thornwell. Along the way, the youngster also gained perspective.
"He said to me, 'I thought this was going to be a lot easier than it really was. I understand now,'" South Carolina coach Frank Martin said.
No, last season wasn't easy for South Carolina. The Gamecocks stumbled to a 14-20 record. Their 5-13 SEC record was just a one-game improvement over the previous season.
Still, there were reasons for optimism, especially once the calendar flipped to March.
The Gamecocks played their best basketball of the season down the stretch. They beat Kentucky on March 1 at Colonial Life Arena, 38 days before the Wildcats played Connecticut for the national championship in north Texas. The win - inarguably Martin's biggest at USC - sparked a late-season rally that included two wins at the SEC tournament for the first time in eight years.
Checking off milestone victories and ending dubious streaks are two things Martin needed to do in his second season in Columbia. He could sense his players' confidence and the morale of the fan base grow in the season's final month.
"I get a completely different vibe right now in the community when I'm around than I have at any time in my two years here. Completely different vibe," Martin said. "And I think it's because the fans respect the way our team continued to grow during the year and the way we finished the year playing, including that win against Kentucky."
Martin is already thinking about next year. He'll spend the offseason months preparing to take another step with building South Carolina's program. While meetings with players are ongoing, he said Monday there would be "no defections" from the team.
For a program with only one departed senior, that makes for an important summer with player development.
"The message is real simple," Martin said. "This is the first offseason for the majority of our team. We have to take advantage of the weight room, nutrition, rest.
"It's another year of instruction, guidance, structure to help all those young guys get better."
Martin didn't define any expectations for next year's team. It's much too early for that. But, he likes where his team is right now, perhaps more than any point in the past two years.
He expects the success to grow.
"When people say that our wins in the conference tournament were surprising, I never looked at it that way," Martin said. ". I thought we were playing real good at the end of the year, so I thought we had a real good chance to win."
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