January 31, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Sindarius Thornwell understands No. 19 South Carolina's opportunity, he's just cautious about thinking too big, too early.

Sure, the Gamecocks (17-4) at 7-1 in the Southeastern Conference are tied for top with No. 8 Kentucky. But Thornwell's not ready to start counting down to a possible league championship.

''Our focus hasn't changed,'' Thornwell said. ''We're going to do what we need to do, what coach (Frank Martin) wants us to do.''

South Carolina has emerged as a gritty, tough defensive-minded group led by Thornwell's relentless play. He had 16 points and 11 rebounds last Saturday when the Gamecocks overcame a stagnant showing to win at Missouri, 63-53 - a place where South Carolina lost a year ago with similar aspirations on the line.

Their next challenge comes Wednesday night at LSU, another struggling opponent that on paper should not pose much of a problem. Thornwell said he the team's other seniors have talked to the Gamecocks about maintaining focus on what's right in front of them and not something far down the road.

''That could all change with a couple of losses,'' said Thornwell, a senior guard.

Martin, in his fifth season, has not changed his approach to things either. A few seasons ago when South Carolina struggled - the Gamecocks went just 15-39 in SEC play Martin's first three years - Martin taught them to block out the disappointing noise from fans frustrated with the continued losing. Now, with things on the upswing, Martin wants his players to once more keep their own counsel and not yet buy into the praises about their play.

''We need to communicate with our players every single day about everything,'' Martin said he tells his coaches. ''If we don't, don't get mad if they listen to a different message.''

Martin wants the Gamecocks excited about their play right now because he knows that's the best way to keep moving forward.

Now at the halfway point, Martin knows his team could be on pace for a historic season. South Carolina's high-water mark in SEC basketball came during the 1996-97 season when the Gamecocks went 15-1 and clinched the crown with a win at Kentucky on Senior Day.

That achievement will be honored when South Carolina holds its annual Legend's Weekend around the team's home game with Georgia on Saturday.

That group 20 years ago featured a stellar, high-scoring three-guard combo led by BJ McKie, who is the program's all-time leading scorer playing from 1995-96 to 1998-99.

Like McKie, Thornwell is heartbeat of this team. The Gamecocks went 3-3 while Thornwell sat out a six-game athletic department suspension . They are 14-1 with Thornwell in the lineup, the lone loss coming at Kentucky earlier this month.

Thornwell acknowledged wondering if his time off the court would taint national selectors when picking postseason award winners. He questions if some of what the Gamecocks do now is clouded because of his suspension.

''I think nationally it affects us more than in conference,'' he said.

Another perception problem: the Gamecocks excel in categories that are not flashy, like scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense where they lead the SEC in each.

''It's ugly. Why can't they play prettier?'' Martin said, mocking critics this season.

Martin's just fine with South Carolina's style, as long as Thornwell's front and center.

He leads the team in scoring (19.3 points a game), rebounding (7.2 per game) and steals (35). The 6-foot-5 Thornwell also is unafraid to mix it up down low, leading the Gamecocks with 104 trips to the foul line where he's hitting 84.6 percent of his attempts.

More so, Martin said, is Thornwell's positive effect on the rest of the roster, keeping them grounded and grinding through the long season.

''That's why Sindarius is a winner, he gets it,'' Martin said.

Now, it's up to the Gamecocks to stay focused over the final month of SEC play.

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