Four Years of Marcus
Three Scummers Picking;
Two albums to look forward to; and
A fat guy in a jersey
At nearly every other school in college basketball's Division I ranks, the arrival of a skinny 6'4" kid with a good but not 5-star pedigree would be almost entirely unremarkable. Kids like that are roster fodder at the Dukes, Kentuckys, and Arizonas of the world.
But at William & Mary, still one of only five original NCAA programs never to have advanced to the NCAA tournament (stop me if you think that you've heard this one before), it heralded a four-year stretch that resembled nothing in the program's less-than-storied history. For the Wrens, Marcus Thornton was, is, and likely always will be sui generis.
Recruited by Jamion Christian, Thornton honored his commitment when the now-Mount St. Mary's coach joined Shaka Smart's VCU staff. Even after the 2011 Gatorade Maryland State Player of the Year signed with W&M, there were those that questioned whether his slight build would withstand the rigors of what was at the time a very tough mid-major conference, home to nightly rockfights, and players like VCU's 6'9", 235-lb Juvonte Reddic and Delaware's 6'9", 240-lb Jamelle Hagins.
It was a play against the latter mid-way through Thornton's first season that first got our attention. From our post that week:
With 8:04 remaining in W&M's game against Delaware, and the Tribe trailing by 8, freshman Marcus Thornton drove the lane, elevated, and cocked his arm back with malicious intent. Delaware's Jamelle Hagins, a 6'9", 240-pound sophomore who averages 2.6 blocks per game, rose to meet him. As the 6'3" Thornton's hammer dunk attempt crashed against the back of the rim and rebounded high in the air, I leapt from my couch with an audible gasp.
Thornton's missed dunk was notable not for the result, but for its sheer audacity. Never in my 23 years as a Tribe fan (dear, sweet God in heaven - 23 years?) have I ever seen a W&M player even contemplate such a play. It was at once thrilling for what it portends and sobering for what it illustrates about the Tribe's current state of affairs.
There were rumors after that season, possibly apocryphal, but entirely believable to the fragile-minded W&M fan, that several ACC schools inquired about Thornton's interest in transferring to a level where his athletic ability and obvious skill might be more suited. I have no idea if those whisperings were ever more than myth, but I choose to believe that Thornton stayed at William & Mary because he's a loyal kid who liked his coach and his school and his teammates.
Thornton made the leap in his sophomore season, becoming the guy in the wake of McDowell's graduation. His scoring average jumped to 18.8 ppg as he improved his shooting percentages to .440 from the floor and .435 from deep (from .371 and .336, respectively). He was named to the All-CAA Second Team, and became the third W&M player ever to be named First-Team NABC All-District (I don't have any more idea what that is than you do). He became a more consistent scorer, dropping double figures in all 30 games, even as he battled a tendency to play a bit too fast, turning the ball over a career-high 3.1 times per game. The Tribe improved by seven games, finishing at 13-17 and losing in the CAA Tournament quarterfinals.
In 2013-14, his junior year, Thornton and his teammates faced an entirely new challenge: expectations. Despite our preseason attempts to deny the obvious, W&M entered last season as a team on the rise. And despite the occasional stumble, Tony Shaver's squad at least met expectations, finishing third in the CAA with a 10-6 conference record (20-12 overall). Thornton remained a consistently dangerous scorer, despite being the focus of opponents' defensive game plans. He averaged 18.7 points per game and was named first team All-CAA, and almost carried W&M all the way to the dance.
Numbers don't tell the entire story with Thornton, though he's on pace to put up some of the most dazzling digits in W&M history. Even as Shaver has steadily improved the overall quality and depth of W&M's program, bringing in highly competitive CAA players like McDowell, Tim Rusthoven, and current sophomore Omar Prewitt, never in William & Mary's 322 years has a player with Thornton's combination of skill, athleticism, and that-guy stone-cold killer instinct worn green and gold. Athletic arrogance, we've called it here before, intangible but obvious in the way the greats carry themselves, their body language speaking volumes. Thornton has it in spades, and in truckloads greater quantities than any Tribe player before him.
As evidence, the single greatest Tribe basketball moment I believe I'll ever witness, authored by Thornton last January:
It's a measure of how Thornton has changed our expectations for W&M hoops that he had a hand in authoring perhaps the single most disappointing Tribe basketball moment I may ever witness, too. His last-second 18-footer against Delaware in the 2014 CAA Final looked good, right up to the moment when it didn't.
Never in my life did I expect a W&M player to hit a game-winning shot to send us to the NCAA Tournament. But I did with Marcus. Not once did I make it a point to attend a Kenner League game just to see one guy, one of our own, at that. I did that twice for Marcus. Never have I asked a serious question about whether a W&M player might be able to make an NBA roster. I do with Marcus, even it it's a longshot. And never, not ever, did I go to a W&M game knowing that our team had the best player on the floor. For at least three years now, I do with Marcus.
We're down to the final 22 games or so of his sublime collegiate career (depending upon how far W&M advances in March), with Thornton predictably scoring 18.9 points per game despite a slow start (his career-high 37 against Richmond helped push that average back where it belongs). As of this writing, he's 383 points from becoming W&M's all-time leading scorer and 34 three-pointers from passing David Schneider to top that category's leaders. The young Tribe owns a somewhat disappointing 5-3 record after a pair of close losses to Richmond and High Point.
But as a very wise man on social media once said, #inmarcuswetrust. And so we do, for just a few more months. It would be a shame, to some degree, if the finest player ever to take the court for the home team in Kaplan Arena were to complete his college career without a postseason tournament appearance. It would not, though, diminish what Marcus Thornton means to William & Mary. It's been an honor and a joy to watch that skinny, dreadlocked 6'4" kid from Maryland play for our team.