Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/08/2007 04:26:00 PM
It's All About Al
Al Thornton posted a 25-point, 11-rebound performance against Clemson.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The natural reaction, most of the time when one watches Al Thornton play for Florida State, is to be awed by his talent and sympathetic toward his situation. Thornton is the college equivalent of Kevin Garnett: a superhuman player whose fate is to be stuck on an underachieving team.
If the NCAA allowed trades, you'd beg for Thornton to be shipped to North Carolina or UCLA, just to see what he might do in a Final Four, instead of what he's doing now -- which is putting a 7-9 ACC team on his back night after night, and painstakingly dragging it toward one of the final at-large spots in the NCAA tournament. The 'Noles appear safe in most bracket projections after Thornton scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to carry them past Clemson in Thursday's ACC tournament opener -- a game that FSU still came dangerously close to blowing -- but it is not yet guaranteed to be dancing.
Thornton, a senior who averages 20.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, is a lock for the NBA lottery, and is the best current college player who has never been to the NCAA tournament. And he wants, desperately, to play in one before his career ends in Tallahassee.
When the 'Noles were shut out of the tourney last season, Thornton boycotted the telecasts, because, he said, "I could not watch." A few days after scoring 21 points and grabbing eight rebounds to beat Duke at Cameron Indoor last month, Thornton took a black Sharpie and wrote "NCAA '07" on the toe of his left shoe -- but with point guard Toney Douglas injured, FSU lost five straight and found itself on the precipice of the NIT. With 45 points and eight rebounds in a win over Miami last week, and 24 points in the first 39 minutes against Clemson Thursday, Al had nearly, and almost single-handedly, rescued them. "He's brought this team a long way," Douglas said of Thornton. "He deserves to go to the tournament, after everything that's happened."
But in the final minute of Thursday's game, the 'Noles (20-11) seemed to be headed for the most depressing ending imaginable. With 1:39 left, Thornton had driven baseline, blowing by the Tigers' Cliff Hammonds for a dunk that tied the game at 66 -- a play Al made because, he said, "the game was getting out of hand, and I felt like I had to impose my will."
Over the course of the day, Thornton roused a sleepy Tampa crowd by scoring on driving dunks like that one, follow-dunks, mid-range jumpers and beautifully arcing three-pointers ... but when the 'Noles got the ball for what was presumably their final possession, with 54 seconds left, the score still frozen at 66-66, and the crowd in a frenzy, it never got the ball to Al. Coach Leonard Hamilton's play (which was of questionable design) fell apart, and as freshman forward Ryan Reid -- a 2.8-points-per-game scorer -- had his shot stuffed by Clemson's Trevor Booker to run out the shot clock, all you could do was shake your head. That, and feel sorry for Al, who, the nice guy that he is, walked over to Reid and gently patted him on the head.
It was then that the basketball gods intervened. A perfectly fine pass slipped out of Hammonds' hands with eight seconds left and created a backcourt violation -- divined amends for a season in which Thornton was robbed of the ACC MVP honors, losing it to Boston College's Jared Dudley by 15 votes ("There's not a player better than Al in this league," Douglas said); and a career in which he had toiled in relative obscurity. FSU was getting the ball back, and Thornton had to get the ball this time, right?
Thornton's defining characteristic -- more so than his versatile athleticism or unconscious scoring ability -- is his cold-blooded stare. It's reminiscent of the one K.G. so often flashes in tense moments; Thornton's head lowers, his eyes narrow, and his mouth closes over his braces, forming an emotionless expression. We saw it in the first half when Thornton chose to violently discard his headband ("When I get aggravated," he said, "the headband kind of just comes off") before going a scoring run that left him with 18 points at the break. We saw it on the dunk that tied it at 66-66, after which walked directly up to a ref, silently, and scarily, pleading for a foul. (Al does not argue, he only stares.) And we saw it when he rightfully got the ball on the 'Noles' final final possession, drove into the lane, and drew a controversial foul on the Tigers' K.C. Rivers with 1.5 seconds left. "I was kind of shocked that I got that call," said Thornton, who found himself on the free throw line with a chance to shoot Florida State off of the bubble.
But in a season where nothing has come easy for Florida State, neither would the perfect ending. Thornton clanked the first free throw off the back rim.
"I was kind of nervous," Thornton said. "I've never been in that type of situation before. The pressure was on."
He took a deep breath. Relaxed. The cold Thornton stare left his face for a moment. He knocked down the second shot. Clemson missed a futile, last-second heave. "It was a do-or-die game," Thornton said. "If we would have lost, it was no-way; NIT bound."
After the buzzer sounded, Thornton was smiling (flashing the braces) and pointing with both hands toward his parents, who were looking on from the first row. There were plenty of reasons to be sympathetic for Al Thornton this season -- and there will probably be another one tomorrow, when FSU runs into top-seeded North Carolina -- but his career looks as if it will not end in the NIT. Thursday, he was the biggest feel-good story in all of college hoops.
All about Al? Don't be ridiculous. Let's not romanticize a horrible foul call that decided a game. If you want to feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for Clemson. They were robbed of an opportunity to play OT.
Robbed by Jared Dudley for ACC POY? Dudley had a comparable statistical season with better assist numbers and played on a team with only 2 other ACC -caliber players. You think Al had it bad? Try watching Dudley and his meager supporting cast.
First of all your an idiot for saying BC has a lesser supporting cast than FSU. Also in big games Dudley didnt show up...every game FSU plays...Al is the one who makes them go. Dudley can have an off day and have marshall and rice step up. Al and Fsu dont have that luxury.
Robbed of an opportunity to play OT? They lost that opportunity by losing 10 of the last 14 games. They wouldnt have even been in this situation had they finished out the season as well as they started it. And the "2 other ACC-Caliber players" comment, thats funny because I have not seen many "ACC-caliber players" on this Florida State team this year. Al Thornton deserved the ACC Player of the Year Award and Al Thornton deserves to play in the Big Dance. Period.
Florida State belongs in the Dance (not Thorton the individual--this is a team game). Clemson was robbed of OT, just like they were robbed in the first Duke game. Neither Thorton nor Dudley could be said as the clear cut player of the year. Nevertheless, Thorton is a great player, and if it isnt known now it will be known in a few years in the NBA.
regardless of whether fsu receives an invitation to the tourney, leonard has underachieved with this team. among the many coaching mishaps this season, not forcing the ball into al's hands near the end of the game almost made me throw up. luckily, fsu was bailed out by a turnover and a questionable call. fsu won't blow anyone out, especially in the tournament. and with leonard's inability to make the right coaching (play-calling and personnel) moves down the stretch, it's likely a one-and-done for the 'noles.
Robbed by Dudley? Please! Both are great players, but Jared made those around him better while Al (who Jared admiringly described as a "suprefreak") attempted to do it all himself. It comes down to FSU's seven ACC wins versus BC's ten, and 2-0 BC advantage head-to-head. POY? Dudley.
Robbbed by Dudley are you kidding me. Jared out-played him head-to-head. Everyone wrote of the Eagles when Willams was kicked off the team. Yes, BC faltered at the end, but were a game out of the Regular season championship. Dudley lead the league in scoring and rebounds up until the last game. Has the most consectutive 10+ scoring games and most double-doubles. Al is a better athlete, but Jared is the POY for what he does.
Carolina fan here. Sorry BC fans, Dudley is a heck of a player - but he's not even even in the same LEAGUE as the Superfreak Thornton. I was kind of hoping Hansbrough might win it, but was downright shocked that Dudley won it over Thornton. After playing against both of them this year, there's really no question which one is the better player. If Thornton played for any other team, he would have won MVP in a landslide.