CBS Sports All-Americans: Final Four run puts South Carolina's Thornwell on 1st team
Frank Mason, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Caleb Swanigan join Thornwell on our first unit
The five CBS Sports first-team All-Americans come from five different schools in five different leagues. Three are seniors. One is a sophomore. And one is a freshman who completely transformed a historically great program while his father became the most quotable college basketball dad in history.
The second and third teams are similarly diverse.
WATCH: Final Four picks
And the reason we’re publishing these honors now is because doing so earlier makes little sense. By waiting till the week of the Final Four, everything before the Final Four -- like Sindarius Thornwell’s incredible season that’s now highlighted by taking South Carolina to an improbable Final Four -- is taken into consideration. Only a fool would want less data. And what you’ll see below is the result of a back-and-forth conversation between myself and my colleagues Kyle Boone, Matt Norlander and Chip Patterson. We didn’t vote as much as we discussed. We argued a little, compromised a lot and ultimately settled on these 15 players on these three teams:
CBS Sports All-America teams
Kansas’ 2013 recruiting class was ranked second nationally, thanks to Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden, Joel Embiid and two other top-50 prospects in Brannen Greene and Conner Frankamp. But there was a sixth player, Frank Mason. He was an unheralded three-star prospect from Virginia whom many analysts did not believe ever would be good enough to play for the Jayhawks. In hindsight, that was silly. Because the 5-11 point guard averaged 16.2 minutes as a freshman, then started the next three seasons and averaged a team-high 20.9 points and 5.2 assists as a senior while leading Kansas to a 13th consecutive Big 12 title and earning Big 12 Player of the Year honors. Mason became the first player in Big 12 history to average more than 20 points and five assists. He scored at least 20 points in his final seven games -- one of which was a 26-point, seven-assist, seven-rebound effort in a 98-66 victory over Purdue in the Sweet 16. He finished his college career ranked sixth on Kansas’ all-time scoring list and sixth in assists. That’s pretty good for the least-heralded prospect in KU’s 2013 class. And now there’s a decent chance he’ll join former teammates Wiggins, Embiid and Selden in the NBA.
After UCLA went 15-17 in the 2015-16 season, hardcore Bruins fans criticized Steve Alford so heavily he was compelled to undo a contract extension. Somebody flew a “Fire Alford” banner above campus. It was ugly. But everything changed when Lonzo Ball enrolled. The 6-6 point guard averaged 14.6 points, 7.6 assists and 6.0 rebounds while leading UCLA to 31 wins and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. He shot 55.1 percent overall, 41.2 percent from 3-point range, and established himself as a definite top-10 pick in the NBA Draft. He could even go first overall if a certain franchise, like the Los Angeles Lakers, wins the lottery and secures the top pick. To be clear, Ball isn’t the only reason UCLA went from 15-17 to 31-5. TJ Leaf was also awesome. So were Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday. But Ball is undeniably the main reason UCLA went from 15-17 to 31-5. And is it merely a coincidence that Leaf was better than anybody expected, that Alford shot better than ever, and that Holiday’s field goal percentage went up while his turnovers went down? Or was Ball the rare point guard who actually does and did make everybody around him better? Personally, I think Ball made everybody better. And that’s an attribute that’ll serve him, and some NBA franchise, well at the next level.
Josh Hart is a rarity in that he was the leading scorer and best player in different seasons on a national championship team and a No. 1 overall seed. And he was especially great this season, averaging 18.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 33.2 minutes. The 6-5 guard was the Big East Player of the Year. His 3-point field goal percentage and free-throw percentage both went up. His assists and steals numbers were career highs. And he’s the main reason the Wildcats started 14-0 and took a 31-3 record into Selection Sunday after winning the Big East regular-season title by three games, and the Big East Tournament via a 74-60 victory over Creighton at Madison Square Garden. Obviously, things didn’t end well. Hart had five turnovers when Wisconsin upset the Wildcats in the second round of this NCAA Tournament. So he did not lead Villanova to back-to-back Final Fours. But Hart still was clearly one of the five best players in the country. Thus he’s a worthy First Team All-American and someone who actually improved his NBA Draft stock with an impressive senior year, which doesn’t often happen.
Sindarius Thornwell is a great example of why we wait till the week of the Final Four to name All-Americans. Because any media outlet that did All-America teams before this NCAA Tournament began was at risk of omitting the best player on a Final Four team who is averaging 25.8 points and 7.5 rebounds in this three-week event. And, no, that doesn’t mean everything hinges on how players perform in the postseason. But the postseason should be considered -- especially when the player in question is averaging 21.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.2 steals for a South Carolina team that is 23-7 when Thornwell plays. In other words, Thornwell has been great all season and otherworldly the past two weeks. He’s taken South Carolina to a place no player had ever previously taken South Carolina -- and he’s done it by being relentless on both ends of the court. Just a great college player who probably also has an NBA future. There’s a reason why some voted him the SEC Player of the Year over Kentucky’s Malik Monk even before this NCAA Tournament began. And that reason is because Thornwell has been a dominant force for a relevant team all season, not just lately.
Caleb Swanigan was good as a freshman but statistically awesome as a sophomore, to the point he was compared to Tim Duncan. For instance, the 6-9 forward is the player in the past 25 years, besides Duncan, to average at least 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists for a season. Meanwhile, Swanigan also is the only major college player ever to record 600 points, 400 rebounds and 100 assists in a season. His 28 double-doubles are more than any other Big Ten player ever has produced in a season. He also shot 52.7 percent overall, 44.7 percent from 3-point range and 78.1 percent from the free-throw line while leading Purdue to a Big Ten regular-season title by two games makes it all the more impressive. His final game -- a six-turnover effort in Purdue’s 98-66 loss to Kansas in the Sweet 16 -- wasn’t great. But the Swanigan’s season was excellent in all the ways seasons can be excellent. And his decision to not enter the NBA Draft after his freshman year ended up being a great thing for Purdue and player.
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