By Adam Biggers
Austin Thornton is proof positive that a player's will to compete should never be overlooked or discounted. The Michigan State Spartans' fifth-year senior has played in 121 games for coach Tom Izzo, earning just his 11th start Sunday in the Spartans' 76-62 road win over the Purdue Boilermakers.
In years past, Thornton was the butt of jokes, heavily criticized and deemed not worthy to play basketball in the Big Ten—let alone for Michigan State, one of the conference's elite teams.
For many, the criticism would have probably been enough to deflate spirit and motivation. But Thornton, who has been one of the Spartans' leaders in "hustle" this season, has risen above his naysayers' comments and proven to be a valuable asset for the Spartans (22-5, 11-3), who hold a one-game lead over Ohio State in the Big Ten standings.
Last season, Michigan State hobbled into the NCAA tournament, sorely lacking any type of gritty play from seniors and upperclassmen. Spartans followers cringed after a first-round tournament loss to UCLA, and with just two seniors returning in 2011-12, many didn't expect much from the program other than an improvement from the previous season's debacle.
But turn the page to this season, and senior Draymond Green, the leading candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, has captured the imagination of Spartans fans, who are eagerly waiting to see just how far this team can go. But lost in the shuffle, for the most part, has been Thornton. The casual Michigan State follower may not realize the value of the 6-foot-5 senior, who is among the Big Ten leaders in 3-point shooting (42 percent prior to Sunday, 16-for-38) and scored a career-high 17 points Sunday against Purdue.
Thornton has averaged nearly 20 minutes per game this year, nearly equivalent to his three previous seasons combined and almost eight minutes more than the 2010-11 season when he saw the floor for about 11 minutes per contest. He's been reliable when Michigan State needed a run-stopping defender, a 3-pointer or a player to commit a foul.
His numbers aren't impressive by any stretch, at least to the naked eye. Averaging 4.6 points per game is hardly anything to jump out of your seat about. But when analyzing Thornton, who has reached double-figures four times this season, the numbers tell a story of what a player is capable of doing when given the chance. One also must consider the talent that Thornton has played behind too, which has also factored into his lack of playing time over the years.
Statistics are telling, but looking at the numbers only tells part of the story. Thornton, who has shown a gritty, physical presence throughout the season, flexed his defensive muscle Sunday—and has during the Spartans' climb up the Big Ten ladder—by converting a tough basket in the paint which gave his team a 45-38 lead over Purdue. He also helped contain Robbie Hummel, who scored 18 points in the first half but was held to just six in the final 20 minutes.
Hitting the deck for loose balls, taking punishment in the paint; all likely worth the minutes. If one were to ask Thornton, who has been praised for his relentless pursuit of playing time and incredible practice habits, he'd likely say it's all been worth it.