Georgia’s ‘big piece to the puzzle’

semerson@macon.comJanuary 13, 2014 

Alabama Georgia Basketball

Georgia forward Marcus Thornton (2) and Alabama guard Rodney Cooper (21) compete for a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/The Banner-Herald, Richard Hamm) MAGS OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT

RICHARD HAMM — AP

ATHENS -- There was a time when Marcus Thornton was going to be a boon to the Georgia men’s basketball program. Then came the first knee surgery. Then the second one. Then the third one.

Eventually a somewhat drastic step was taken. The team sent Thornton to rehab with the football team, which was more used to knee injuries. Thornton, a former Georgia high school Mr. Basketball, was in danger of being a basketball non-factor.

Now he’s back. The knees aren’t all the way back, but they’re good enough that Thornton was one of the biggest reasons for Georgia’s surprise 2-0 start in SEC play.

Thornton, a burly 6-foot-7 forward, provided an inside presence the team has been missing for the past three years, especially on defense. He combined for eight blocks and 14 rebounds last week, grabbing rebounds in traffic and swatting away shots around the basket.

The SEC player of the week award went Monday to another Georgia player, sophomore point guard, Charles Mann. But Thornton’s performance was arguably just as important, considering it came out of nowhere.

“He’s a real big piece to the puzzle,” Mann said.

Georgia (8-6) will still be a big underdog Tuesday when it plays at No. 7 Florida, even though the Gators will be without Casey Prather, who bruised his shin. As Georgia head coach Mark Fox pointed out, the Gators won at Arkansas without Prather.

But the rest of Georgia’s schedule is manageable, and if Thornton continues to be a factor in the post, the Bulldogs have a chance in most games.

“I still have to ice them every day. That’s pretty much a lifestyle thing now,” Thornton said, with a laugh. “But I don’t really have issues with them right now. It’s just really instincts, things like that, shaking off rust. It’ll come. It’s getting better and better.”

Fox, however, tried to downplay it a bit.

“I think he’s still knocking rust off,” Fox said. “And probably will continue to for a while. It’s been awhile since he played a lot of SEC games, so it’s going to take awhile for him to be comfortable again.”

Thornton never had an ACL tear in his knee. It was just chronic knee trouble, which threatened to permanently diminish his career. He first had knee surgery in December of 2011, then in March again (after the season) and finally once more in December of 2012. That resulted in a medical redshirt for last season.

While his teammates finished out a disappointing season, Thornton worked with the Georgia football team’s training staff. Ron Courson, the famed head athletics trainer, was involved in Thornton’s rehab.

“Really good atmosphere for me to be around,” Thornton said. “Just to see how they approach it every day, that was definitely great for me. And being with Ron, he was instrumental to be pretty much 100 percent, for the most part.”

Thornton came in with the reputation for being an all-court player. During his career, he has guarded anyone from the shooting guard to the center.

The past two games he has been concentrating on the post, which Fox said was because of his matchups. Fox indicated Thornton could see more time on the wing, but his performance in the paint could force the issue, if he can keep it up.

That depends in large part on the knees. His increased comfort has allowed him to get higher up for those blocks and rebounds.

Asked how many of the eight blocks last week he could have had a few months ago, Thornton answered, “Maybe a couple. Maybe. I really don’t know. I’m thankful, God willing, I’m able to be at a point I’m able to continue to improve, as every day passes by.”

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