HARRISONBURG — When Marcus Thornton arrived at William & Mary before the 2011-12 season, Maryland’s reigning Mr. Basketball award winner did so as perhaps the most decorated recruit in the history of the Tribe’s program.
At the time Thornton signed with William & Mary in November 2010, though, he was somewhat of an unknown commodity.
“Marcus is a self-made player in a lot of ways,” William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said during a phone interview Friday. “He wasn’t highly recruited coming out of high school as a junior. He just gets better all the time because he loves the game and he really works at the game.”
Thornton, the Colonial Athletic Association’s leading scorer at 19.5 points per game, will be the focal point of James Madison’s defense when the Dukes (8-13 overall, 3-4 in the CAA) host the Tribe (12-8, 4-3) at the Convocation Center on Sunday afternoon.
“He’s probably one of the best players I’ve ever played against, if not the best, offensively,” sophomore guard Andre Nation, JMU’s go-to defender, said. “He’s just crafty, man. He jab steps. He doesn’t care who’s in his face; it really doesn’t matter to him. So that’s what I like about his game, to be honest.”
A graduate of Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md., Thornton exploded onto the scene as a senior, setting schools records in season scoring average (23.4 points per game), points scored (771) and 3-pointers made (121) in the loaded Washington D.C. Catholic League.
But the 6-foot-4, 185-pound junior guard said he never considered breaking his commitment to William & Mary, even as his play began to draw interest from bigger schools.
“I try not to think about it too much,” Thornton said. “I believe everything happens for a reason. I made the decision; I stuck with it. I feel as though God had something to do with it, and everything will work out. I think it has worked out so far.”
It would be hard to argue otherwise. Thornton, who has had his hair in dreadlocks for the past five years, has reached the 20-point mark nine times this season, including in William & Mary’s 78-56 win over Madison on Jan. 18.
“I think the good thing about Marcus right now is he’s not trying to take over games,” Shaver said. “He’s a much better player this year. I think he’s really, really learned to play within our offense. He’s a smart player who can find out within the course of the early part of the game how he’s being defended and how our team is being defended.
“… But clearly, when he gets a little bit hot and gets something going, we try to keep the ball in his hands — there’s no doubt about it.”
An example of that came a week later against Drexel, when Thornton delivered the current signature moment of the CAA season by sinking a step-back, buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer off a cross-over dribble at Daskalakis Athletic Center in Philadelphia.
The play earned No. 4 honors on that night’s Top 10 list on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
Drexel coach Bruiser Flint was very interested in Thornton early in the recruiting process but turned off the prolific scorer by telling him he’d probably have to cut his hair to play for the Dragons, according to Thornton.
“I have a lot of respect for those guys and Bruiser is a great coach,” Thornton said, “but yeah — that definitely made [that shot] a little bit sweeter.”
It’s been four years since the Tribe recorded a winning season, but Thornton has his sights set on bigger goals — specifically a CAA championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.
Last November, he became the 35th men’s player in Tribe history to surpass the 1,000-point mark.
“He’s an incredible one-on-one player,” JMU sixth-year forward Andrey Semenov said. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the conference who can stop him one-on-one and therefore we have to throw two or sometimes even three guys at him. And when you do that, you have to leave somebody open. But the problem with William & Mary is their whole team can shoot.”
The Dukes found that out the hard way in their first meeting of the season with William & Mary as five Tribe players — led by Thornton’s four successful attempts — sank at least one 3-pointer.
William & Mary, the CAA’s best 3-point shooting team at 39.1 percent, averages 72.9 points per game in its up-tempo offense, second in the league only to Delaware (81.5).
Meanwhile, tough defense has been the formula during Madison’s current two-game winning streak.
“This is an older and experienced team that has played against us enough recently,” said JMU coach Matt Brady, whose squad is allowing the second-fewest points in the CAA at 66.8 per game. “They know how we’re going to guard ’em and they do a really good job spacing and they have typically four guys on the floor who can shoot the 3. So it’s a great challenge for our defense.”