March 2, 2012
By Erin Wilson, MSU Athletic Communications
EAST LANSING, Mich. - They say `good things come to those who wait', that `hard work always pays off in the end' and `patience is a virtue'. But, how long do you bide your time? How long do you push yourself day in and day out in the gym, standing on the sidelines waiting for your number to be called? For some, the opportunity never comes - but, for others, when their number is called, they're ready - ready to enter the game and prove they have what it takes to be on the floor. Austin Thornton has been ready. He's been ready for the past four years and when his number was called he was ready to prove to himself and to others that he has what it takes to stand on the court and compete against some of the very best.
Growing up a mere hour-and-a-half away from Michigan State University, Thornton used to idolize and admire the many stars and players that donned the Green and White. He spent countless hours watching them on TV, mimicking their every move in the driveway and pretending that he was the one to hit a game-winning shot to secure a Spartan victory.
So, when the opportunity to come to MSU seemed like a plausible next step following high school, Thornton immediately jumped at the chance.
"Like every young kid coming out of high school, I automatically thought I was going to play at the next level, no problem," Thornton said. "But it didn't come to me so easily. Michigan State was definitely one of the schools I first looked at when I was getting recruited, but some things happened and the scholarships filled up for my year. Coach Izzo told me I should look elsewhere."
And he did. Thornton, like any other top-notch recruit out of high school, had an abundance of schools to choose from - many promising a competitive amount of playing time and the opportunity to be the star as just a freshman. But as luck would have it, it seemed the door to MSU was still open.
"Some things happened here on the team, and Coach called me back to tell me there might be an opportunity to walk-on and earn myself a scholarship," Thornton said. "This basketball program is the upper echelon in college sports and such a great opportunity, so I went out on a limb and with the support of my family, decided to be a walk-on. I'm just glad I made this decision and it's worked out nicely."
In the end it has worked out nicely, but the path and journey to get there has been a long one.
"I redshirted my freshman year, so the mindset that first year was to practice as hard as I could and use that time to get better," Thornton said. "But the next couple of years, the next three years actually, were tough. I was no longer redshirting and I had worked hard, yet it took me a long time to get into the rotation and into playing consistently and playing well.
Last season, Thornton found himself in a starting role for five games early, but as the year went on, the team started to go in a different direction and Thornton found his way back to the bench.
"It was hard for me personally," Thornton said. "It was just kind of a downward spiral and really tough. So to come back this year, to come off the bench and be solid, and then to have Coach put me in a starting role has been a real honor." "Coach always says, `if you put the time in, eventually you'll get what you deserve - good, bad or ugly'. I know that for me, personally, I've definitely put in the man hours where it's finally starting to pay off, and shots are starting to fall. And when your shots fall, then all of a sudden you're getting to more loose balls, rebounds, and steals and your defense starts to pick up.
Thornton's role on this team has come full circle and in such a short amount of time. This year, he has found himself not only earning more playing time and a starting role, but also the responsibility of becoming a team captain - a position he hasn't taken lightly.
"I've been here the longest. I know the ins and outs of the program, and I know Coach like the back of my hand," Thornton said. "I'm not as vocal as Draymond Green or as reserved as Brandon Wood, but my experience has been a big part and helped me in my leadership role. It's something I've really tried to help these younger guys out with."
With just three seniors and one junior among the rotation, and the rest of the roster filled with underclassmen, this team knows that youthful inexperience firsthand. Yet, despite their `greenness', this young Spartan team has quickly seen success, both on and off the court.
"This team has been an absolute pleasure to be a part of for my last year," Thornton said. "I couldn't ask for a better group of guys to be a part of - it's just a great mix. The younger guys have done a great job of being receptive and understanding what it takes to win at this level. And that's just the character of this team - extremely unselfish. All we care about is the team, winning and the ultimate goal - getting back to a Final Four. That's the expectation here every year and that's the level this program is at. The younger guys understand that and that's where my senior experience comes into play."
And on senior day, when it's Thornton's turn to kiss the Spartan head at midcourt of the Breslin Center floor, like he's watched so many before him do, he'll know that throughout this journey - from a walk-on to team captain - he's given it everything he has.
"I'm very happy that I have had a chance to be here and blessed to be a part of this program," Thornton said. "Things haven't always gone the way I've imagined, and with life there are always ups and downs, but the hard work and patience has finally paid off. It's been a long ride, but a fun one and I wouldn't have had it any other way."