At the tail end of a superb junior season that earned him Honorable Mention All-State honors, Austin Thornton had perhaps his finest performances in his final 2005-06 games for Cedar Springs (Mich.) High School. In the Michigan Class B state playoffs, Thornton averaged 31.3 points and pulled down 13 rebounds. He lifted the Red Hawks to the district championship with 37 points in a 68-52 win over Tri County, while also hauling in 13 of his team's 36 rebounds. The next highest scorers on either team managed 14 and 12 points. In the regional semifinals, Thornton delivered a 38-point 13-rebound performance in a near-upset of East Grand Rapids before falling in the final moments, 67-64, to the team that lost in the state championship game by four points.
But we have to ask the age-old question: If a basketball tickles the twine, and nobody is there to see it, does it make a sound?
"If you don't play in the eastern part of the state, nobody really knows about you," says father Tom Thornton. "I've seen a lot of the highly rated kids from that area, and Austin is just as good as a lot of them. But not enough people give enough credit to the basketball played in western Michigan."
Cedar Springs is a tiny town of 2,800 best known as "Red Flannel Town USA" for its production of the famed garment worn by lumberjacks, hunters, and Santa Claus. It is not a hotbed of hoops recruiting focus, however, which has Austin Thornton just a little off the beaten path and the radar of college basketball recruiting. He hopes to change that this spring and summer when he travels the AAU circuit with the Michigan Mustangs. Thornton and the Mustangs played this past weekend in Arkansas at the Real Deal on the Hill and in two weekends will again enter a national event, this time in Ohio at the King James Tournament. May will find them at the Spiece Run N Slam, adidas Hoop Challenge, adidas May Classic and the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions. More tournaments and camps will follow during the summer, including the heralded adidas Super 64 in Las Vegas in July.
The Austin Thornton road show is now underway, and college coaches who did not make the trip to tiny Cedar Springs this winter got their first look of the year at the 6'6" wing. The Michigan junior is not sensational at any one thing but is pretty good at almost every part of his game. We had the good fortune of watching video from his early high school and AAU careers a few months ago, and Thornton most certainly can pass the ball, shoot the ball and handle the ball. He has a high basketball IQ playing in the perimeter, but also has the size and timing to rebound successfully. The looming questions for the projected shooting guard/small forward are his quickness and his strength. Scout.com's Dave Telep, who currently rates the Michigan man at three stars, was in Arkansas this weekend and caught a game of Thornton's.
"I think he can really make it happen from mid-range and he's got a nice feel for the game overall," Telep reports after his latest look at Thornton. The Scout.com National Recruiting Director of Basketball also tells us that he spotted Cardinal head coach Trent Johnson in the stands watching Thornton and the Mustangs.
Pulling a player out of the Midwest can be tough for Stanford, but there are conditions in place with this recruitment that have the Cardinal sitting in the pole position. The Thorntons lived previously in Southern California before moving to Cedar Springs and still have family in the area. Tom Thornton in fact was a very good athlete and quarterback coming out of high school who aimed for Stanford but had the misfortune of falling in the same class as a kid from Granada Hills (Calif.) High School named John Elway.
Both father and son made the trek from Cedar Springs to The Farm this past November for an unofficial visit that made a huge splash. Then Trent Johnson made a reciprocal trip to western Michigan to watch the junior recruit in December.
"For [Johnson] to come all the way out here, that made a strong statement to Austin," the father reports.
The Thorntons have been raving about Stanford since, to the point of Austin wearing Cardinal gear while on an unofficial visit to East Lansing in February for the big Michigan vs. Michigan State game.
"Everybody knows that Stanford is out there. Austin walks around with a Stanford hat and sweatshirt all the time," says Tom Thornton. "I'm big on education, and you don't do any better than Stanford. Stanford has an outstanding staff. Those guys are the best in the business. I mean, a real class act."
More powerful than wearing a sweatshirt, Austin Thornton has put his interest into action by recently completing and mailing in his Stanford admissions application. The Cedar Springs junior holds down a 3.9 GPA with a pair of AP classes this year, and he has scored a 24 on the ACT.
"He's qualified for every other school," says the elder Thornton. "If Stanford tells him that he needs to do better, then he'll retake it. Otherwise, he probably won't."
"We're looking at a decision in the summer," the father forecasts. "It won't go into the fall - I'm sure of that. Austin is still evaluating. He knows where he would like to go, but we have to wait on things to happen. It depends on the Stanford application."
The Cardinal are not alone in their pursuit of the western Michigan wing. Thornton pulled in his first offer last year from Central Michigan, who is a regular fixture at the recruit's high school and AAU games - hoping that the high-major programs pass on the prospect. Michigan State showed high interest until they landed a pair of the nation's top 10 junior (2007) shooting guards in January, guaranteeing their future at the wing positions after pulling in two of the top 15 small forwards in the 2006 class. Notre Dame, Virginia, Michigan and Wisconsin are the other schools paying the most attention to Thornton today, with the Cavaliers and Badgers showing the most recent surge in interest.
Which schools make a move on Austin Thornton will be largely controlled by their evaluations of him during this spring period. We will keep an eye on the story of the Michigan man, including his Cardinal recruitment and admissions application status, in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned.
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