Thomas handles big time pressure with ease

Todd Zolecki

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Charles Thomas insists the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is no big deal to him. He has faced this type of pressure before. The huge crowds, the TV audience and the intense situations. The Gophers shooting guard said it’s no different than high school.
He’s serious. Back in Harlan, Ky., Thomas starred for a high school team which won two state championships. He played in front of 20,000 fans. A larger crowd watched from their TV’s at home.
Thomas, 20, rose to the challenge. He won the state’s “Mr. Basketball” award during his senior year. He was named MVP of the high school Sweet 16 tournament his junior and senior years.
And in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, he displayed some of that big play ability. He scored a career-high 14 points Friday against Southwest Texas State and equalled that total Sunday against Temple. For the weekend, the sophomore shot 10-for-16 from the floor and made 5-of-9 three-pointers.
“I’m used to the lights being on and used to playing on TV,” he said. “I like it when the light shines. I think I play better. It motivates me and brings the best out in me.
“The type of high school ball I played, pressure is pressure. You play against a bunch of Division I athletes.”
He led the Gophers in scoring in both games, yet didn’t draw much attention to himself.
The Gophers down-play individuals and emphasize the importance of a “team,” but Thomas, unlike Bobby Jackson or Sam Jacobson, fits that philosophy better.
After Sunday’s 76-57 win against Temple, Thomas appeared in the postgame press conference with Jacobson, Jackson and John Thomas.
Nobody asked Thomas a question.
“I’m just put out by that,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “This young man is the MVP of these two ballgames. No doubt about it. That’s why we win. We don’t win without Charles Thomas. He is a strong role player. He’s a starter.”
Thomas, of course, is not a starter. He comes off the bench, often behind swingman Quincy Lewis. That’s Haskins-speak for a player who is revered as much as a starter. A player who might start on any other team. A player who contributes like a starter.
The whole starter/bench-player terminology is overrated anyway, Lewis said. The bench players can play with the rest.
Thomas had done it for most of the season with a bad back, something he’d rather not talk about. His shot has been worth mentioning more anyway.
“Charles is the jump shooter on this team,” he said. “When he gets hot we get him the ball. He’s hot.”
Thomas laughed when asked how hot he actually was. He did the usual for any athlete. He thanked his teammates for making it all possible.
He just wants to keep it going and help Minnesota win the national championship. If it did that, he could return to Kentucky and walk tall in a state which worships Rick Pitino and the Wildcats.
“I’ve been watching the tournament since I was about five,” he said. “It’ll be nice to go back and have some bragging rights.”