March Madness: Revisiting UNO star Erik Thomas' Pasco prep career
If the first game of March Madness begins with Erik Thomas dominating Mount St. Mary's tonight, no one in Pasco County should be surprised. Consider what the New Orleans star forward did at Wesley Chapel High.
As a senior for the Wildcats, Thomaas averaged 33 points and 16 rebounds, posted 27 double-doubles in 29 games and earned all-state honors (and our award as North Suncoast player of the year). It runs in the family. His older sister, Sthefany, left Wesley Chapel High as Pasco County's all-time leading scorer.
Erik Thomas received Division I interest but was small (6-foot-5), which explains why he went to East Georgia State College and Baton Rouge Community College before ending up at New Orleans, where he was the Southland Conference's player of the year.
For some more background on a player who could make a big difference in the NCAA tournament in tonight's play-in game, here's a column from his high school days by John C. Cotey:
Erik Thomas is almost everything you want in a forward.
He is a ferocious rebounder, one of the best the North Suncoast has ever seen.
He is a physical inside player, who makes a living cleaning up after teammates and opponents.
And he might as well have dual citizenship on the free-throw line as much time as he spends there.
The only thing Thomas isn't?
But while being a classic tweener at 6 feet, 5 inches, which possibly limits his big-college opportunities, it is plenty tall to put together one of the finest statistical seasons Tampa Bay has ever seen, and quite possibly the most impressive in Pasco County history.
The Wesley Chapel senior is averaging 33.4 points and 18 rebounds, remarkable numbers backed up by an excellent shooting percentage, and a handful of assists and steals a game as well.
And sure, the numbers are impressive. But it's how he piles them up that is most impressive.
"The kid has got a gift for rebounding," said Hudson coach Jason Vetter, against whom Thomas put up 76 points and 34 rebounds in two wins this season. "He'll be a good rebounder at any level."
It is Thomas' play that has sparked the Wildcats to a 15-3 start (heading into Friday night's game against Pasco). He opened the season with 24 points and 12 rebounds against Boca Ciega, and 28 points and nine rebounds against Lakewood - the top two teams in Pinellas County - and had 31 points and 19 rebounds against Armwood.
He hasn't stopped. He has set career highs for points with 41 ... then 45 ... then 46. He has scored 30 or more in 11 of his past 12 games.
And the rebounds, they keep coming: 12, 15, 19, 22, 26, 32 ...
"I'm an aggressive player when it comes to playing down low," Thomas said. "Even if it was my mom trying to guard me, I'm gonna put the body on her and get the rebound."
"Following your shot is a lost art," said Wesley Chapel coach Doug Greseth, "and he does it all the time. He has great lateral movement, his vertical jump has gotten better. I think a lot of the reason he is averaging so many points is 1) his offensive rebounding, and 2) his free throws. He makes both work for him."
Scoring is nothing new to the Thomas family. His sister Sthefany Thomas played at Wesley Chapel and broke Jackie Pugh's county record with 2,563 points (since reset by Gulf's Nicole Adams).
Growing up, brother and sister squared off under the watchful eye of father James - a former professional player himself - whom both credit with teaching them the game.
Erik said that he beat Sthefany, who plays professionally in Norway since graduating from Clemson, the two times they played against each other in offseason.
"She kind of cheated, too," he joked.
The Thomas brother-sister combination is the county's highest-scoring and highest-rebounding ever, but individually Thomas is chasing the 2,000-point barrier (he needs 208) and single-game scoring record of 48, held by Chase Bussey - though for fun at family dinner purposes, it should be noted Sthefany scored 49 against St. Petersburg Catholic in 2006.
Against Hudson this week, Thomas scored 46 in 25 minutes, sitting out almost all of the fourth quarter.
And with East Tennessee State, one of the teams recruiting him, looking on, Thomas had a trio of 3-pointers from the corner in the first quarter.
"He's got a great motor and on the offensive end he is relentless," Vetter said. "He's the best player on the North Suncoast."
Thomas, who played with the Argentine junior Olympic team in the offseason, said he's merely trying to play his game.
He's smart with a high basketball IQ and fundamentally sound. He has worked on shooting better - particularly finishing with the left hand with contact - and scoring when facing up the basket.
"I worked hard this offseason," said Thomas, who will likely finish his senior season as a 2,000-point, 1,200-rebound guy, a rarity. "I play my role, and just try to do what I need to to get the win."
As for the next level, ETSU, Saint Leo and a number of Division II schools have expressed interest.
Size matters, but sometimes, not so much, say coaches.
Erik Thomas is everything you want in a player.
"He may be a little undersized for the post, and not quite quick enough to play on the perimeter," Greseth said. "But when you're scoring that many points and rebounding like that, it may not matter. It might come down to, do you want a player, or not?"