Feb. 14, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – For all of the struggles Marshall basketball has endured this season, one development is certain.
There should be no doubting Chris Thomas.
The sophomore two guard came to the Thundering Herd as a late recruit. He was a five-star high school prospect by Rivals.com who went to four high schools, had been committed to Xavier and signed with Manhattan, then had his one junior college season in Florida curbed by off-court issues.
In his Marshall debut season, Thomas has been everything Coach Tom Herrion promised and expected – and needed at that position on the floor.
With his slashing style of play, the 6-foot-5 Denver native has provided offense (12.1 points per game) and some telecast highlight-worthy plays. He’s improving as a passer, and his 26 steals lead the Herd.
Herrion and Thomas agreed early on that the biggest thing the player needed – on and off the court – was structure. Thomas has found that and continues to adapt his game, but knows he sometimes still goes too fast for his and the Herd’s good.
“I think overall on Chris, I’m very pleased,” Herrion said before a Herd practice earlier this week. “He’s made great strides on and off the floor. Especially on the court, he’s gotten better and better each week as he’s been in a system that teaches and holds him accountable and helps him grow and learn.
“In his career, early on, he only had to rely on his individual talent and now he’s become a better player, a more complete player. That said, he’s got so far to go with his talent and he knows it. He hasn’t been in the offseason (strength and conditioning) program yet. As he gets stronger, he’ll be even better.”
With redshirt freshmen point guard Kareem Canty
(16.0 ppg, 6.1 apg) and four-man Ryan Taylor
(13.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Thomas and his familiar headband can be part of a significant Herd hoops trio in the coming seasons.
For now, Thomas just wants to find some team success, as the Herd (8-17, 2-8) heads to Charlotte (14-9, 5-5) for the teams’ first Conference USA meeting on Saturday at 7 p.m.
“I just feel like I’m getting a little bit better, and as a team we’re getting a little bit better,” Thomas said when asked about his play. “We’ve just got to learn to finish games. It’s frustrating. We’ve got to make more of our free throws and guard according to the scouts (scouting report) better, and we can win these games we’re losing.
“I felt like we deserved these last two we lost (on last-second 3-pointers at Southern Miss and Tulane last weekend) but at the same time, we need to learn from it, change the page, go on to the next game and get better as we go along.”
That’s something Thomas has done, after he emerged with a game-leading 27 points in the Herd’s best victory of the season, 74-64 over Western Kentucky back in late November. He has gone from a square-peg, round-hole player in the Marshall system to one that has learned when to pick his spots.
“That has taken some (adjustment), because I like to score and I like to go fast and always have,” said Thomas, who is averaging 16 points in his last five games, on 32-of-58 (.552). “There’s always a time in the game when a team settles us down and we have to run the offense, so we need to get into our groove then and do what we have to do to score the basketball.
“I need to play my role then, and I’m getting better at that … Do what we need to do and try and win the game.”
Thomas is a scorer, not a shooter, and his physical gifts make him a difficult matchup for most perimeter players at both ends of the floor.
“Sometimes, I think Chris is so aggressive by nature, in an attack mode,” Herrion said. “Our challenge with him has been when -- in a possession -- is the time to shoot. Sometimes he’s too quick in a possession when the defense is still set. If he waits, he’ll get a better shot.
“Sometimes I think Chris is so aggressive by nature, in an attack mode. Our challenge with him has been when, in a possession, is the time to shoot. Sometimes he’s too quick in a possession when the defense is still set. We’ve got to change some things (mechanically) in his shot, get him stronger. Once he has a consistent perimeter 3-point shot, he’s really going to be really hard to guard.
“Defensively, he’s getting better. Again, I used the word ‘accountability.’ It’s the first time in Chris’ career he’s been accountable for being a consistent defender. I think he’s learning that. When you have his kind of talent, it can be easy to play defense one-on-one, but he’s learning to play team defense and that’s obviously a big jump for him.”
Thomas said playing defense is his biggest improvement since joining the Herd.
“This year, I’ve guarded a lot of good players,” he said. “It would help us win if I could guard the best player on the other team. I’m not saying I’m the best defender, but I don’t like to get scored on. So, I just take all of it that I have on defense and try to get stops.
“Use my quickness, with my height and my length, and hope I can make ‘em shoot over me and not drive me to the basket. I’ve always been able to score the ball, but what’s improved most is my defense, being a team player and just loving to play the game.”
Thomas’ play became more crucial beginning in early December after then-Herd scoring leader Elijah Pittman was suspended. Marshall needed someone to take up a portion of the scoring slack. Herrion said the sophomore guard has been a major addition in that regard.
“Chris is a scorer by nature and we knew that coming in, and we want him to be an efficient scorer,” the Marshall coach said. “We don’t need him to take a ton of shots. He can be more efficient because he’s a guy who attacks the rim really well … get to rim, get to foul line.
“He’s got to be a more consistent free throw shooter (.589 this season; .649 in 10 C-USA games). It’s one of the areas where he has to improve, because he’s going to get fouled a lot because of the way he plays.”
Thomas has played catch-up, too. On a team with few returning parts and a lineup and rotation in flux because of injuries here and there, he was a late arrival. Thomas didn’t make the early August tour to Canada for five exhibition games.
He had to fit in after that – and has, starting 19 of the last 21 games and scoring in double figures in 14 of those 19 starts.
“They just helped me come in then, showed me my role,” Thomas said. “I played a little bit of the season and I figured out what I was supposed to do and that’s what happened. I just got involved.
“My game is better overall. I do like to take the ball to the rim, but I like to pass the ball, too, like to see my teammates score. But right now, the biggest thing I want to see is us win.”