You can make the claim - statistically at least - that Omar Thomas was one of the finest junior-college basketball players ever.
He's the leading scorer in JuCo history, having averaged 35.3 points during his two years at Panola College in Texas, and is the only junior-college player to score 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds. In tiny gyms across America, in front of tiny crowds, Thomas was an artist with a basketball in his hands.
So when he signed with Texas-El Paso, a team that was coming off a 6-24 season, and was told by Miners coach Billy Gillispie he'd be the team's sixth man, not a starter, it didn't go over so well at first.
"To be honest, I was cursing him out in my head at the time," Thomas said. "In my mind, I was like, 'I worked too hard to come here and come off the bench for a team that was 6-24 last season.' "
But Gillispie wouldn't budge, encouraging Thomas to embrace his role off the bench. Hungry for playing time and hungry to prove himself, Thomas eventually did just that, and the result was one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NCAA history.
Thomas still led the Miners in scoring, averaging 15.5 points, and UTEP went 24-7, earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and a first-round matchup with Maryland on Thursday. And if the Miners can upset the Terps, they'd tie an NCAA record for the biggest single-season improvement (19 wins) from one year to the next.
"I think we're a couple years ahead of schedule," said Gillispie, an assistant at Illinois under Bill Self who led the Miners to their first tournament appearance since 1992. "But the thing that has made this team so special is its intangibles. ... They're all totally selfless, thinking of each other before thinking of themselves. That's not very common in society today."
That's certainly true of Thomas, a junior whom Gillispie has compared to George Gervin because of his ability to hit soft, mid-range jumpers from all over the court. Thomas has averaged just 22 minutes this season, but he has made the most of them. He scored 29 in 22 minutes in a loss to Boise State, 28 points in 33 minutes in a win over Nevada and 32 points in 31 minutes in a victory over Louisiana Tech.
"I thought like everyone else. I probably worried he was too short [6 feet 5], too slow, and I didn't know if he'd be able to do what he did in junior college at the next level," Gillispie said. "But he's really shown people he knows what he's doing. He has a real ability to score with the basketball."
But if he's so gifted, why not put him in the starting lineup? Is Thomas your stereotypical junior-college player, the kind whose offense turns your head, but whose defense makes you want to cover your eyes? Quite the opposite, said Gillispie, who has been pleasantly pleased by Thomas' defense and his passing.
The truth is, with no starter taller than 6-8, Gillispie, a guard-forward, made a deal with his team before the season to try to improve rebounding.
"Our deal is that if a guy leads the team in rebounding and he has more than eight rebounds, he gets to be in the starting lineup until someone unseats him," Gillispie said. "Omar has started some games for us, but some guys in front of him have also been pretty tenacious at going after the ball.
Just getting a chance to play at this level has been a dream for Thomas, who grew up in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood and spent much of his childhood ducking trouble. According to the El Paso Times, his father and two of his brothers have been in prison for the past 11 years. But sports provided one of the few positive outlets.
Thomas led Strawberry Mansion high school to a city championship his senior year, averaging 23 points and 13 rebounds, but couldn't get a qualifying score on the SAT. He ended up at Panola College, where he led the nation in scoring (34.3) and rebounding (19.1) as a freshman.
"In junior college, everything was based around me," Thomas said. "So when I came [to UTEP] and had to play a supporting role off the bench, it was a little bit of an adjustment."
It has been worth it, however. When UTEP players - who gathered at Gillispie's house to watch the NCAA selection show Sunday - saw the school's name pop up on the screen, it set off a wave of euphoria that lasted for several minutes. Several Miners screamed at the top of their lungs, while others cried tears of joy.
"We were so excited, we didn't even see who we were playing," Thomas said. "You dream about this kind of situation all your life."
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