AMES, IOWA — Before Matt Thomas has time to collect himself on this cold, blustery winter afternoon, the sophomore known predominantly for his long range shooting is smothered by handfuls of cameras and recorders in his face, not unlike the defenders who hug him on the 3-point line.
The shooter who is often fighting thought in attempt at finding consistency in his shot is now doing just the opposite a few steps outside the locker room at the Sukup Basketball Complex on the west side of Ames. He is thinking back to his most recent performance, which sparked all of this attention he now faces. He is thinking about the cameras and the recorders.
“This is great, but… It’s a little weird,” Thomas says. “I’ve scored points before, I’ve made shots before. It’s funny that it’s such a big deal right now, but I understand it. I’m looking forward to the day I can go out and do my thing and it’s expected.”
In reality, expectations are what started this.
When Thomas arrived at Iowa State in the fall of 2013 from Onalaska, Wis., he did so as a consensus top-100 recruit known for his sharpshooting. As a junior at Onalaska High School, Thomas shot 46.8 percent from 3-point range. As a senior he shot 35.8 percent and finished third in a national 3-point contest before the Final Four.
The expectations for Thomas during his rookie campaign were sky-high, and it wasn’t as if he didn’t perform — Thomas did make 44 3s, the second-most by an Iowa State freshman, and shot 33.6 percent from 3-point range — but living up to the label of a sharpshooter and comparisons to Fred Hoiberg were a bit farfetched.
Thomas went through a rough stretch during his first season, going 9-for-38 in one 11-game span. He heard the noise on Twitter. His confidence was shaken. That is a fault Thomas faces more so than one poor shooting night: He listens, he cares and his confidence is sometimes comparable to a rollercoaster.
During another recent 11-game stretch this season leading into Saturday’s road test at Texas, Thomas went 5-for-28 from 3 and was searching for a spark. Maybe his career-high 17 points on 4-of-6 from 3-point range is what he needed.
“Sometimes you just need one game to see the ball go in the hoop like that,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It does open up things. Teams can’t sit in there and plug the middle. Even when Matt maybe wasn’t shooting as well they still guarded him because they know he’s capable of knocking shots down like that.”
For Thomas, makings 3s is less about being capable and more about confidence. Thomas is a guy who makes shot after shot at the practice facility only to leave disappointed about the few misses. He has sat and talked with Hoiberg about overthinking and has spent countless hours shooting when nobody is looking.
“He’s capable of being what everyone believes that he can be,” fellow sharpshooter Naz Long said. “That’s the next coming of coach, man. He can shoot it. He can shoot the ball, I’m telling you.”
Last season, Thomas followed up that rough 11-game stretch with a 4-for-6 night beyond the arc against Kansas State. He went 5-for-11 in the next two games. His recent 4-for-6 night is not surprising given the expectations, but there is hope it will spark a similar stretch as February turns to March.
“There’s no surprise when he’s doing that,” Long said. “It was just more a sigh of relief like, ‘Finally.’ Just so everybody can get a taste of it because he does that all the time in practice, he does that when he’s working out. He doesn’t miss shots, he’s just a flat out hooper. That’s why the guys were so happy, including myself.”
It’s why Thomas faces this attention now. It’s why he tries not to think about what shots he might get and instead just shoots them. It’s why he keeps working to live up to the expectations set for him long ago.
“I’m never satisfied,” Thomas said. “If you know me at all personally that’s not the type of person I am.”
So Thomas pushed past the media throng to work on his shot.