CHICAGO — Matt Thomas was not met with second thoughts as he sat at his locker in the bowels of the United Center on Thursday, preparing to play in his second Sweet 16, this time as a cog in Iowa State’s lineup.
Had his thinking gone any differently more than three years ago, Thomas would have been sitting in a locker down the twisting and turning hallway. But two months before beginning college, Thomas chose the cardinal and gold.
“It came down to Iowa State and Virginia when I was in high school and honestly it came down to really distance,” Thomas said. “I wanted to be close to home so my friends and family could come watch me play. That’s really what it came down to and I’m glad I’m in the cardinal and gold and playing for the Cyclones.”
Ranked as the No. 58 overall prospect in the 2013 class, and the No. 13 overall shooting guard, Thomas landed offers from a number of Power 5 schools before he narrowed his choices to two in early June. Days later, he chose Iowa State.
“[We] really wanted Matt,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Being from Wisconsin and him being there, he's a terrific player. [He] represented all that we try to get in student-athletes at Virginia, just the character, his competitiveness, his completeness as a player.”
Thomas has emerged for the Cyclones in his junior season, becoming the highly touted guard assistant T.J. Otzelberger helped land in the summer of 2012. After shooting 34 and 33 percent from 3-point range in his first two seasons, Thomas has seen that number increase to 43 percent this season with more action.
The junior has started 26 of 34 games since Iowa State lost Naz Mitrou-Long for the season in mid-December, averaging 12.1 points per game as a starter.
“[I] hoped that he would have ended up at Virginia, but have seen him really improve, and then obviously watching film and seeing how he's become a heck of a player, I certainly respect that,” Bennett said. “I've recruited so many good players, but he really fit what we were trying to do, and we put our best foot forward to try to get him."
Friday night, Thomas and Bennett will meet again.
“I have a ton of respect for Coach Bennett and the type of coach he is and the type of person he is on and off the court,” Thomas said. “It’s not going to be weird. We’re both going to be out there competing to get to an Elite Eight.”