Three weeks ago, Thomas' legacy had essentially already been written. Not only had the lone Tar Heel senior been a member of the 2005 National Championship squad, but he was also on his way to becoming the all-time winningest player in North Carolina history. With Wednesday night's 84-70 victory at N.C. State, Thomas has been a part of 112 wins, five shy of the record 117 victories held by the 1983-84 class.
But while he may hold those records and that trophy, to most observers outside of Chapel Hill, ‘Q' never really had a legitimate hand in those accomplishments. In a somewhat honest but cruel thought process, many people believed that Thomas was just along for the ride.
Junior combo guard Bobby Frasor beat out his older teammate for the starting point guard spot during the 2005-06 season, playing 853 minutes. And then sophomore speedster Ty Lawson replaced both of them last fall, tallying 977 minutes at point during the 2006-07 campaign. Through three seasons in Chapel Hill, Thomas had only seen a total of 735 minutes of action.
And it was not until the 89-78 loss to Duke 16 days ago that the senior surpassed Lawson's freshman minutes for his entire career. Thomas has averaged 32.7 minutes over the past six outings, compared to an 8.3 career average prior to the Florida State victory.
While various personal injuries obstructed Thomas' playing opportunities at times during his career, ironically, it was injuries to both Frasor and Lawson this season that set the table for Thomas to showcase his abilities on the court.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder struggled against Florida State and Duke in grasping control of the offense during his first two games at the helm, scoring 19 points and dishing out 13 assists, while committing eight turnovers. Not horrific numbers by any stretch, but also not what the Tar Heel faithful had come to expect from Lawson.
Things came to a head nearly two weeks ago against Clemson at the Smith Center. Down 79-70 with 3:00 left in regulation, head coach Roy Williams used a TV timeout to encourage his players to trust in their system to pull out the victory, pointing to the classic 2005 Duke game in which the Tar Heels trailed 73-64 with 3:07 remaining as evidence.
While most of the players presumably remember that frantic finish, Thomas was the only Tar Heel that had been in that huddle, listening to a similar speech that Williams would give four years later against the Tigers.
"I just pulled my teammates to the side [after that timeout], and I said, 'We will be there – we just have to be in this together," Thomas said.
The only difference was that this time, Thomas was not sitting on the bench during the final run to victory – he was actually leading the charge, hitting a driving lay-up to force the first extra period before connecting on two free throws to send the game into a second overtime en route to a 103-93 UNC victory.
Thomas is averaging 7.7 points and 6.5 assists per game in Lawson's absence, while connecting on 53.6 percent of his field goal attempts for the season. His on-court demeanor has changed dramatically from a seemingly overwhelmed backup to a smooth, calming presence as the Tar Heels ‘ starting point guard.
"I think with each and every game, he has learned how to get through mistakes and not turn around and make another one right behind it," Williams said. "He's learned to put the play behind him… I think he's gotten more and more confident with each game and that in itself has enabled him to get through a tough stretch."
North Carolina has now won four straight with Thomas directing the vaunted Tar Heel offense, and through it all, those victories have been all that really matters to the Oakland, Calif. native.
"It's been a good thing as far as being able to help my team out," Thomas said. "I always said that when I came to college, it didn't matter if I played as many minutes as the next person, but as long as I can contribute and help my teammates, that's all that really mattered to me. Not saying that I wouldn't enjoy playing a lot – everybody wants to play – but as long as I can continue to help my teammates and keep a smile on [their] faces and we're winning, that's a positive thing for me."
Thomas entered the past two seasons as the third option at point guard for North Carolina. But while rumors swirled about his potential desire to transfer out of the program to find more playing time at other schools, the senior never entertained those thoughts.
"I love my teammates to death – that's the thing that keeps me going every day," Thomas said. "Just to be around them, laughing and joking. You never know what you could get if you leave, and I already know what I have here, so why leave?"
Those teammates, as well as the support system encompassing Williams, his staff and the University as a whole, have served as building blocks for a young man four years in the making.
"I've grown so much as a person," Thomas said. "Everybody thinks about the basketball side and everything, but my maturity and my character… I know my mom and my dad always say that they've seen so much change in me in a positive way."
One thing hasn't changed, however. His dreams when enrolling at North Carolina are still the same as they are today.
"My dream was to win a national championship," Thomas said. "I didn't know my dream would come true that quick. I was just blessed to be in a position to be a part of a great team and a great experience. And with the talent that we have on this team, I think that dream could come back [again]."