Just about all TaShawn Thomas talked about on his visit to Oklahoma was making the NCAA Tournament.
Looking to transfer from Houston, Thomas wanted a place where he could play in the ‘Big Dance’ – that special time of year that almost all college basketball players want to be a part of before their careers are complete. It was a big reason why Thomas ultimately picked Oklahoma over Miami and many other schools.
His transfer was a mutually beneficially agreement, though. Oklahoma was doing no favors by letting the 6-foot-8, 242-pound forward come to Norman. Thomas gave Oklahoma an inside presence with three years of starting experience, and the Sooners gave Thomas a chance to finally make the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s the one thing I wanted to do,” Thomas said. “It’s always a dream growing up just being able to play in March Madness. Actually making it now is just crazy. I still can’t believe it.”
This time last year, Thomas would have probably been back in Killeen, Texas – hanging out with his friends or “partying” as he put it. He’d still pull up a chair when Thursday kicks off and watch all the action. He watched UConn make its championship run last season, after he and Houston beat the Huskies once during the regular season.
For basketball players, spring break is a bad thing.
While they play through most of the other breaks, at regular-season tournaments during Thanksgiving or playing non-conference games during the winter break, the top college basketball players long to play during the week off in March.
They’ll still travel, although never to Daytona Beach or Cancun.
Instead, it’s sites like Dayton or Charlotte where college basketball players want to be. In Thomas’ case, it’s Columbus.
“He seems to be very excited,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said of Thomas. “All of the guys are, of course. . . . Some of the guys have been to the last couple, but TaShawn hasn’t.
When Thomas came over from Houston, he didn’t bring any NCAA experience, but he did bring the Sooners’ only postseason win before this year’s Big 12 Conference Tournament.
His teammates had been to the ‘Big Dance’ in the past two seasons. Thomas had always fallen just short at Houston, despite averaging 14.5 points and 8.7 rebounds over three years as a starter there – 96 career games.
Thomas left Houston after three years as one of only seven players with 1,300 points and 800 rebounds. He could have graduated as one of the school’s all-time greats, if he had stayed at Houston.
He wanted a chance at the NCAA Tournament – that allure of playing basketball during spring break.
“I wanted to transfer somewhere that I knew I’d at least have a chance to make the tournament,” Thomas said. “. . . That played a big part in me coming here.”
The last 24 hours have been a rush of emotions for Thomas.
He stood up and cheered with his teammates when it was announced that Oklahoma would be a No. 3 seed – no real drama to whether or not Thomas would realize his dream. But he didn’t cheer. He didn’t clap.
Almost like he didn’t know how to respond when it finally happened, Thomas stood there, shooting video on his phone of the TV screen as he saw his new school’s colors pop up on the interactive bracket.
Thomas’ parents came up to celebrate with him as the excitement finally broke on him. It’ll be his first trip to the tournament, but it will also be his only trip. He won’t get another shot, graduating as one of Oklahoma’s three seniors this season.
“I’m kind of looking at it as if I’m going out with a bang,” Thomas said. “Telling my teammates I’m not trying to seem selfish but I don’t want to lose in the first round or second round. I just want to go as far as possible so I’m letting my teammates know that. Just showing how serious I am about it is going to make the play harder, too.”
Thomas doesn’t have classes this week. Neither does the rest of the team.
It’s spring break, and there’s nowhere else the Sooners would rather be.
“He’s been working for that his whole life,” said forward Ryan Spangler, who hosted Thomas on his visit. “Finally, we got him into the tournament.”