MADISON – Charles Thomas didn’t need to do a lot of in-depth research to know what kind of year he was going to be in for.
Heading into his sophomore year on a team that returned every major component – himself included – from a year ago, Thomas figured he would be earmarked for the same type of reserve duty that he was tasked with a year ago. He was ready for it.
“I saw what we already had and who could produce from last year,” Thomas said. “I want to be a good role guy coming in, doing all the dirty work. I want to make sure I don’t do too much, but I think I’ve been doing a good job of coming in and giving us a good boost, some energy, off the bench. I think I had a huge improvement in that area.”
Across the board Thomas has seen an increase in his offensive numbers. While averaging 2.1 minutes less per game than a year ago, Thomas is averaging 0.3 points more while 3.4 percent higher from the field and 43.3 percent better from the free throw line.
Even his name has grown up, been listed as “Charles Thomas IV” in the official game notes instead of “Charlie Thomas.”
“He’s very receptive to coaching,” assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft said. “He wants to get better; he wants to learn; he wants to be out there to help his teammates in any way possible. Even when the minutes weren’t coming earlier in the year, he was doing some great things in practice to help us get ready.”
Lightly recruited out of River Hills High School in Highland, Md, Thomas came to Wisconsin as his school's all-time leader in points (1,717), rebounds (893) and blocked shots (159). It was the points he didn’t score that caught the eye of assistant coach Lamont Paris, who scouted Thomas and lauded his ability to pass up a shot for an open teammate.
Energy and team camaraderie has never been an issue for Thomas, who averaged two assists per game his senior season.
“I was always getting my teammates involved,” Thomas said. “I was passing the ball, passing up open shots, setting good screens and helping everybody else produce, not just for myself. (Coming off the bench) is a change from high school. There’s always going to be people who have grown through the program who have earned their spot. Everybody doesn’t start as soon as they come in. Everybody has to start from somewhere.”
That background was a good starting point. Thomas played all 31 games last season and got the blueprint of what it took to play consistently at the Big Ten level.
He shed some excess fat to be a more trimmed at 250 pounds and focused on getting stronger in order to feel more comfortable against bigger, more experience players fighting for rebounds than he did a year ago.
In Wisconsin’s 57-43 win at Illinois Jan.31, Thomas matched a career-high with two blocks and added two points and two rebounds in just six minutes off the bench.
“He’s starting to use his body a little bit more,” forward Ethan Happ said. “We joke around and call him ‘Chuck Melo’ because he likes to turn around and shoot fadeaways when he’s the biggest guy on the court. I think he’s starting to utilize how big and strong he is.”
That toughness factor will be vital for No.11 Wisconsin (21-5, 10-3 Big Ten) when it hosts No.23 Maryland (22-4, 10-3) in a critical conference showdown Sunday afternoon at the Kohl Center. Having lost two straight to allow the Terrapins and Purdue to forge a three-way tie at the top of the league standings with five games to go, UW continues to be stuck in a mired offensive slump that dates back over a month.
In conference games Maryland is third in scoring offense (74.8 points per game) and third in scoring defense (68.3 ppg), meaning points and toughness will be at a premium.
With the health of senior guard Bronson Koenig (left calf) unknown, the Badgers will have to lean on their bench for a second straight game.
Wisconsin’s bench has been sporadic in scoring but their contributions in other areas have been timely. Freshman D'Mitrik Trice averaged 5.5 points in a reserve role before getting promoted to the starting lineup Thursday, not to mention having a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“It’s wonderful to see the bench players fill in,” Thomas said. “It seems like every time somebody is having an off day, somebody can come off the bench and give us a boost. It doesn’t seem like we’re lacking or being complacent. Over the last couple of games, we’ve been developing better, watching the starters on the floor to see what we can learn from them and try to produce.”
That production will need to intensify with the calendar about to turn to March and a gauntlet of games for the Badgers between now and then. Needing a physical presence, Thomas could be that x-factor considering he’s earned the trust of the coaching staff to deliver on the little things.
“He’s a great kid,” Krabbenhoft said. “He’s almost so nice of a kid that it’s hard to get on him about things, but he wants you to get on him. He wants to be better. Anytime you get a kid like that, you know he’s got a chance.”