COLLEGE PARK - Mike Thibeault could have accepted a basketball scholarship at a small school, taken his customary spot in the starting lineup and gone on one of his patented scoring sprees. It seemed the natural progression of his playing career.
Instead, he's the first player off the University of Maryland bench -- to slap hands with his teammates as they leave the floor. The spotlight, at least for now, has dissolved.
After a record-setting senior year at Glen Burnie, Thibeault spurned various offers from Division II and III colleges to fulfill a childhood dream. And while the fantasy didn't include joining the Terrapins as a walk-on and spending each game peering over Coach Gary Williams' shoulder, he's grateful nonetheless.
"Mike told me he always wanted to come to Maryland," Williams said. "He had some scholarship offers, but he came here. He wanted to try and play for the University of Maryland. I give him a lot of credit."
Williams made 22 substitutions in Monday's season-opener against Towson State University before finally motioning Thibeault to the scorer's table with just under two minutes remaining. A smattering of applause broke out from the crowded student section as Thibeault removed his warm-up jacket and knelt at midcourt.
He officially entered the fray with 1 minute, 28 seconds left, just long enough to commit a foul, give fellow reserve Mark McGlone an encouraging pat on the back after a missed free throw and help close out Maryland's 93-69 victory.
Afterward, the slender, 6-foot-3 Thibeault sat uninterrupted in front of his locker and sliced the tape from his left ankle. Next to him was Cedric Lewis, a senior center whose strong performance -- including seven blocks -- drew a crowd of reporters.
"This is awesome, to be in this. I mean, just look around," Thibeault said, soaking up the atmosphere. "And everything that you get, the shoes, everything. It's just awesome."
No mention of limited playing time. No complaints about going from high-scoring swingman to unheralded understudy.
"This is about what I expected," he said. "You've got superstars on this team and you can't expect to get in there right away. My time will come. I have three more years here."
Thibeault averaged 29.6 points a contest to lead the metro area in scoring last season. He established county records for most points in a game (52), three-pointers in a game (10) and three-pointers in a season (86).
He received a nomination to enroll at the Naval Academy, but says "that just wasn't me."
"I wanted an engineering degree and I knew Maryland's reputation," he said. "I sent a couple tapes up here and the coaches started talking to me, saying, 'You're going to get a good education and some experience playing basketball.' " Most of that experience will come during practices, when Thibeault is assigned to guard backcourt starters Matt Roe and Walt Williams.
"He gives us great practice minutes," Gary Williams said. "He'll go play Walt Williams and play him as hard as anybody. He doesn't back off. He'll get Walt upset at him, but that's what we need, for someone to push Walt in practice defensively so he has to work hard."
Walt Williams, a 6-foot-8 point guard recently called "a poor man's Magic Johnson" by The Sporting News, said, "Mike Thibeault is very instrumental in getting me ready for the game. He works me extremely hard in every practice. It gets to the point where, when the coach says, 'All right Mike, you come in and check Walt,' I'm like, 'Oh man, Mike Thibeault's checking me.' " Thibeault's reputation in the county was built on his ability to score points, not prevent them. Even the No. 3 he wore on his white jersey Monday night was the product of a high school nickname -- Three-beault -- he acquired for his outside shooting.
Still, Glen Burnie coach Terry Bogle never considered Thibeault a one-dimensional player.
"If you look at Mike for the first time, you think he might be a step slow, but he can make up for that," Bogle said. "It's a matter of knowing where to be on the court. And he's got quick hands. That's one of the things I tried to instill in him. I told him his ability to play defense is what the (college) coaches would be looking for."
Luckily, Gary Williams noticed.
"If we have to shut somebody down on one possession, I wouldn't be afraid to put Mike in," he said. "I have a soccer background and I heard Mike was a great soccer player in high school, so I knew he could be a good defensive player. Soccer players have good footwork, so they make good defensive players. It's a carry-over skill."
Having spoken with Maryland assistant Billy Hahn over the summer, Thibeault was invited to take part in workouts and pick-up games, and later was given permission to practice with the team. He didn't know he had secured a spot on the roster until the day of the Red-White scrimmage at Woodlawn High earlier this month.
"One day I came in and I had a number on my jersey. I knew I was there," he said.
"It was a great feeling just to be able to go out and practice with the guys. It's totally different from high school. The pace of the game and the strength of the guys is unbelievable. And I'm not a marked man, like I was in high school."
He's not the superstar he once was, either. And his future with the team remains clouded as long as he's without a scholarship. But that also could change in 1992, when the program, currently under National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions, gains back the two scholarships it lost over each of the next two seasons.
"From hearing about Coach Williams and seeing how he coaches, if you put 110 percent in, you will get rewarded for it," Thibeault said. "You don't have to have the same talent everyone else has. They appreciate the effort.
"Hopefully, later on, I'll become a scorer, but that hustle will always be there."