Fairy tale over, Thomas helps Mason rebuild

Ex-Mt. St. Joe star mentors newcomers after veteran exodus from Final 4 team

January 11, 2007|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

Fairfax, Va. -- Will Thomas lunged into a passing lane, inches late. None of his teammates rotated, but after his man made a wide-open three, Thomas did manage to steal a glance toward his bench.

After all that Thomas has accomplished for George Mason, is the junior forward out of Mount St. Joseph still so insecure that he needs to see if his mistakes are forgiven?

"No," Patriots coach Jim Larranaga said. "Will was probably saying to me, `I made a great effort. Somebody has to help me.'"

Ten months after Thomas and George Mason captivated the college basketball world with maybe the most improbable run ever to the Final Four, the Patriots arrive at the Towson Center tonight (7 p.m., ESPNU) hoping to start a more modest streak.

The Patriots are 7-7 overall, 1-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association, and looking to take two in a row for the first time all season.

When 11th-seeded George Mason mowed down Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut last March, Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn were money on the perimeter and Aberdeen's Jai Lewis demanded attention on the other block.

Those veterans have moved on. Now, when the left-handed Thomas sets up on the right baseline and backs in for his jump hook, opponents are quicker to double team and his kick-out options aren't as productive.

George Mason's three-point shooting has been shaky and Larranaga has auditioned four players at the big man spot opposite Thomas, including Louis Birdsong, a fellow St. Joe product who was The Sun's Player of the Year last season.

All that has increased the burden on Thomas, but he has played bigger than his 6 feet 7 and 230 pounds. Despite an injured right thumb, Thomas is averaging 14.1 points on 61.4 percent shooting, the second-best mark in the CAA, one helped by a 6-for-6 game at Duke. He also leads the team in rebounds (7.1) and minutes (36.3).

"Will plays hard, he plays smart, and he knows what his position calls for," Towson coach Pat Kennedy said.

Thomas is last among the Patriots in one category: words spoken. He briefly warmed up last March, when CBS twice made him its Player of the Game and he faced the media on nearly a daily basis, but Thomas prefers to let his play speak for itself.

"Will's a man of few words, but he gets his point across," senior guard Gabe Norwood said. "If he were to complain, you'd hear it once in a blue moon. He had to expect this, all the attention he's getting. With the way last season went, he knew there would be a target on his back."

Loathe to make locker room speeches, Thomas can pump up the Patriots by howling after a dunk or rushing to help up a teammate who's been decked.

"It's tough, bringing four or five new people along," Thomas said. "I'm not a vocal guy, but I know I need to get people to play at a higher level."

Three years after Rudy Gay got the notice at Archbishop Spalding and Thomas the big wins at St. Joe, there is still little flash to his game.

He made the CAA all-defensive team last season, an honor based on fundamentals and positioning, as he has blocked just five shots this season. Thomas had career highs of 25 points and five assists in the season opener. Folarin Campbell and John Vaughan are also averaging in double figures, but the Patriots have made a CAA-low 30.3 percent of their three-pointers, prompting opponents to limit the space Thomas enjoyed last season.

"Will is a lot more comfortable with a little bit of room, taking a bounce or two, but teams aren't letting him do that," Larranaga said. "He's got to beat the double by making his move before it gets there.

"Will is putting a lot of pressure on himself. He's very demanding. As I've told him, if you put that pressure on yourself, then transfer that onto your teammates when they're not ready to handle it, you're going to be frustrated."

George Mason had a 7 p.m. start last Monday against UNC-Wilmington. At 5:15, there was one player on the floor, Thomas, ready to go.

"I love it when Will is in our gym," Mount St. Joe coach Pat Clatchey said. "Spring, summer, fall, he plays every game like it's his last."

When Thomas headed to George Mason in 2004, his replacement at St. Joe was Birdsong, who transferred in from Randallstown and grew into the top player on the area's No. 1 team last season. Larranaga had hoped to use the 6-6, 235-pound Birdsong on the wing, but he started five games at forward, opposite Thomas. After floating through a few games, he's coming off the bench again.

"The BCL [Baltimore Catholic League] had good players, but this is a whole different ballgame," Birdsong said. "There are athletes everywhere. It was a shaky adjustment at first, but I'm getting used to the speed of the game now."

Two months after lamenting that Birdsong "could play a whole lot harder," Larranaga is still waiting for that to occur.

"Louis has all the physical talent anyone could ever ask for," Larranaga said, "but there's other talent, the ability to really work hard, the ability to concentrate and execute something at a specific moment in time. When he figures out the mental side, his physical ability will just take off."

Thomas is the face of the Patriots, but Birdsong typifies a team that is a work in progress, as George Mason likely will have to win the CAA tournament to return to the NCAAs.

Tonight, George Mason becomes the first team ever to play in Baltimore after a Final Four season. Clatchey plans to end practice at St. Joe early, and get his Gaels to the Towson Center, where the marketing staff has prepared for a large walk-up crowd.

As for Towson's team?

The Tigers figure to double-team Will Thomas. paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

Growing up

Will Thomas began his George Mason career as a reserve, but has blossomed into a go-to guy:

Season Pts. Reb.

2004-05 5.7 5.6

2005-06 11.8 7.2

2006-07 14.1 7.1

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