It took all of 90 seconds for University of Cincinnati head basketball coach Mick Cronin to jump out of his seat, stomp his foot and contemplate throwing his blue suit into the third row of Fifth Third
His team — playing Carleton, the greatest team in the history of Canadian collegiate basketball — had just given up a rather easy three-pointer. I don’t know the exact reasoning for his early tirade, but I can tell you that a panicked Shaq Thomas was on its receiving end.
Thomas, a wiry 6-foot-7-inch forward with absurd athletic ability, gets lost at times. He hesitates, in the same way that a bad test taker would. He sits down at his desk (or at the top of the key with the ball in his hand) and he’s studied his ass off and knows the answers all to well but, when the Scantron forms are passed out and pencil hits page, all hell breaks loose. He looks like a deer in the headlights of a late-model sport utility vehicle.
With 11 points and 7 rebounds, Thomas put in 22 minutes Saturday, splitting time between looking nervous and making plays that left all of us on press row looking at each other with a ‘what just happened’ expression on our faces.
“He had the worst star to a game that I’ve ever seen,” Cronin said. “But after that I thought he was great. Sometimes he gets so nervous that he gets himself totally psyched out.”
Post-tirade, Thomas looks back at Cronin, shaking his head in acknowledgement of whatever defensive mistake he committed, as if to say, “Please don’t take me out, coach, I’ll do better.”
He’s frustrated, and so is Cronin. Thomas, because he knows he’s better than that and Cronin, because Thomas has no idea just how good he can be.
We know it too; we’ve seen it before.
We saw it during UC’s 67-63 NCAA Tournament loss to Creighton in 2012, when Thomas was undoubtedly the best UC player on the floor for the majority of the night.
Whether it was his ankle breaking cross-over and fade-away jumper, which left a Creighton defender lying on the ground, praying that his blight would not be the highlight of ESPN highlights to come, or his emphatic put-back dunk that pulled UC within two points late in the game, he sparked UC throughout the second half. He wasn’t thinking, just playing.
Then, as I wake up on press row and remember that I’m reporting on a game that wasn’t played in March, the real Shaq Thomas emerges. Taking an outlet pass on the right sideline, he speeds to the basket and — with an effortless side step — freezes a pair of helpless Carleton defenders in the lane and calmly banks in a layup. The crowd only half cheers, because, much like the reporters, they have to pause and examine what just happened.
A minute or so later he does it again, driving the lane and spinning off a defender before banking in an NBA-quality fade-away.
Thomas disappeared a little bit in the second half. He didn’t play poorly, but he wasn’t impacting the game like he could. There was still hesitation.
“There was one time early in the second half where he caught the ball at the freethrow line and should’ve just shot it,” Cronin said. “Instead he did the ‘Shaq Dance,’ took three dribbles and shot a fade-away. I’ve got to get that out of his game.”
With Carleton still within striking distance late in the game, Thomas suddenly re-appeared, effectively ending the game with a pair of fearless transition baskets.
Because it’s when he’s flying at the basket — full-speed, without even the briefest of moments to contemplate what he’s actually about to do — that Thomas is at his absolute best.
His five unanswered points pushed UC’s lead to 65-56 and Carelton never threatened again, but he had one more notable moment in the contest.
With 2 minutes and 34 seconds remaining, Thomas lost his man on defense, gifting Carelton a pair of freethrows. Cronin gets up, furious as usual, and points at Thomas. Notably disappointed in himself, Thomas is already staring back at Cronin, one hand on his head and the others pointing into his own chest in acceptance of blame.
He knows what he’s doing and at some point soon, he’ll stop thinking about it. When he does, he will realize that he has more athletic ability and better instincts than anyone tall enough to guard him, Thomas will be a force to be reckoned with.