Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Long Road Behind Him, KT Looks To Stabilize Frontline At SJU

Keith Thomas' consistency, collection of double doubles, and furious-paced work ethic is what made the multi-faceted 6-foot-8 Westchester Community College forward appealing to high-major Division-I programs.

 With the desire to stay local and play significant minutes immediately, Thomas chose nearby St. John’s over high-major suitors such as Arizona, Florida State, Miami, Fordham, Dayton, and Memphis.

The Johnnies’ frontcourt void and the Queens-campus’ proximity to Thomas’ Mount Vernon home made the Johnnies the most logical Division-I destination.

Thomas averaged 15.3 points and an NJCAA-leading 15.7 boards, bagging NJCAA Region XV Player of the Year honors.

He helped propel the Vikes to their first JUCO national tournament berth since 1996.

Shooting the rock at a 65.4 percent clip, Thomas pioneered the Vikes interior attack while taking bigs away from the rim with a dependable short-range jumper.

Thomas tore down 33 rebounds in a single game, just a few short of the still-standing NJCAA record. In another jarringly workmanlike performance, Thomas hit the glass to the tune of 31 rebounds, re-scripting the program record books in the process.

 Jockeying for position underneath the rim, boxing out and snaring down rocks until the final whistle, Thomas never stopped hustling.

Following Westchester’s berth in the JUCO national tournament in Kansas, which saw Thomas score 11 points, rip 13 boards, and dish out four assists, he was smothered by a sudden uptick in interest and several late recruiting pitches.

 During those weeks, he made a note to never pick up his cell phone unless he recognized the number.

The kid who fell so deep under the cracks of obscurity, who everyone had pigeonholed as over-the-hill and never be heard from again, was suddenly sought after.

New York recruiting presence Emmanuel “Book” Richardson, an assistant at Arizona, made a late push for the crisp-passing behemoth.

At age 23, Thomas is proof that you can still teach an old dog new tricks, especially among young pups.

WCC head coach Ty Mushatt called Thomas "one of the hardest working guys we've had here," often likening his kill-or-be-killed philosophy to that of a NAVY SEAL.

Fordham ramped up their aggression, busting out every recruiting tool imaginable to help sell Thomas.

Ultimately, the Johnnies' front court deficiency helped Thomas realize the instant impact opportunity he'd have at Steve Lavin's nearby program.

 Lavin has recruited a bevy of high-risk, high-reward players of Thomas’ caliber. Though he's not exactly Tarkanian in his philosophies, Lavin's propensity for recruiting those with checkered pasts indicates he's a firm believer in second chances.

 Yet the grim fact surrounding Lavin remains. He has not garnered an NCAA tournament since 2011.

 That memorable season, the Johnnies were led by hyper-clutch guard Dwight “Buckets” Hardy. Hardy's flair for the end game revitalized the program following an era of disappointment and ineptitude.

The Johnnies have sputtered, mired in mediocrity ever since.

They were bludgeoned by Northeast Conference foe Robert Morris, 89-78, during an NIT home disaster last spring. The tournament’s No.1 seed, the Johnnies buckled and crumbled under an early 19-2 run.
Lavin, he of the West Coast coaching resume, has yet to secure a Class of 2015 commit.

 He has yet to author the same recruiting success he had his first year, when he supplanted the oft-scrutinized Norm Roberts.

Because of New York's pressure cooking environment and the city's unavoidable and hyper-intense media machine, Lavin must win and win often this season.

If not, he can expect to hear fans calling for his job. As often as Roberts did during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 campaigns, that is.

Thomas played just one year of high school basketball at Yorktown, spearheading the Huskers to the Section 1 Final Four. A rediscovery of how much he loves the game allowed Thomas to return from a multi-year sabbatical.

The graduation of Orlando Sanchez and Godsgift Achiuwa opens up the potential for immediate playing time for Thomas and massive 7-foot, 322-pound freshman Adonis DelaRosa.

Many have likened “KT” to a more athletic version of Justin Brownlee, a former Johnnie forward known for his jack-of-all-trades adaptability.

"It's hard to pinpoint Keith's best attribute as a player and that's became he's always working on all components of his game," explained Mushatt, who played at St. Raymond's under the legendary Gary DeCesare.

"He's always in the gym. The best part about him though, is that he doesn't take prisoners. It doesn't matter who you are playing."

Thomas has turned his life around, his dicey background no longer an issue.

He staged a comeback on the AAU scene and continued to ply his trade in Yorktown, immersed in constant pickup games.

Thomas is the nephew of former Mount Vernon guard Randy Brunson, who won Sectional titles alongside current NBAer Ben Gordon in the early 2000s.

Weighing his options, Thomas decided to renew his basketball jones at Westchester. He professed a newfound love for the game to Mushatt a year ago today. In a move to gauge his seriousness, Mushatt told Thomas he would need to try out.

It was an opportunity Thomas simply couldn't let slip. Thomas knew wistful reminders of what could have been could haunt him down the road.

The rest is history.

Thomas authored efficiency during his freshman year.

He turned in a mammoth 29-point performance against Harcum Community, shooting 13-for-14 from the field. He nearly duplicated this with a 22-point performance, on 10-for-11 FG, against Orange County Community College.

At the tail end of the regular season, with a Regional Player of the Year award hanging in the balance, Thomas scored 28 points and tore down 17 rebounds, en route to a 82-70 win over Baltimore City Community College.

With the dark past in the rearview and the bright current opportunity to stabilize St. John’s frontline ahead, Thomas relishes the challenge of vaulting New York’s team back into the realm of respectability.