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Thomas finds his place at Georgia State

Mark Hazelwood • Mar 21, 2018 at 7:00 AM

ATLANTA — It was a typical Monday night on campus.

Jeff Thomas and Devin Mitchell were engaged in yet another matchup of NBA 2K18, continuing a season-long wager. The overall loser of the head-to-head video game matchup has to buy next year’s version of the popular game.

On this night, it was Thomas with the upper hand in the game, constantly needling Mitchell — and his poor choice of choosing the Los Angeles Lakers — while in their room at Georgia State University.

But just three days earlier, Thomas, a Norwalk graduate, and Mitchell were not doing anything typical when it comes to college life.

Instead, they helped initiate a group hug that proved to be one of the more endearing images of the opening weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The two starters for the Panthers (24-11) helped the team win the Sun Belt Conference tournament, then gave No. 2-seeded Cincinnati all it wanted for about 30 minutes of a 68-53 loss in the first round of the South Regional in Nashville on March 16.

As the final 15 seconds expired in the game, Thomas and Mitchell embraced — and were then quickly joined by their three teammates on the floor, even though the game was not yet over.

“We just realized in that moment what we had done, and how close we had become,” said Thomas, who had nine points and four rebounds in the loss. “I came in with our two seniors, Jordan Session and Isaiah Williams. I knew they were leaving and we were all so close.

“We had a lot of fun, and I think in that moment, we knew that we had talked about making it to the big stage — and we did it,” he added. “So that group hug, that was us in that moment knowing we couldn’t be mad at the loss.”

Earning a ring

When Georgia State had last made the NCAA tournament in 2015, it produced another memorable image.

R.J. Hunter, the son of head coach Ron Hunter, drilled a last-second 3-pointer to give the Panthers a win over Baylor in a 14 vs. 3-seed matchup.

But Thomas sat out that 2014-15 season as a redshirt freshman. He wasn’t at practice hardly, and was never in uniform.

So when he was given a championship ring for being on that roster — he handed it over to his dad, Jeff Sr.

“I didn’t feel like I was a part of the team,” Thomas said. “I was there when they won, I practiced with them in the summer and the first month into school, but I couldn’t really be with the team all that much.

“So I didn’t earn that ring,” he added. “I just didn’t feel like I helped them get better or accomplish those things. I had to earn one for myself.”

Prior to this season, Thomas admits to having an up-and-down career.

He played in all 30 games as a redshirt freshman in 2015-16, averaging 6.1 points per game — though he averaged just 16 minutes per contest.

Last season (2016-17), he was still posting similar stats despite an increase in minutes, averaging 6.4 points and 2.5 rebounds per game.

Entering this season, Coach Hunter sat the 6-foot-5 forward down and spelled things out very clearly.

“He said I had to be more consistent, that he had to be able to count on me more,” Thomas recalled. “And I already knew I had to really step up this year as one of the older players.

“I knew I had to step up a lot, I was in the gym a whole lot in the summer and my teammates beat me up hard,” he added. “I think it showed in practice. Then, once season came, I just felt very comfortable.”

Breakout season

Thomas started 30 of GSU’s 35 games this season, and he showed Hunter he could be relied on.

In 31.7 minutes per game, Thomas averaged 10.7 points and 4.3 rebounds for the Panthers. He added 41 assists, 35 blocks and 27 steals.

When GSU claimed the Sun Belt tournament title on March 11 to secure an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, Thomas couldn’t help but think back to his senior season at Norwalk.

When the first-team All-Ohioan helped lead the Truckers (29-1) to the Div. II state championship — along with four league titles and a 57-game win streak — he was widely asked where Georgia State even was.

“When I picked GSU, it was a nice school and obviously being in Atlanta was a big deal — but I also saw the players coming in around me, too,” Thomas said. “You usually go to college and you can kind of brag about winning a state title … we have three players here who can say that.

“So we knew we had a chance to do something special, and we did,” he added. “But we feel like we’re not done yet.”

If the Sun Belt Player of the Year, D’Marcus Simonds, comes back — the Panthers lose just 14.9 points per game and will return four of their five starters from this season.

“If he comes back, he’ll be an even better player, and myself, Devin and Malik (Benlevi) — we know what it takes now,” Thomas said. “We want to win our conference again and maybe win a tournament game. We’ll be very confident next year.”

Speaking on the NCAA tournament, Thomas has a unique perspective of all the upsets that are starting to become commonplace.

His theory: No one fears the traditional ‘blue-blood’ programs today.

“I just feel like we’re all D1 players who probably all played the AAU circuit,” Thomas said. “We’re all good at something, or we woudln’t be here. Some team finds the right formula and the right people together.

“It’s just about how hard you play out there,” he added. “It’s whoever plays the hardest in the 40 minutes. Anyone can really win and anybody can be beaten.”

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