Thomas learning as he waits for playing time

December 09, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Even though he's barely gotten to play this season, Kentucky freshman Sheray Thomas likes the big-game atmosphere the Wildcats were in at UCLA last week and will be in again Saturday when 75,000 fans are expected at Ford Field in Detroit for the game against Michigan State.

"They informed me about a lot of things when I was being recruited, but it's even more impressive here than I thought. That's what brought me here," Thomas said. "It's crazy. Even the exhibition games were wild.

"It's a big adjustment going from playing in front of a couple of hundred fans at a high school game to being in front of 20,000 people and also being on national TV. You look at the schedule and see all the big games we have. You can't let that impact how you play and you have to blank it out on the court, but those opportunities are why you came here to play."


His opportunities have been few and far between in Kentucky's first four games. He's played just 10 minutes and has yet to take a shot. He has just one rebound in the three games in which coach Tubby Smith let him play.

"Our seniors have helped me adjust to the intensity here, and so has coach Smith," Thomas said. "Practice has been pretty good. I'm just trying to do what I can to help the team in practice and get better every day."

The 6-7 freshman says he's learned the most by watching Chuck Hayes and Erik Daniels play both in practice and in games.

"They teach me a lot about intensity, the right footwook, the right movement and keeping the right attitude," Thomas said.

Even though Thomas has not played often, Smith still believes he could help the Cats before this season ends.

"Sheray is going to be outstanding once he learns the system," Smith said. "His aggressiveness and ability to defend the post and rebound are things we need this year. We need him to keep improving. His work ethic is good. He's a hard worker. He's eventually going to exemplify the style of play of we want. He's the most physical freshman we have and he did exactly what he was supposed to do (against UCLA.)"

His game reminds Smith of Hayes

Thomas averaged 21 points, 12 rebounds and two assists per game last year for Riverdale Baptist, a private school in Maryland, which the native Canadian first attended as a junior. Smith has said both Thomas' game and background remind him of Hayes, who came to UK from a private school in California.

"There could be a little similarity, or at least I hope there is," Thomas said. "We are both physical, intense players. We go to the boards. That's a big compliment to me because Chuck is really a good player."

Hayes doesn't want to make any comparisons between himself and Thomas. He knows Thomas probably feels enough pressure already.

"He's doing well and is getting better every day," Hayes said. "He plays his game and apparently coach Smith likes that or he wouldn't be here.

"He likes to bang a little bit, but he ain't banged me around yet. A few times he tried to throw an elbow, but I had to come back with something. I can still teach him to respect his elders. But he knows how to play. I try to push him all I can, but he also pushes me."

Thomas says he's learned that he can't just drive to the basket any time like he could in high school. He's also learned it's a delicate balance between being intense and playing under control.

"You learn to go hard all the time. It's fast paced. If you go slow, you get left behind," Thomas said. "But you can't be moving 100 miles per hour all the time or you'll make mistakes. I'm still learning when to step back and relax."

Thomas says he's made an easy adjustment to life here. He likes to go to movies or "hang" with teammates when he's not playing basketball.

Still, he's used to sports dominating his life. He played football and soccer along with basketball when he was young. He gave up football at age 14, two years after he quit soccer.

"I was a linebacker and wide receiver in football," Thomas said. "I liked to hit, but I could also catch the ball pretty good. And I had a little speed. In soccer, I played everywhere. Goalie, midfield, center. I was pretty crafty with the ball. But I eventually figured out that basketball was the sport I needed to concentrate on."

Like most freshmen, he would like to play more. Like most freshmen, he knew he likely would play only a minor role this year.

"I think my chance will come. I just go with the flow and try to get better," Thomas said. "But I know my best basketball is ahead because I can see myself getting better every day."|

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