Canadian Thomas knows importance of NCAA tourney

March 19, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

Growing up in Montreal didn't stop Sheray Thomas from understanding how important the NCAA Tournament is.

"It is big time, real big time. The same as here. People in Canada go crazy over the NCAA Tournament," Thomas said. "The real basketball fans love the NCAA. It's not just the United States where the NCAA is big. It is worldwide. We have the same NCAA pools in Canada as here."

Thomas, a 6-7 freshman, has developed into an important part of Kentucky's team going into tonight's NCAA Tournament game against Florida A&M.

After failing to even play in nine of UK's first 19 games, he has averaged almost 10 minutes per game the last 11 games and averaged 14 minutes per game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. He's shown that he can provide adequate relief for either Chuck Hayes or Erik Daniels, UK's two starting interior players.


He's averaging just 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds per game, but UK coach Tubby Smith says numbers don't measure his worth to the Wildcats.

"Sheray has proven he is willing to do the things necessary to help us win. He plays solid defense, attacks the boards and passes the ball. He's screening well, too," Smith said. "Early in the season he was overly aggressive. Now he's learning to set screens and play defense the right way.

"He understands why he is in the game. He can knock down a jump shot, but he's knowledgeable enough and smart enough to realize there are other things we need him to do."

"At this time of year, I tell him he's no longer a freshman," Hayes said. "You expect more out of him now, and he's delivered for us. He's provided some big relief for us, and he's going to keep doing that, too."

He's looking forward to tonight's game and getting to play in the NCAA tourney.

"You always think about that. I tried not to look ahead during the season, but I can still remember coming home from school as a kid in Canada and turning on the TV to watch the NCAA Tournament," Thomas said. "I would just watch whoever was playing and love. Now to get to play in the NCAA myself is unbelievable."

He played his final two years in Maryland

Thomas played his final two years of high school basketball in Maryland to improve his skills in hopes of putting himself in the position he has this year.

"High school ball is more relaxed in Canada, but we had sort of like an AAU team that was more intense," Thomas said. "You would play the best competition from other cities. We even came to the United States some, which is how I got looked at.

"There's not much focus on high school basketball in Canada. Coaches don't get paid that much. It's more like volunteer work for them.

"Fortunately, my coach was a real basketball player and knew what it took to be good. We practiced a lot. But I still felt like I needed to come to the United States to get ready for the social life, improve my basketball skills and just grow up in general before going to college."

Thomas has adjusted easily to life with the Wildcats. He says English was always his primary language, but that he can speak French and understands the language well.

"At first the accents here were a little different. Nothing major, just different than what I was used to hearing," Thomas said. "Socially, everything is pretty much the same, and my teammates and coaches really helped me feel at home right away."

That's important because he hasn't been home since last summer and will only get back to Canada for a week or two this summer. His family did not get to see him play during the season, but he communicates with them "constantly" on the telephone.

"They take care of the phone bills, calling cards or whatever it takes," Thomas said. "I am used to being away from home since I was away my last two years of high school. I had to get used to living with a different family then. That made coming here a lot easier.

"I really don't try to depend on other people for too much. I still talk to my parents all the time. If I am a little down, I might talk to a teammate or two. But mainly I just call my family if I have a problem."

Having games like the one tonight on national TV are also a plus for Thomas because family and friends in Canada as well as Maryland, where he spent the previous two years, get to see him play.

"Most of the time my family does get to see our games because they have a satellite dish," Thomas said. "I always try to play my best, but if it is a national TV game where I know even more family members and friends can watch, then it is even a bigger deal like the game here will be."

Smith thinks Thomas could be a "bigger deal"

Smith thinks Thomas could well be a "bigger deal" than many people realize during the rest of his UK career. He's learned from Hayes and Daniels this year and has shown he can play a physical game inside. However, the coach said he's a more versatile, athletic player than what he's been able to show this season.

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