Cleveland ‘Pancake’ Thomas received his release from New Mexico on April 23, 2014 and he knew exactly where he wanted to transfer to.The 6’3” guard had visited Hartford on his fourth official visit, but took his last official visit to Albuquerque and committed to the Lobos after visiting the Mountain West Conference school.
“On my way back home, like leaving I was on the plane, I had the gut feeling that I should have committed, but I didn’t,” Thomas said of his visit to Hartford. “Then I end up visiting New Mexico on my last visit and I end up committing to New Mexico, so I know once I had got my release where I wanted to be at.”
It was almost two years removed from the recruiting process and Thomas was seeking a new start, which almost ended before it started. Three days after Thomas received the release from the Lobos, he tore his ACL in his right knee in a pickup game, possibly jeopardizing his chances to catch on with any school.
“I thought everything was over,” Thomas said.
Hawks head coach John Gallagher made sure to let Thomas know that they were still interested and wanted him to come to Hartford, sit out and rehab his knee with their care.
“Even though I had a torn ACL, he still had a lot of confidence in me,” Thomas said. “It’s almost like he put it on the back burner and he wasn’t really worried about it. He’s like ‘yeah man, we still want you we care about you’, it’s like that doesn’t change nothing. It really meant a lot to me, that’s why I really give him my all on the court.”
Thomas leads the Hawks in scoring (17 ppg) and rebounding (6.8 rpg), while also making the most three-pointers (43) and free throws (87) through his first 20 games. Since the start of the season, but for a three game absence with a knee issue, Thomas has been everything Gallagher expected as an impact scorer.
“We’re asking a lot of him because we’re undermanned right now,” Gallagher said. “It’s no secret we’re hurting in the paint area and he’s rebounding as much as he can.”
“The exciting thing, obviously for this year, is I think we’re getting a lot better in some areas and if we clean up some things, we can win a lot of games here down the stretch and come March, any time you have a scorer like Pancake you have a chance to win any game.”
What has surprised Gallagher has been Thomas’ ability to set up his teammates. The junior ranks second on the team in assists, second only to guard Justin Graham by four assists.
“I really like to get my teammates involved and I really like to pass because I feel like I can get my shot whenever I want,” Thomas said. “I try to get my teammates involved and feed off of them because when everyone has great energy, it’s easier to play the game.”
The 6’3” junior already has two 30+ point performances and his 38 against New Hampshire is the most in an America East game since John Holland scored 38 for Boston University against Hartford in 2008. Yet Thomas knows he has to be more than a scorer, especially with sophomore big John Carroll out for the season with an ACL injury of his own.
“I got to get better at finishing around the rim because there’s a lot of times where I get through and I get bumped and I don’t finish through it,” Thomas said. “I got to do a better job at rebounding. I’m getting a lot of rebounds, but I could get more to help the team.”
While it is hard to look forward, it is easy to think that at the start of next season the Hawks will enter with one of the league’s most dynamic players in the 6’3” guard.
“The thing that Pancake does is he follows my lead right away and that’s why he’s such a great leader,” Gallagher said. “He’s really taking on this role of we can do it and we can do it now. When you have your best player that’s taking that mantra on it benefits everybody.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.