Erik Thomas’ illustrious collegiate career is over, but the former Wesley Chapel High basketball star has no plans to step away from the court.
On March 14, the University of New Orleans Privateers suffered a heart-wrenching 67-66 loss to Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four game of the NCAA Tournament.
The defeat was a bittersweet ending to what otherwise was a noteworthy senior season for Thomas, the 2016-2017 Southland Conference Player of the Year and the Privateers’ leading scorer (19.3 points per game), rebounder (7.8 per game) and shooter (58.9 field goal percentage).
Thanks in large part to contributions from the 6-foot-5 forward, New Orleans punched a ticket to the Big Dance for the first time since 1996. Moreover, it marked the team’s first 20-win season since 1996-1997, and its first winning season since 2008.
Despite the early exit, reaching the NCAA Tournament was quite literally “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” for Thomas.
“A lot of dudes don’t get to experience that,” Thomas said. “Just being able to make it to the First Four and represent the school, it was an excitement for all of us, and I was just happy to be there; it was a blessing.”
Along the way, Thomas, who remains Wesley Chapel’s High’s all-time leading scorer (2,138 points) and rebounder (1,203 rebounds), said he was inundated with messages of support from family and friends.
That included Doug Greseth, Thomas’ high school coach at Wesley Chapel High School.
In fact, Greseth made the 640-mile trek to New Orleans to watch Thomas’ final home game, on March 11.
“For him to come (to New Orleans), it meant a lot,” Thomas said. “It felt good to have the support there.”
Greseth, one of Pasco County’s longest-tenured boys basketball coaches, was awestruck by Thomas’ development since last coaching him during the 2012-2013 season.
That season, Thomas was named Class 5A Player of the Year after averaging a state-best 32.7 points per game and 16.3 rebounds per game.
“I got goose bumps watching him live,” Greseth said, “because I was just so proud of how much better, how much of a well-rounded player he is.
“He’s really become a complete player. He can play with his face to the basket, he can play with his back to the basket. He rebounds well. He’s always been an excellent passer, and his defense has gotten a lot better.”
Greseth, too, complimented Thomas’ unselfishness, leadership, and improved shot selection and basketball IQ.
“He really worked hard to improve,” Greseth said.
With stints at Jefferson and Okeechobee high schools, Greseth acknowledged Thomas is one of the top “two or three players” he’s ever coached during his career, which spans more than 30 years.
At Jefferson High, Greseth coached Tarence Kinsey, who was named the state’s Class 4A player of the year in 2002.
Kinsey later played for the University of South Carolina and spent two seasons in the NBA (Memphis Grizzlies in 2006-2007, Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008), before embarking on a basketball career overseas.
Thomas, likewise, is mulling a professional hoops career.
The basketball star said he’s currently searching for a sports agent, as he works towards completing his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies.
In the meantime, Thomas is sharpening his hoops skills.
“I’m just trying to stay in shape and keep working on my craft,” Thomas said. “I’m always in the gym working. It doesn’t stop no matter what. Even after the season, I took a couple days’ break and then I was just back in the gym working out.”
Though the NBA appears to be a long shot, a basketball career internationally seems well within reach for Thomas.
“I definitely think he can play overseas,” Greseth said, confidently. “I think he could play in Europe; I definitely believe he can do that.”
A four-year letterman at Wesley Chapel, Thomas helped lead the Wildcats to a combined 74-38 overall record, a 37-17 mark in district play and berths in the playoffs each year, including identical 24-5 marks with District 8-5A titles his last two years.
Despite the production and flashy statistics, Thomas was relatively overlooked as a Division I prospect out of high school.
He opted to play two seasons in junior college — East Georgia State College and Baton Rouge Community College — before transferring to New Orleans his junior season.
Many Division I schools, Greseth said, were initially concerned Thomas was too undersized to play in the frontcourt and lacked the qualities needed to transition to the backcourt.
“I’d say most Division I schools thought he was too small to play inside,” Greseth said. “I think they felt like he wasn’t a good enough shooter to play on the perimeter — I think that’s probably what got him.”
Yet, Thomas was able to augment his skills each year, Greseth added, later proving naysayers wrong.
“A lot of that is mostly him putting in the work to get better,” Greseth said. “Some kids — they don’t get any better, they peak at an early age. He just seemed to get better and better every year that he played.”
Regardless of what his future holds, Thomas said he wants to serve as a role model for others in the sport, particularly those forced to enter the junior college ranks.
“I just like to be a motivation,” Thomas said, “to everybody else that’s out there that goes through the JuCo route, or that’s gotten injured coming out of high school.”
That experience, however, served him well.
“I believe going through the process that I went through — it’s just made me a better player and made me work harder,” he said.
Published March 29, 2017