Lofty praise

The Baltimore Sun

Will Thomas might be playing his last college basketball game tonight, in George Mason's first-round NCAA tournament game against Notre Dame in Denver. Of course, there's a good chance this won't be his final game, even though Mason is a No. 12 seed and from the Colonial Athletic Association and Notre Dame is a No. 5 seed and from the Big East.

But the fact that no one, including Thomas and his teammates, is convinced of an inevitable Mason loss tells you everything about the kind of player Thomas has been for four years there. So does this fact: His coach, Jim Larranaga, has told him, and anyone within earshot, that Thomas is the program's version of Bill Russell.

Wow.

"Actually," Thomas said last week, after leading Mason to its first CAA tournament title in seven years, "he gave everybody an NBA player that we were similar to at the beginning of the season. He gave me Bill Russell -- I guess because I'm a winner. I know how to win. And isn't Bill Russell left-handed? I'm left-handed."

The second comparison is coincidence. The first goes to the heart of why Larranaga speaks as highly of Thomas, the product of West Baltimore and Mount St. Joseph, as any other player he has ever coached.

"What Bill Russell meant to the Boston Celtics," Larranaga said in his office on the Northern Virginia campus last week, "[is] they basically built the franchise on his shoulders and won 13 championships. Before Bill Russell came to the Celtics, they were a good team, but they were not a championship team.

"At George Mason, we had been a very good basketball program," he continued, "but when Will came, we became a program that had the potential to win a national championship."

Yes, as much as he holds dear the three celebrated seniors from the Cinderella 2006 Final Four team -- Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler -- Larranaga credits Thomas, then a sophomore starter at power forward still playing in the shadow of Rudy Gay, with whom he shared 2004 Sun All-Metro Player of the Year honors, for keeping Mason on the national radar. He gives the same credit to Folarin Campbell, the effervescent senior point guard who he said was the program's Magic Johnson.

Larranaga made neither comparison lightly, including the one about Thomas and Russell.

"In terms of being a winner, not willing to settle for anything less, but to do anything to win," he said, ticking off the similarities in makeup. "He's not so much for personal glory. He's not one to take 25 shots a game. He's not one to talk to the media like a LeBron James or a Michael Jordan. Bill Russell didn't want to sign autographs, didn't want to be someone in the spotlight.

"[Thomas] doesn't seek the spotlight. He only seeks the answer to how his team can win."

True, it's hard to get Thomas to talk a lot about himself, as hard as it is to plow through his career numbers to find one that exemplifies his impact. He has played in a school-record 130 games and started every game the past three seasons. This season, he is averaging 15.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game and shooting 63.9 percent from the field.

Since his freshman season, Thomas, 6 feet 7, has expanded his game down low as his responsibilities have grown, and he has continued to bring his best in the biggest games -- 18 points and 13 rebounds in this year's CAA final against William and Mary, 18 and 14 in the first-round upset of Michigan State in 2006, 19 and 12 in the unforgettable regional final against Connecticut.

But the statistic that tells Thomas' story best? With a win tonight, he and Campbell would move into a tie with Butler for the most victories in school history with 85. If not for a team-wide implosion in the final minutes of last year's CAA tournament final against Virginia Commonwealth, they would be making their third straight NCAA tournament trip -- and that loss only served to ground Thomas and his teammates and provide extra motivation for this season.

Just as his team was able to beat Gay and his teams in high school and college, Thomas keeps getting his team on the right side of the score.

That is why it doesn't sound like he's bragging when he says, "The guys that came before, they built the program up to the point it is today, and me and Folarin helped put it over the top."

If Thomas suits up in a college game for the final time tonight, he still will have left a legacy that will be hard for anyone, at George Mason or anywhere else, to match.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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