“At a time when Nebraska was gaining some momentum and the place was starting to fill up with noise a little bit, he was our answer,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard told reporters in Lincoln. “I thought he gave us a big boost at a time where it was much needed.”
Gard said he appreciates that Thomas has stayed around to be a part of a No. 24-ranked team that took a four-game winning streak into Friday night’s matchup against No. 21 Maryland at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin won, 69-61, but Thomas did not play.
“It’s a credit to Charlie, for sticking it out and persevering and everything that’s gone with it,” Gard said Thursday. “He’s stayed ready.
“That told me the other night [against Nebraska], obviously there’s been other times, too, he’s come in. For him to come in and do that the other night told me he’s mentally engaged.”
Having coached Thomas for most of his career — longtime Badgers coach Bo Ryan, who recruited Thomas, retired early in his freshman year — Gard was not surprised by what the burly 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward had done against the Cornhuskers.
“He wasn’t worried about himself. He was [thinking], ‘How can I help the team?’ ” Gard said. “Not that he wouldn’t be in the right state of mind, but that told me there’s no way he wouldn’t be in the right state of mind and play the way he played. That’s a great sign that he wanted to help this team and that’s the way it’s always been.”
Truth is, Thomas didn’t think his career was going to turn out this way.
Arriving at Wisconsin after the Badgers had played in two straight Final Fours, Thomas knew he was going to have some opportunities with reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky graduating and All-Big Ten player Sam Dekker having left for the NBA.
For the first dozen games of his freshman year when Ryan was still the coach, Thomas averaged more than 14 minutes a game, including a 25-minute stint that produced a then-career-high nine points and six rebounds in a 76-60 win over Temple.
In the 18 games he played the remainder of the season under Gard — not getting into five others at all — Thomas averaged fewer than six minutes. His playing time has hovered around that amount ever since.
It hasn’t helped that Thomas came in the year that Happ, who redshirted his freshman year, became eligible, and then went from being a lightly recruited three-star prospect to one of the best players in Wisconsin history.
There’s some irony that the player Gard chose to use ahead of Thomas for most of the past two years, Alex Illikainen, wound up leaving the team after last season because he couldn’t be guaranteed more playing time.
“You’ve got to get what you earn,” Gard said.“There’s games when matchups don’t allow it and there’s games when it does. If you play [well], you’ll get some more. If you don’t play well, you won’t get as many.”
Thomas said that even though he hasn’t played much, he learned a lot from being on those Sweet 16 teams and believes it will help him be a leader, with or without playing, as the Badgers seem headed back to the NCAA tournament after a year’s absence.
“Being on those two teams let me know what a winning culture is like,” Thomas said. “That’s going to push me forward to want to push this team to another Final Four or a Sweet 16 or just get back to the [NCAA] tournament.”
Thomas remains in contact with several of his former teammates, particularly Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown, both of whom continue to give him support as they begin their professional careers.
Asked what they tell him, Thomas said, “Just take it as it comes, man, and just keep working hard.”
That is not new to Thomas.
Though he was the clearly the star at River Hill as a senior — leading Howard County with over 23 points and nearly 12 rebounds a game — Thomas was mostly a role player on his Amateur Athletic Union teams with DC Assault [later called DC Premier].
One thing that also hasn’t changed is Thomas’ allegiance to whatever team he played on.
“He’s always been a very loyal person, a great team person,” said his father, Charles Thomas III. “He’s just been a hard worker. He works hard consistently. … He’s always the kind of guy who’s going to come early, stay late, no matter if he’s playing or not.”
What have also kept Thomas at Wisconsin, where he will graduate in May with a degree in sociology, are his life and friends outside basketball. Cold weather aside, he has warm feelings toward a college town many consider among the best in the country.
Playing its first true home game in over two weeks, No. 21 Maryland got a combined 46 points and 19 rebounds from Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith to beat Northwestern, 70-52, to end its first losing streak of the season.
“It’s the people, they’re really cool, genuine people,” he said. “You don’t go anywhere in the U.S. — at least where I’ve been — where you feel people that actually care about you and are just so nice to be around.”
Whether what he did against the Cornhuskers leads to more playing time is not certain, but Thomas believes he is capable of repeating that kind of performance on a regular basis if given the chance.
“I’ve always been capable. You’ve got to take the opportunities when you get the opportunities. There just haven’t been as many,” Thomas said.
Thomas certainly wouldn’t have minded getting some minutes Friday against Maryland, a team that barely recruited him coming out of high school.
“You always want to beat the home team,” he said.
Reminded how close the Badgers were to beating the Terps 18 days ago in College Park — erasing a 21-point deficit and taking a late lead before Anthony Cowan Jr.’s dagger 3-pointer in the final minute — Thomas smiled again.
“It should have [been a win], it really should, and I’m glad we’re back [playing Maryland] because we need this win to keep going on,” he said. “We’re on a little revenge tour. Hopefully we can check them off the list.”