Balancing act for Bucknell's Zach Thomas always leans toward basketball

Zach Thomas takes his two pursuits — basketball and biomedical engineering — quite seriously.

As a senior co-captain on the Buckell team that will play Maryland on Saturday at Xfinity Center, the 6-foot-7, 228-pound forward leads the defending Patriot League champions in scoring, rebounding, 3-point shooting and minutes played.

Thomas worked last summer researching a project to develop a prototype for a rapid, dual-injection syringe used for patients with atrial fibrillation to restore natural heart rhythm. There’s also his senior design project that involves the stabilization of the heart for a coronary artery bypass.

Asked about what he plans to do after he graduates in the spring, Thomas said: “I’m not sure what I want to do with my degree yet, but I want to play basketball for as long as I can. … After that, I have to plan that out and I’ll see where it takes me.”

Dr. Dan Cavanagh, a Bucknell professor who has known Thomas since he was a freshman, brought Thomas onto the team developing the prototype that Cavanagh and one of his colleagues are now trying to market.

“He’s been very easy to work with, he gets his stuff done, he doesn’t wait for us to tell him what to do, he makes decisions,” Cavanagh said Friday. “He’s very proactive in his work. We have a team meeting, we want to get these things done and he comes back to the next meeting and it’s, ‘OK, I’ve done this, I’ve done this.’ He’s very good at managing his time.”

When Thomas was at Oakdale High in Frederick County, where he left as the second-leading career scorer in Maryland public school history, he had some perfunctory interest from a few high major programs. Once Bucknell offered, Thomas knew where he was going.

“I knew they were very successful — they won the league a couple of times before I committed there and they were in the [NCAA] tournament, so that was attractive,” he said. “The school was really good academically, so that was a big factor, too.”

Eric Thomas said that the younger of his two sons always balanced basketball and academics while he was growing up in the shadow of older brother, Kyle, who played basketball at Oakdale before pursuing a degree in civil engineering at Clemson.

“He’s always been a math and science guy,” Eric Thomas said Friday. “We had a decent amount of engineers in the family. But basketball is his first love.”

Eric Thomas said that trying to stay up with his older brother helped Zach develop as a player.

“His brother’s four years older than him and he was used to playing against kids who were a little bit older and bigger, and he’d try to outdo them,” Eric Thomas said.

Zach Thomas has shown steady improvement over his career at Bucknell, particularly from 3-point range. Currently leading the Bison with 25.3 points per game, Thomas has hit 14 of his 27 3-point tries in Bucknell’s first three games, all of them road defeats.

In Wednesday’s 93-81 loss at No. 9 North Carolina — a game the Bison trailed by only five with under six minutes to play — Thomas hit four of nine 3-pointers to finish with 21 points. He had career-highs of 31 points and 16 rebounds in the season opener at Monmouth.

“I think I’ve just gotten better every year skill-wise, but also I’ve gotten stronger every year,” Thomas said. “The combo of just getting stronger, smarter basketball-IQ-wise and just working on skill development, it’s all beginning to come together at a very good time now.”

Said third-year Bucknell coach Nathan Davis: “When I got here, he clearly had every skill or every tool out of a player you’d want offensively. He’s matured. Physically, he’s become a man — much stronger. He’s more consistent with everything he does.”

Davis knows that there are times when Thomas, like many college athletes pursuing serious degrees, can become distracted.

“Clearly his workload is high. Certainly there are times, like any human being, when it carries over to practice, but it’s very rare and it’s not overly noticeable,” Davis said. “You talk to him and you find out he’s doing math and there’s no numbers in the math. He’s on an entirely different level.”

Said Thomas: “There was definitely an adjustment my freshman year, but I’ve learned how to manage my time a lot better. … My schedule is pretty packed throughout the day, but I’ve gotten pretty used to it. I’ve developed a routine and after a while, I just do it.”

Davis said he believes the two work together for Thomas.

“You can’t do as well in either one if he’s not serious about both,” Davis said.

Cavanagh, who has had only one other men’s basketball player majoring in biomedical engineering during his 19 years at the school, said Thomas’ dedication is just as apparent in the classroom as it on the court.

“They got back the other night from North Carolina at 2:30 in the morning and he was in my class that morning,” Cavanagh said of a class titled, “Patients, Diseases and Devices.”

The game against the Terps marks a rematch of sorts at Xfinity Center. As a senior at Oakdale, Thomas’ team lost to the Potomac High team led by current Maryland guard Dion Wiley in the state championship at what was then Comcast Center.

“It was a tough matchup for us. They had a lot of good players on that team; they were a lot bigger than us,” Thomas said. “It was close in the second half — we got it to a two-point game and they were able to stretch it out and won by 10 or 15.”

Along with Thomas, Saturday’s game is also a homecoming for two other Bucknell players, sophomore forward Bruce Moore (McDonogh) and junior guard Kimbal Mackenzie (John Carroll). Thomas knows how important a game against the Terps is for the season.

“It’s definitely good for us,” Thomas said. “We have a really good schedule, but playing the big teams just gives us an opportunity to make a name for ourselves even more than we already have.”

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