AMES, Iowa – It’s the afternoon of the biggest non-conference game of the season. Dec. 10, 2015. Iowa is coming to town. In just hours, Iowa State will hold its pre-game shoot around as it prepares to face the Hawkeyes.
A tweet rolls out from the fingers of CBS Sports’ Doug Gottlieb. In it is a link to a story about Cyclone junior Matt Thomas, who to this point in his career had been a solid role player.
Shoot around wraps up and Iowa State players head in different directions. Some to pregame meal upstairs on the second floor of Hilton Coliseum. Some continue to get up shots. Matt Thomas lingers in the locker room a bit longer than usual. He reads Gottlieb’s article and fires off his response.
A simple six word response that said so much.
“Thanks for helping share my story.”
It is a story of heartbreak. A story of successes. A story of mistakes. And now, a story of redemption.
With the world reading his story and the Cyclones the only top-25 team playing that evening, Thomas kept ISU in the game in a first half that could only be described as a nightmare for the home team.
ISU trailed 49-35 at the break, but without Thomas it would have been far worse, perhaps insurmountable. The Onalaska, Wisconsin native connected on 4-of-5 threes in the opening period to score 12 points. The rest of the team was 11-for-27 from the field and 1-for-8 behind the arc.
The Hawkeye lead swelled to as many as 20 in the second half but the Cyclones kept battling and it was Thomas’ sixth 3-pointer that pulled ISU within three with just over a minute to go. The Cyclones would win the game and in Thomas’ own words, it may have been the turning point in his career.
“After that story came out, I went out and had a big game against Iowa and we got a huge win,” Thomas said. “I’m not sure if it was a turning point in my season, even career maybe, but it was definitely a weight off my shoulders. A lot people didn’t know about my story, about my past, but it was good to have that information out there. It kind of allowed me to be myself and play my game.”
But as much as his shooting helped that night, it was another part of his game that may have played as much of a role in ISU getting the win. Another transformation of sorts for Thomas.
Iowa star Jarrod Uthoff hammered the Cyclones to the tune of 30 first-half points. The Cyclones seemingly had no answer. But they did, they just maybe didn’t know it at that point.
Thomas had never really been called upon to be the defensive stopper, but in the second half on that night he was. Drawing the primary assignment, Thomas helped hold Uthoff to just two points in the second half.
His story off the court was clearer and his narrative on the court, both offensively and defensively, changed that night as well.
“I find that if you’re locked in on either end of the floor it is going to help on the other end,” Thomas said. “If I’m locked in defensively, it is going to help me knock down shots on the offensive end and vice versa.”
For the remainder of the season, Thomas took on the role of ISU’s defensive perimeter stopper and did so admirably. He also had his best offensive season, averaging 11.0 points while connecting on 89 3-pointers, tied for the fourth-most made in a single season at Iowa State. He was also extremely accurate, connecting on 43.2 percent of his tries.
Just a year removed from playing just 15.6 minutes per game, Thomas was an All-Big 12 honorable mention performer.
Thomas’ career to that Iowa game had been one of ups-and-downs. In 2013, he cracked the starting lineup in his first game as a freshman, one of just 20 Cyclone rookies to do so in the last 41 years. But soon thereafter he found himself struggling to find minutes.
He had his own personal struggles as detailed in the Gottlieb article and throughout his sophomore season saw his minutes reduced almost in half. It wasn’t the career he had envisioned for himself as a star for the Onalaska Hilltoppers.
Enter Steve Prohm.
“I think I just needed a change almost,” Thomas said. “That’s nothing against the old staff and Coach Hoiberg. I loved those guys and Coach Hoiberg. But more so mentally, I just needed something to get me going and Coach Prohm kind of provided that.”
As Thomas heads into his senior season, he looks to improve on the court and from a leadership standpoint.
“I think it will be important with me being a senior to help out the younger guys,” Thomas said. “Whether it’s Jakolby (Long), Solomon (Young) or even Simeon (Carter) since he’s just a sophomore. They are going to go through the same struggles that I went through when I was a younger player in this program and hopefully I’ll be able to help them through that like guys like Melvin (Ejim) did for me.”
No one doubts the Cyclones will be a different looking bunch, with replacing Georges Niang, Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay a tall task for any program. But Thomas points to an experienced group of players as reason to believe a promising season is ahead.
“We are going to be incredibly experienced still,” Thomas said. “With Monté (Morris), Naz (Mitrou-Long) and myself in the backcourt and Deonte (Burton) up front as seniors. We’ve played in a lot of games. You throw in a pair of grad transfers (Darrell Bowie and Merrill Holden) and you’ve got six seniors right there with a lot of experience playing in big games.
“We understand that some people are probably sleeping on us and that gives us a little chip on our shoulder, but we want to go out and prove people wrong and I think we have a group of guys that can do that.”
Thomas believes that despite the significant losses, Iowa State is built to succeed over the long haul. It is a culture of hard work.
“I think it is a culture we’ve built here,” Thomas said. “It really rubs off on everyone. These new guys see the senior leaders in the gym and they know that they’ve got to get into the gym just to keep up. The culture we have built means that guys are going to get into the gym, get that extra work, so that we are ready for the next season.”
It is no surprise that the culture of hard work has translated into a culture of success.