Aaron Thomas is enjoying life in Tallahassee, Fla. It might rain a little too much at times and when it gets warm it gets really warm but those are minor inconveniences for Thomas, a Cincinnati native who is a sophomore guard for Florida State.
There are eight Division I basketball teams still playing as the calendar turns from March to April. The Final Four will hold the attention of the basketball nation this weekend but Thomas and Florida State are among the four teams playing for the National Invitational Tournament title.
Florida State plays Minnesota in the NIT semifinals tonight at 9 p.m. at Madison Square Garden in New York, following the first semifinal between Clemson and SMU.
"It’s been real good for us and we’re taking advantage of the opportunity," said Thomas, who graduated from Withrow after starting his high school days at Aiken. "We would have liked to have been in the dance but we’re taking advantage of this opportunity. We know what we’ve got to take care of in Madison Square Garden. We’ve got to play hard. We also can use this to get ready for next year."
Thomas is a big reason why the Seminoles are still playing this season. He’s averaged 23 points in Florida State’s three NIT victories against Florida Gulf Coast, Georgetown and Louisiana Tech. Florida State (22-13) has won seven of its last nine games after losing seven of 10 during the middle of the ACC season. That bad stretch plus some close non-conference losses to NCAA Elite Eight finalist Michigan, Final Four favorite Florida and at Minnesota kept Florida State from making the NCAA bracket for a fifth time in six seasons.
This NIT run has given the Seminoles, a team whose 14-player roster has 10 freshmen and sophomores and no juniors, a chance to get better.
Thomas (6-5, 195) didn’t move into the starting lineup for good until Feb. 5 but he leads Florida State in scoring (14.8), steals (57) and minutes played (31.4) and is third in rebounding (4.2). He’s shooting 46.1 percent overall from the field and 38.2 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Thomas has picked up his offensive game in the second half of the season; he’s scored in double figures in 16 straight games, averaging 17.6 points in that span, and during the NIT he’s scored 38 of his 69 points in the second halves of games.
During the NIT, Thomas is shooting 54.8 percent (23-42) from the field and .500 (6-12) on 3-pointers.
"I think I’ve been more aggressive and I think I’ve been doing a good job of doing what was necessary," said Thomas. "I’ve improved a lot on my jump shot. I’ve worked hard on that. I’ve worked a lot on all of my game but I’ve worked real hard on my jump shot."
Thomas went to Aiken his first three years of high school. He was teammates there with Willie Moore, now at Miami University after starting his college career at Oregon, and Chane Behanan, now at Western Kentucky after starting at Louisville. He transferred to Withrow for his senior year, helping the Tigers reach the regional semifinals. That team included Devin Williams, then a sophomore center, who just finished up his freshman year at West Virginia.
Thomas went to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire for one season and played on the same team as Xavier’s Jalen Reynolds and Semaj Christon, North Carolina State’s T.J. Warren and Michigan’s Mitch McGary. Christon and Warren recently announced their intentions to declare for this year’s NBA draft.
The only place Thomas is heading now is New York. With two more wins, the Seminoles will finish off their season with a championship. Thomas has been at the heart of Florida State’s end-of-season run and will be a foundation for its future.
"We want Aaron to just be the best he can be," Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton told Corey Clark of the Tallahassee Democrat. "He’s a guy who is a quick study. A great teammate. He’s unselfish. He has great shot selection. … He’s our best defender.
"He does a lot for our team. He works hard every day in practice and gives tremendous effort. He’s a gym rat. He’s in the gym working on his skills all the time. He’s a guy that leads by example. We expect him to continue to get better and better."