College basketball: Mike Thomas grew into a leader and a man at UH

FULLERTON, Calif. — One.

After Hawaii’s regular-season finale at Cal State Fullerton, Mike Thomas sat down in the visitors locker room and paused to appreciate the digit that entered his mind.

Not one broken basket stanchion or one brother as a Rainbow Warrior teammate. One more game, potentially, in his storied college career.

“You realize that every game is numbered,” UH’s three-year captain and five-year forward said with a laugh. “You’re never going to be in the same position that you are right now, so make the most of it.”

If sixth-seeded UH (17-12) upsets third-seeded UC Irvine (16-16) in the first round of the Big West tournament on Thursday, Thomas will sit, contemplate and do it all over again the next day. And if he’s fortunate, the next, until the newly minted Big West honorable mention forward departs as the winningest player in program history.

Thomas — an active player on teams that recorded 20, 22, 28 and 17 victories, for 87 — now seeks to slay the Irvine dragon that’s challenged him throughout his career. Thomas noted that two of his toughest games this year came against the stout Anteaters.

And he wants more. Not surprising, perhaps, from the ‘Bow Who Stayed after being dealt three coaches in three years. It’s a similar feeling to the sense he got two years ago, when one of UH’s best teams was on the verge of splitting up.

Thomas is unquestionably his team’s beating heart, and has been for some time. That was the diagnosis even before he elected to return despite team NCAA sanctions following his emergence as “The Rock” of UH’s 2015-16 championship squad.

“There’s times that you need other people. You need your opponents to make you better,” he said. “I needed Long Beach, I needed Irvine growing up in the Big West, to eventually win that title the other year. You need to understand that there are teams better than you and are people better than you, at certain things, and you need to grow in those areas.”

Or, as he’s tried to impart on his younger teammates — and younger brother Brandon, a sophomore guard — that “there’s a strength in weakness,” if you are man enough to realize it.

Mike, formerly Michael, first remade himself from the lanky, headband-sporting kid out of Woodland Hills, Calif., and El Camino Real High (circa 2013) into a productive garbage man. Heading into his final year, knowing his team needed more out of him, he transformed into a chiseled, still-mobile lefty rim-runner with a hybrid regimen of weights, yoga and basketball drills. The stanchion welding piece he broke on a dunk at Titan Gym on Saturday can attest to that.

He’s supplied 13 points and six rebounds per game as UH’s first option, with a .563 field-goal percentage that stands as eighth in a UH season. He can finish with more than 900 career points with a strong tournament, especially if he keeps at bay the foul demons (of fouling) that’ve hounded him.

He’s fully aware they’ve kept him on the bench for almost whole halves at a time. His medicine? “A lot of deep breaths.”

“I think that’s what toughness is, is dropping whatever is surrounding you distraction-wise, and focusing on the next play of how to get a stop or how to get a bucket,” he said.

Eran Ganot was immediately struck by Thomas as a future leader when he met with him individually upon taking the job in 2015. Lately, he’s taken to comparing Thomas to UH’s ironman of the early 2000s, Phil Martin, the forward who was previously UH’s winningest player at 84.

“Those are the kind of guys that will hang their hat on team success,” Ganot said. “So you talk, and rightfully so, about Savo (Predrag Savovic), (Carl) English, and there’s Phil Martin, right under the radar, in all those pictures on those walls. So for me … Mike might be the 2018 version of Phil, in terms of the soft-spoken … guys that none of this would have happened without either of them.”

Myriad means illustrate the weight Thomas carries within the program. Jack Purchase, an important frontcourt player, willingly shifted to the bench to accommodate the return of Thomas coming off his injury redshirt year.

“He means a lot to us and this program,” Purchase said, noting his three-year captaincy.

Brandon Thomas was wowed watching his sibling lead for a full season. They are the first brothers to play on the same team in Manoa’s collegiate era.

“He wrestles with a lot. He wants to be the best leader, obviously,” Brandon said. “I mean, it’s a tough job, but I think he’s doing a good job. Him and Gib (Johnson), both … especially with all the characters we have.”

The two hadn’t played together for years; he was struck by how seriously Mike treats on-court matters.

“He’s shown that he really cares a lot. For anything, like the smallest things,” Brandon said.

Thomas wants to carry that attention to detail into a pro career in basketball, then into sports marketing or branding for athletes.

Ganot’s recommendation either way?

“Hire him.”

Whenever Thomas finally departs, he does so with one last thank you to the place where he transformed from a boy to a man.

“The island knows how to stand by something,” Thomas said. “And I think that culture reflects on the players, also the students at the school. Things might not always be going as well as possible in the program, for any program on campus for that matter, but at the end of the day there’s still been a consistency there. And at the end of the day I’m still grateful for that, the consistency of Hawaii and the people that support it. It’s a big deal.”

Maybe, just maybe, he’ll put off that final farewell for one more game. And then maybe one more.