MEMPHIS, Tenn — This is a team that knows how to wait, steady, steady, like a spider with a fly caught in its web. It waits for you to miss, then snags the rebound with a sense of entitlement. It waits for you to tire, then puts the death squeeze on you down the stretch.
Playing for Michigan State means learning your patience, which is perfect for David Thomas, who, after all, has the waiting thing down pat. As a 24-year-old senior, he is the oldest player on his team. He is the oldest player in his conference. He is older than Kobe Bryant. Older than Vince Carter. This morning, he is almost certainly the oldest player left in the NCAA tournament.
Waiting? He could teach a grad class on the subject.
“It’s such a good feeling to finally have a game like this,” Thomas said after scoring 10 essential points and grabbing a career-high 14 rebounds Sunday, helping the Spartans beat Fresno State, 81-65, and move to the Sweet 16 round of the Keep The Crown NCAA tournament. “It just seemed like someone was watching over me tonight, pushing me to be in the right place.”
Whoever that someone was, see whether he’s available for Friday night in Atlanta. For here was Thomas, against Fresno State, rising at so many critical moments, grabbing a rebound and putting it in off the glass, leaping over a Fresno State player and one-handing another rebound back in, snagging yet another missed shot and banking it back through just when the Bulldogs were threatening to close the lead.
Thomas, a 6-foot-7 swingman, did more with 27 minutes than most players do with 40. He was everywhere. A one-man refund machine. If the first one didn’t work, he’d get you another.
“He’s like an octopus,” coach Tom Izzo said after the game. “He’s got those long arms, and he’s thin enough to slither through the crowd, but strong enough to take people on.
“That was one of his best games ever.”
Well. You save the best for last, right?
From Canada to East Lansing
“Patience and perseverance, that’s what Coach keeps telling us,” Thomas said, as if repeating a mantra in the happy MSU locker room. Thomas is not often a player surrounded by reporters. But he was on this night, and he seemed unable to answer without smiling.
“Patience and perseverance,” he repeated. “Patience and perseverance.”
Of course, given Thomas’ story, even Izzo would have told him not to take it quite so literally. Patient? Thomas grew up in Canada among hockey and soccer players. He waited until high school, in Brampton, Ontario, when he grew tall and reed-like, to finally turn to basketball.
He waited through 12th grade at one school, then waited through a 13th year — they do that in Canada — before he came to college.
Once at MSU, he waited through enough injuries to sideline a trapeze act. He waited through an ACL sprain on his left knee. He waited through an ACL sprain on his right knee. He waited through a stress fracture on his right foot.
In his junior year, he was redshirted, which means he waited the entire season and never played in a game.
“There were times I never thought I’d see a night like this,” he admitted.
“But at least this is a place where you’re supposed to wait your turn. Look at Morris Peterson. He had to wait a couple years before he became the great player he was. Same thing for Charlie Bell. He had to wait until this year to be the leader.
“The old guys teach the young guys. That’s how it works around here.”
Thomas is taking that, like other lessons, literally. He is informally teaching freshman teammate Zach Randolph about Canada. Simple things first. Like where it is.
“I’m not sure he knew when he first met me,” Thomas said.
“Did he know it was north of the United States?” Thomas was asked.
“Oh, yeah …well, no, now that I think about it, maybe not.”
A clear path to Minneapolis
Ah, well. What’s a tournament for if not an education? And this is what we are learning about the Spartans: Yes, they have weaknesses that are apparent — the three-point shot that is delivering so many miracles in this tournament is not a real weapon in their arsenal.
But adaptive? Man, are they adaptive. For while other teams may score three to your two, the Spartans are best at keeping their opponents from getting two in the first place. Once again, on Sunday, they harassed a team into bad shooting. Fresno State — coached by the winningest active college basketball coach and the one-time king of Las Vegas, Jerry Tarkanian — shot a miserable 29 percent in the first half, and only 41 percent in the second.
Meanwhile, MSU continued to own every critical rebound, outdoing the Bulldogs, 48-32, in that department. If the Spartans can keep that up — and it has been their identity all season — they can compensate for the three-point thing, maybe all the way to the title.
And if Thomas is the water bug he was Sunday, they’ll go a long way toward that end.
But that’s the thing about these Spartans, who are now one-third of the way to another crown, and who, on paper, have the easiest path to a Final Four, playing a No. 12 seed next — Gonzaga, Friday night, in Atlanta — and, if successful there, a No. 11 or No. 7 seed to reach Minneapolis. They take what’s in front of them. They wait it out. They move on.
“I just want to savor this win for one night, OK?” Izzo implored reporters.
Sure. We’re patient. Just like Thomas, who was so happy to be finally moving freely, without pain, flying for the ball, after all those years, all those injuries, all that doubt.
He was asked whether his parents came down from the Great White North to see him.
“Not this game,” he said, “but they’ll be there in Atlanta.”
You’ll know them. They’ll be the ones coming through Customs, waiting, as is obviously family tradition, for a good thing that lies ahead.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.