It was just over a year ago, UMass Lowell was on the road and Jahad Thomas was shining in his first season after an ACL tear forced him to redshirt.
But it was that Jan. 31, 2015 visit to at Binghamton where he knew in the game’s final minute that he did it again.
“I think when people talk about how hard the transition [to Division I] is and have you had some tough moments, I would say that the day that he tore his 2nd ACL in our game at Binghamton was probably the toughest moment I’ve had since being a head coach,” head coach Pat Duquette said. “Despite a couple of the tough losses, that one was really hard on us.”
The 6’2” Thomas became the first player to commit when Duquette took the job back in the spring of 2013. The Williamsport, Pa. native chose the program that was transitioning from Division II to Division I.
“I think I’m extremely blessed to have him as my first guy that we can start building this thing around,” Duquette said. “It’s so hard to do it, it’s such a huge transition, there’s a ton of work that goes into it, a ton of ups and downs and there’s no better guy to start it with than him. He’s the perfect guy to start a program around.”
The ups and downs of building the program to transition into Division I have hit Thomas just as hard. As the first and only scholarship freshman in Duquette’s first season, days into being on campus, the 6’2” Thomas tore his ACL in his right knee. Days into being on campus and in his first workout, Thomas realized he would have to wait another season to play for the RiverHawks.
Thomas’ presence was worth the wait for the program, in his first season he led the team in scoring (14.3 pig), rebounding (6.5 rpg) and was named to the All-Rookie team and Third Team All-America East. But his season was cut short, just over a year ago, when he took a hard fall at Binghamton.
“I was more hurt of the fact that I knew that I tore it again,” Thomas said.
This time it was the ACL in his left knee in the waning seconds of the RiverHawks’ 76-69 loss at Binghamton.
“The whole world stopped, everything was quiet,” Duquette said. “It was the longest ride home from Binghamton that you could possibly imagine, but it was worse than any loss game loss that we had experienced.”
“I think all the coaches and the players really felt for Jahad because we all know that he’s got our back and he’d do anything for us, so to have to go through that for the second time it was awful. It was a bad feeling.”
Yet after the long ride home from Vestal, Duquette knew that Thomas would be back, no matter what it took.
“I never doubt, like regardless of the amount of injuries I’ve been through, I never have any doubt in my mind,” Thomas said. “I just keep pushing forward and just hope for the best.”
It was one more surgery and rehab process and Thomas would overcome it, just like any obstacle set in his way. Duquette’s concern was that the redshirt sophomore would return too early, that he would rush his recovery from his second ACL surgery.
“There’s nothing gradual about him,” Duquette said. “It’s like zero to 100 miles per hour right away and he was like that the day he got back in practice.”
He returned in the fall and has picked up where he left off last season. Thomas leads the team in scoring (12.6 ppg), rebounding (7.5 rpg) and assists (3.5 apg). He is a unique throwback, almost a position-less player, but through all of the injuries, he has found a way to get to where he wants to be.
“It definitely helped me out mentally knowing that I can get through this two times in a row,” Thomas said. “Honestly, mentally I’m stronger than ever.”
His game is as good as it has ever been, though he knows he wants to improve his turnover rate as well as his 50% free throw shooting percentage. But he is still going to turn it up, as Duquette says, from zero to 100 every time he hits the floor.
“You never know when your time is up so every time I’m playing, practicing, whatever the case may be, I just got to go out and play like it’s my last,” Thomas said.
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.