But what about that first name? Is he named for Shaquille O’Neal?
“No I’m not,” Thomas told me with a grin. “And when you watch my game, you won’t think so.”
Unfortunately, Cincinnati fans will have to wait until next season to see Thomas in action. The 6’7” wing player was one of four basketball recruits from NIA Prep in Newark, New Jersey that was ruled ineligible to play this year by the NCAA.
“It was the school – it was never me,” said Thomas. “I always had decent grades and a decent SAT score, but it was the school that I went to.”
The NCAA has tried to crack-down on so-called diploma mills in recent years, but NIA Prep has had 28 athletes certified to play at Division I schools since 2006.
“When the NCAA, for whatever reason, feels that it can’t certify grades from certain prep schools, they pull the plug on those schools,” said UC head coach Mick Cronin. “But there’s no way that Shaquille and his grandmother could have known that because the year before, his prep school was certified. He had no opportunity to move to another school, which is why the NCAA granted him a waiver to attend the University of Cincinnati.”
The waiver allows Thomas to be on scholarship and attend classes this year, and he’ll have four years of eligibility remaining.
“Shaq did everything he could, Cincinnati did everything that it could do, and the NCAA cooperated with us as much as it could possibly cooperate,” said Coach Cronin. “You hear people say, ‘It hurt our team.’ Well, he’s a real person and he was a nervous wreck. You’re talking about a young kid with an uncle that played in the NBA for 15 years and a sister that plays in the WNBA – basketball is a major part of his life. He and his grandmother were so happy when we found out that he could at least come to Cincinnati.”
Thomas was eligible to begin practicing with the team in mid-December following the fall semester.
“I think I’m doing pretty well,” said Thomas. “I try to help the guys get prepared. I want to help the team in every aspect of the game and I just try to go hard in practice. That helps the team and it helps me get better too.”
“I think he’s doing a great job,” said sophomore Sean Kilpatrick of his roommate. “It hurt him when he couldn’t practice. It took basketball out of his life for a couple of months and when he came back, you saw a brightness on his face.”
Kilpatrick voluntarily redshirted at UC two years ago and has helped Thomas deal with the frustration of not being able to play as a freshman.
“He’s dealing with it well,” said Kilpatrick. “He doesn’t always look at it as a negative. I tell him, ‘You can’t look at it as a bad thing. Coach is going through this with you.’ I think he’ll be alright.”
“(Sean) is definitely helping me,” said Thomas. “He tells me to keep my head up and next year will be here before I know it.”
Thomas averaged 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists at NIA Prep last year, and will give the Bearcats size on the perimeter.
“He’s a big guard,” said Coach Cronin. “You look at Syracuse and they have big guards like Kris Joseph on the wing. 6’7” guys that are catching alley-oop dunks or driving to the basket and dunking the ball over people. Shaq can really handle the ball and beat his man off the dribble. As he becomes a better perimeter shooter, he’ll become really tough to defend. He has very quick feet and he’s an excellent passer. Right now offensively, he’s a great athlete who can handle the ball and pass and he’ll fit great in our offense.”
“He’s going to be special,” said Kilpatrick. “He has great athletic ability and he has heart that a lot of people don’t have. He can break-down a defender.”
Saturday night’s game at Rutgers would have been a homecoming for Thomas who hails from Paterson, NJ.
“Rutgers guards Myles Mack and Eli Carter are from my hometown, so I really wish I was playing,” said Thomas. “They beat UConn and Florida, so I’m really proud of those guys.”
Shaquille will get the chance to compete against the Rutgers duo next year, which was one of the reasons why he chose Cincinnati.
“It was definitely a good fit for me,” said Thomas. “You get to get away from home, but you still get to play against all of your friends in the Big East. Every team that we’ve played again, I probably know two or three people on the team. Cincinnati is a great up-and-coming program. I love the city, the coaching staff, and everything about the Bearcats.”
The Mick Cronin radio show moves from Thursday to Monday next week. Come out and join us to talk Bearcat basketball and feast on the world’s best ribs from 8 to 9 at the Original Montgomery Inn. If you can’t make it, I hope you’ll tune in on 700 WLW.
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