Over the course of his days at Shawnee State University, Delano Thomas has become a well-respected and well-liked individual who is as cerebral, and as hard working, as any coach around.
And because of those abilities, Thomas has a chance to develop a program in his own way.
The former Shawnee State standout, who was named as a 2017 Shawnee State Athletic Hall of Fame inductee earlier this season and averaged 13.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per game over the course of his two seasons with the Bears, will attempt to utilize the knowledge that he has gained from his collegiate career and a pro career that featured playing and coaching stops in Norway, Portugal, and Uruguay into a successful run as the newest head coach of SSU’s men’s basketball program.
And understandably, that feeling is one that Thomas is still pinching himself over — especially when the first-year head coach considers what he has in his arsenal.
“It’s a surreal feeling right now,” Thomas said before the start of the season. “The guys have been putting in a lot of time and working hard. I like the group of kids that I have. From what we had last year, we have a lot more length and a little bit more athleticism. However, at the same time, we’re still young, with 11 freshmen and sophomores on our roster, so there’s plenty of room for further growth and development. We’ve got four seniors on our roster in Frederick Moore, J. Murrell, Jayllen Carter, and Matt Rhodes (Rio Grande transfer) who will become eligible next semester, and they each bring a great deal to the table. I’m excited to see how the team develops.”
And that quartet of Carter, Moore, Murrell, and Rhodes, as Thomas referenced to, will have to come up large throughout the season.
Carter (6-1, 175), a Portsmouth graduate who is a proven shooter from deep, and Moore (6-7, 205), a solid face-up four who can stretch the floor with his offensive game, averaged 14.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per contest, along with 14.2 points and 7.1 rebounds, respectively while shooting 44.8 and 46.4 percent from the floor as the team’s top two scoring punches.
They’ll be both entrenched in the rotation, along with Murrell (6-4, 205), who averaged 6.1 points and 5.4 rebounds on 59 percent shooting in 2016-17, and Rhodes (6-5, 220), who averaged nine points per affair on 41 percent shooting for Rio Grande during the 2015-16 season before transferring to SSU, where he’ll be eligible during the second half of the season. Carter, Moore, and Murrell are averaging 18.3 points and 4.8 rebounds, 16 points and 7.5 rebounds, and 6.5 rebounds and 4.8 points per contest through SSU’s first four affairs in 2017-18.
“Leadership is going to be the most important quality that they bring to the table,” Thomas said. “It’s not going to be so much from a vocal side, but by example. I really have been talking to these guys about putting in the necessary work in practice, while also understanding what we’re working on.”
In addition to Carter and Rhodes, a slew of guards will also be returning to aid Shawnee State’s improvement in 2017-18. Tamal Watkins (5-10, 175), who averaged 10.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, and three assists as the Bears’ starting point guard last year, returns to run the show, while Lucasville native Bryan Rolfe (6-4, 190), who averaged 4.3 points, 2.5 rebounds, and two assists in 2016-17, also returns to back him up.
Watkins, who is averaging 9.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, five assists, and two steals per game per game, and Rolfe, who has added 8.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per contest so far in 2017-18, are followed by Gavin Brown (6-3, 175) and Daniel Ester (6-4, 195), two freshmen who add excellent size that can make the pair strong combo guards in the future. The quartet are all underclassmen at this stage in their careers.
“I believe that we have a good core of guards that we can rotate around,” Thomas said. “They’re learning how to balance unselfishness and relentlessness while also looking at the rim themselves. I’m asking guys to really be unselfish with the style of basketball that we’re playing. Sometimes, you get lost in, ‘OK, I can score the basketball, too, and God blessed me with this ability to use it.’ Our guys are working hard to find the appropriate balance.”
Down low, however, is where Shawnee State has the potential to really shine. In addition to the quality production of Moore, the production that Urbana transfer Justin Johnson (6-9, 210) and incoming freshman EJ Onu (6-10, 215) have each provided has Thomas already looking ahead to what the pair can provide in the future.
Johnson, a sophomore from Cincinnati who is “super, super energetic” and brings “lots of energy,” according to Thomas, is averaging 10.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per contest on 44 percent shooting, while Onu, a freshman from Cleveland Heights, is averaging an impressive 8.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, and an astounding 3.8 blocks per contest. The latter mark leads all players in the NAIA Division I ranks.
Behind the initial pair, returning role player Selby Hind-Wills (6-6, 220), a sophomore from England, adds length and brings back 5.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 46.6 percent shooting to the table, while true freshman and stretch four Matt Smith (6-8, 188) and redshirt freshman Tysean Whitehead, who is a “rugged inside guy that can mix it up and do a lot of different things,” round out the main rotation.
“With the rotation of bigs that we have, we have a lot of intangibles that are covered by those bigs,” Thomas said. “EJ has a real chance to be special right now. He really understands how to protect the rim, which is great because that’s something that I prided myself on doing when I was here. I’m excited to try to groom this kid and help him. As for Justin, I don’t think he has touched the surface on how good he can be yet. He’s really working on gaining confidence and exploring. Matt and Tysean have a good chance to be great behind those guys.”
The depth that Shawnee State currently has, however, comes from Thomas’ knowledge of the game of basketball. That knowledge allowed the SSU stalwart to attract fellow Columbus native Michael Hunter — who has served in various capacities, including recruiting coordinator, academic coordinator, and strength coach — during his time at stops in Ohio Northern, Heidelberg, Goshen (Ind.), and Urbana over the past decade. Hunter played his high school basketball at Whetstone, while Thomas balled at nearby Beechcroft.
“It has been great to have Mike on the staff,” Thomas said. “I have known Mike for 20 years. He’s from Columbus, as well. Actually, when I was overseas playing, I was following his career playing-wise (at Ohio Northern), and then I watched him as a coach. He went from coaching at Ohio Northern to Heidelberg to Goshen (Ind.) to Urbana, and during that time, he’s really been around building his resume up. It was good for me to have someone that I was already familiar with around. At the same time, however, he’s super professional at what he does, and he doesn’t take the friendship for granted. I’m excited about that. We have that relationship to where we can put our friendship aside and focus on work.”
With a proven player and assistant alongside a proven player and coach that now hold the keys to the success of the Shawnee State men’s basketball program, the Bears are already off to a 4-1 start, with impressive wins against Ohio Christian (69-55), Cardinal Stritch (Wis.) 71-54, and Mount Vernon Nazarene (78-66). In fact, Shawnee State’s only loss was a scant eight-point defeat (94-86) to William Penn University (Iowa) — the third-ranked team in all of NAIA Division I. The Bears also collected a forfeit win over Ohio-Chillicothe to account for the remaining game.
The key, however, according to Thomas, will be to take every game as if it is a contest in the Mid-South Conference. And with five of the conference’s eight teams earning an official ranking or votes in the NAIA Division I Top 25 Poll, that’s certainly good advice for the players to heed going forward.
“We want to look at every game as being a ranked opponent or a Mid-South Conference game,” Thomas said. “We have a tough nonconference schedule that is really going to groom us for the Mid-South, but at the same time, we’re going to have to stay humble, because we were picked to finish last in the preseason conference poll. Of course, that’s expected. We haven’t proven anything. Staying humble and continuing to work hard will be keys for us, and if these guys keep their focus and don’t get satisfied with one win over a big opponent, we’ll be fine. We need to keep thinking one game at a time. If we keep that mentality, then we’ll be fine.”
And if that mentality is lost, the amount of depth that Shawnee State has will allow the Bears to give another player in its rotation an extended amount of minutes, which provides for the excellent competition that has been evident in practice, according to Thomas.
“Everybody’s going to play, which I like,” Thomas said. “Everybody has to be ready. With that energy, we’ll be fine.”