The Lone UTEP Senior, Paul Thomas: ‘He never stopped fighting’
As UTEP (8-19, 3-13 Conference USA) takes the hardwood on Wednesday evening for the final time this season against Middle Tennessee, one Miner in particular will be gracing the Don Haskins Center for the last time.
The team’s lone senior Paul Thomas, who has racked up 2,535 minutes for the Miners through his four seasons, is set to sport his jersey one last time in front of El Paso fans tonight against Middle Tennessee.
Amidst a roller coaster inaugural season under first-year head coach Rodney Terry, there have been both high and low points for this bunch, Thomas included. But the way he’s closing out his senior campaign has been truly remarkable throughout the last nine games.
He returned back into the starting lineup against Charlotte on Jan. 26 after being benched in early C-USA play. From then on, Thomas averaged 8.3 points and 6.3 rebounds for the Miners in nine games, including big nights against FIU (16 points, nine rebounds) and Rice (13 points, nine rebounds).
“It’s tough because we still haven’t gotten the outcome we wanted in terms of wins and losses,” Thomas said. “From an individual standpoint, I’ve relaxed a little more and realized it’s coming to an end so I just gotta to go out there and play how I can play. Trying to finish this thing strong and to leave Miner fans with good ending thoughts of me. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
“Done a great job of representing this team on and off the court,” Terry said “He’s done a good job in buying into our culture and new identity. Great kid. Going to have a great future moving forward.”
The Tim Floyd Era
You can’t write the story of Paul Thomas at UTEP without talking about the man that recruited him from Houston, Tim Floyd. Thomas joined the 2015-16 team as a wide-eyed freshman that wanted to prove himself to his coaches and teammates early on.
But as he had high expectations for his career with the Miners, Thomas never imagined that he would play for three coaches in his four years.
He worked his way to a key piece for the Miners off the bench and even started four games for UTEP. Averaging just over two points and two rebounds per game on 11 minutes, Thomas simply wanted to find his niche on the court.
“With the Floyd era, I was just feeling it out and saw what it takes to be a college basketball player, and coach Floyd really helped with that,” Thomas said. “We had a good group come in with Dominic Artis, Matt Willms, Terry Winn, Omega Harris—we had a good team.”
UTEP finished 19-14 that season, which set Thomas up for a huge sophomore year.
Unfortunately for Thomas’ year two with the program, the Miners endured a 12-game losing streak in the middle of the season and could not recover by the end, finishing with a 15-17 overall record.
“Sophomore year we had some good expectations and then we hit that losing streak,” Thomas said. “I just remembered thinking ‘man, this isn’t what I thought it would be like.’ I didn’t know what it took to win. Then we broke out after that FIU game and started rolling from there and I remember feeling really good about winning. That was probably the best point in my college career—to feel that consistent winning.”
His junior year was one of the toughest for Thomas to endure, from his team losing Floyd midseason to an abrupt retirement to Phil Johnson taking over as interim coach. They barely graced the C-USA Tournament by the end of the year and finished with an 11-20 record, while Thomas averaged 8.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on the season.
“I think about it all the time,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, I played under three coaches in four years. Thankfully we kept the interim within the staff and had coach Johnson. They were there for us and stressed that we finished off strong.
“We definitely wanted to make the conference tournament, that was the big deal for us for Omega’s senior year. I’ve been playing with Omega since he got here and it was tough having guys leave; Kelvin Jones, Matt Willms injured. It was tough, but it taught me that in life you have to keep pushing and fight through it.”
His friendships during his junior year helped him remain positive with the program and gave him a better insight on what he wants to do after college.
“Junior year I was really close with the older guys: Matt Willms, Dominic Artis,” Thomas said. “Dominic was close with everyone. He was our captain and he was a great part of our success. He never gave up and he’s a hard worker. He knows what it takes to be a pro. He’s who I look up to as an older guy.”
In addition to the coaching carousel that he experienced at UTEP, Thomas watched as many of his friends and teammates chose to transfer from the program.
“I always think if certain guys would have stayed, what could have been,” Thomas said, pondering the situation. “Early in my freshman year, Buddha [Brodrick] Jones, Christian Romine, Josh McSwiggin—we were all really close. We stayed in the dorms and were all roommates. They’re all doing their things at their colleges. My sophomore year, Deon Barrett, Kelvin Jones, those guys were the young guys in that group and I was still young so I was good buddies with them.”
Enter Rodney Terry and the young bunch
When I spoke with Paul Thomas during the previous offseason, he was already bought into Rodney Terry’s new system. Coach Terry had been hired in March and some players chose to leave the program.
But Terry made sure to keep Thomas as one of just three returnees from last year.
And it was a struggle at first for Thomas. He had previously worked and worked on being a low-post player that could also stretch the floor. Many times Thomas played the big man position, especially in his junior year where Matt Willms was often injured.
Coach Terry wanted Thomas to play more like a wing and develop a consistent outside jumper. It was hard for him to find his spacing and confidence on the court at the beginning. He fouled out of the first five games for the Miners in November and saw a large dip in his point totals and an increase in turnovers during December and up to mid-January.
“It was tough,” he said. “I remember being a freshman under Floyd and having to find that confidence and trust with player-coach and that’s what I needed to do with coach Terry. Find my niche on the team and find out my role and find out how to play with our new group of guards. It takes time to do that.”
It would be extremely frustrating for most if you struggled this much during your final season of basketball. Instead, Thomas channeled the adversity into motivation to do better and ultimately found his place with the team during this final stretch.
“I just love the game. If you put me out on the floor, I’m going to try to do my best,” he said. “I don’t try to get too down. If I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing on the court, I understand where coach is coming from. I’m a senior. There’s a reason, it’s nothing personal. I never got too down about it.
“I knew I would try to get my spot back. A lot of people could fold but I would like to think I can make this an occupation for as long as I can, so that’s how I think about this moving forward, just getting better.”
To see his lone senior on the team set personal goals to get back into the starting lineup, Terry saw Thomas’ journey as a reflection of the whole team and culture he’s trying to instill.
“Paul, like a lot of our younger guys, has been challenged this year to take over some major roles,” Terry said. “Paul didn’t shy away from that. There were some difficult times, some obstacles to overcome but he never stopped fighting, never stopped competing, never stopped working at it. To his credit, he’s continued to battle and work his way through the last couple ball games and had some good ball games.”
Culture: something that Thomas prides himself in trying to help the team establish throughout this inaugural year under the new regime.
“Rome wasn’t built overnight,” Thomas said. “It’s been a year and it’s still really early in the culture change. From the coaching standpoint, they’re doing a complete turnaround. It’s a lot more structured. It’s a lot more disciplined. It’s more fun, energized and more enthusiasm in what they’re doing.”
“Certain stuff you can’t control,” he continued. “You can’t control if you’re going to make shots every night, you can’t control injuries, you can’t control the youth. A lot of freshman around the country don’t get to play during their freshman year.”
Although the team will miss out on the C-USA Tournament, Thomas is optimistic about the high ceiling he believes this team has.
“We can’t make excuses about it,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of things where fatigue wasn’t a factor that could be attributed to losing the game, but yeah, we are shorthanded. Losing Efe down the stretch really hurt us. Can’t make excuses though, but I think that down the stretch and moving forward, coach Terry and these guys will have the last laugh.”
The future of UTEP basketball
I asked Paul, imagine if you had three more years? He scoffed, wishing it could be true and sang the praises of what this team can be.
“We played the fastest pace that I played throughout my time here and that’s what coach emphasized since the spring,” Thomas said. “It was fun playing with those guys. I enjoyed seeing them grow from high school seniors to college freshmen, they took a big step.”
One thing that isn’t talked enough about is the fact that this team still practices with the bunch that has to sit out this season, such as Bryson Williams, Souley Boum and Anthony Tarke.
“We get to practice with those guys and they’re a talented group,” he said. “They’ve helped us get better. You can attribute some of the young guys' progress to them. Efe going up against Bryson. Nigel going up against Tarke. Jordan going against Souley Boum. Those guys keep a great attitude too. They cheer us on. We go at it in practice, but off the court, the chemistry is all there.”
He knows the fans are going to adore the next bunch, stressing guys like Bryson Williams, Anthony Tarke and Deon Stroud as potential household names by next season.
“They are going to love the team as a whole because coach Terry is going to have his players playing balls to the wall,” Thomas said. “I think they’ll really like Bryson Williams. I think he’s a really talented guy, if not the best player in Conference USA next year. I think so from seeing the league and who’s coming back.
“I think they’ll love Anthony Tarke and his defensive intensity. He’s a freak of nature from an athletic standpoint. He can jump out the gym, he’s lightning quick and he’s like 6-foot-7.
“Deon Stroud is another one. He’s gonna be young, but He’s got NBA athleticism. He can jump out the gym. Next year’s team is going to be fun to watch. I can’t wait to come back and watch them. Coaches did a great job of keeping everyone together through it all. We’re all tight-knit.”
And as the culture continues to be instilled in the program, Thomas is content with how he helped this group, even if it was only for a season.
“I helped change the culture in terms of just buying into it and do all the right things on and off the court as the only senior to help them implement their new culture,” he said. “That’s the biggest part moving forward and winning games. Of course they’re going to have good players. All teams have good players in Division I basketball. I think the biggest thing is the culture piece.”
What’s next for Paul Thomas?
As he laces up his shoes for one last dance at the Don, his parents—Elizabeth and Paul Sr.—will be in attendance for his senior night.
They played a big part in Thomas’ success at UTEP.
“My parents have watched me play my whole life and I’m really grateful for that. Not a lot of people get that opportunity,” he said. “They’ve come to a lot of games throughout the last four years. I know they’re proud. I know they’re proud that I’m getting my degree—that’s what they wanted. I’m glad I made them proud.”
But it won’t be an outpour of tears for Thomas, nor a good-bye to El Paso. He’s calm and stoic for someone that has endured such highs and lows during his college career.
“My dad always preached to me that life is more than just basketball,” Thomas said. “You have to be a person outside of basketball. I tried to keep a level-head. It was a rebuild year. Not making excuses, but you have to just control what you can control and don’t dwell on things you can’t. That’s what I try to do, just stay positive and keep working.”
He will graduate with a Bachelor’s in Business Marketing and has two plans upon graduation: play professional basketball and join some type of law enforcement, preferably at the federal level.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Thomas said. “It feels like yesterday when I first stepped on campus and they don’t lie when they tell you that it goes by fast. I just try to soak it all in and try not to get too emotional about it because I’ll be back in El Paso; I’ll be back to see the guys work out, to work the camp. I don’t lie when I say I’ve made this my second home. I love it here. I love the city.”
“As a freshman, I didn’t know what to expect,” he continued. “I just wanted to come in and play. Now as a senior I’m looking onto the next phase of my life, whether it be continue playing basketball or getting a real job and start my life past basketball. That’s where my head’s at and where my mindset is at. Freshman year I was wondering how I was going to balance everything, how I was going to impress coach, balance classes. As a senior, that stuff comes easy.”
From Floyd recruiting him to his final days playing basketball for the Miners, Thomas reflects back on the best and worst times that have helped him to grow as a person.
“There was definitely some high points and some low points,” he said. “That’s one thing that college basketball has taught me about life in general. There’s gonna be some highs and lows.”