INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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WEST DES MOINES — There isn’t any one thing Matt Thomas isn’t trying to get better at this off-season.
If the Iowa State senior sharpshooter accomplishes what he wants to, that’s a scary thought for opponents.
Thomas showed exponential growth in his game last season, but doesn’t want to hang his hat on that. His attention has once again turned to perfecting his shot, but just like last season, he’s working on less glamorous things, too.
“(I’m) getting my shot off quicker and working on my range, and my footwork, whether it be coming off a screen or just spacing the floor,” Thomas said. “Whatever it is, working on footwork, catching and shooting.
“Also really being conscious about what I’m putting in my body. It’s my last year so you want to make sure you’re doing everything possible to get yourself ready for your senior year.”
Those footwork drills and countless hours spent in the gym gave way to Thomas’ staggering bump in production last season, but there was an intangible element involved in the change: unwavering confidence.
When Naz Mitrou-Long shut down his season with persistent pain in his hips, Thomas was plugged into the starting lineup and stayed there for 27 games. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder averaged 11 points per game and went from playing 15.3 minutes per game as a sophomore to 33.6. He went from a 36.8 percent shooter to 44 and 33 percent 3-pointer shooter to 43.2.
Thomas made 89 3-pointers last season, tied for the fourth most in a single season at Iowa State, and scored in double figures 21 times. The Onalaska, Wis., native scored in double figures 17 times in his freshman and sophomore years combined.
“His confidence was soaring through the roof,” Mitrou-Long said. “I’ve said this time and time over, I don’t feel like a lot of people understand the type of year Matt had hitting the amount of 3s he did on the percentage he did. It’s not a fluke. It’s the confidence and work he put in. He always knew that about himself and so did we.”
With other offensive weapons around him, particularly Georges Niang and Monte Morris, Thomas was able to create another identity as a lockdown defender.
He helped Iowa State hold down the automatic Buddy Hield, the national player of the year from Oklahoma, to 22 and 27 points in the regular season. Thomas also collected 81 more defensive rebounds than he did as a sophomore while averaging 4.4 boards per game and eight blocks.
Thomas’ renewed sense of confidence was the perfect combination to achieve marked growth. It’s exactly what he is trying to get out of himself this season.
“It was easier being out there knowing I’m going to be out there for extended stretches and it’s easier to knock down shots and play confident,” Thomas said. “I’ve just used that momentum going into this off-season to keep working on my game and get ready for senior year and hope to make an even bigger jump next year.”
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