Ibrahima Thomas made his Cincinnati debut last year in the Crosstown Shootout. He's developed as much since that game as any other player on the Bearcats.
He knows all about intense rivalries.
"When I was little I played in one of those," Thomas said. "It was a soccer game. We don't have pro teams, we have street teams. Everybody from our street plays the team from the other street."
Despite his lanky frame, now at 6-foot-11, 235 pounds, he didn't play goaltender. He was a midfielder. And for the record, his street came away with the victory.
His knowledge of rivalries changed a bit last year when the atmosphere switched from the street soccer matches of
"It was way beyond what I was expecting," Thomas said.
Not only was this Thomas' first Shootout as a transfer from
"They said, 'Hey Thomas is going to be eligible,'" Mack said. "I remember saying to our staff, he has no chance. He has no chance. You cannot possibly imagine how hard, how physical, how different that game is. Having sat out myself as a player, you can't just walk right in."
Mack didn't lie.
Thomas played seven minutes, was 1 of 6 from the field with two rebounds. And it didn't even look that pretty.
"That was probably the worst situation for a guy to ever come back from a year layoff that you could ever possibly imagine," Cronin said. "That was just a throw out game for him."
The same could be said of the two months of his season. Upon turning the corner with a 13-point, 7-rebound performance on Feb. 7 against
Thomas figured out his role. He figured out how he can most be successful in college basketball. Changing the landscape of games didn't stem from shooting 3-pointers or fadeaway jumpers. He would make his mark on the boards.
His belief was validated this summer at an Adidas summer camp that including 50 of the best college basketball players in the country. Xavier's Tu Holloway was among those at the camp. While it didn't deliver much more than glorified pick-up games, the reaction of his peers made Thomas believe in himself.
"There was one aspect where everybody is going to tell you they notice you on and that is probably rebounding," Thomas said. "It helped a lot going against the top players in the country and being recognized for rebounding was a compliment. We were playing 20 minutes, it happened that a couple games I got like 8 points and 6 rebounds or 6 points and 8 rebounds."
He's currently averaging 7.9 points and 7.0 rebounds a game. He's scored double-digit points in four of the last seven games and tacked on a double-double in two of those. If his rebounding average pops up but half a rebound per game, he will be the best rebounder in a season at UC since 2000 not named Eric Hicks.
Thomas no longer relies on his youth street soccer experience when preparing for the Crosstown Shootout. Little more than year later, he draws from a season of intense environments and a team where everyone's roles are clearly spelled out.
For that reason, particularly against Xavier, his team relies heavily back on him.
Xavier forward Jamel McLean averages near a double-double with 10.1 points and 9.5 rebounds a game and led Xavier in boards in each of the last three games - grabbing 14 offensive rebounds in the process.
Thomas will spend most of his night trying to box
"His rebounding is going to be key," Cronin said. "That's a big matchup because Jamel McLean has really developed himself and increased his role as a rebounder for Xavier. He's a physical guy and plays much bigger than he is. That is going to be a big challenge for Thomas."
Although, not quite as big a challenge as last year.
"This won't be like that one," Thomas said.
And once again, Mack holds a strong opinion on
"I think I saw a quote from Ibrahima that said something to the effect that it's going to be a lot different this year," Mack said. "And he's right...He's going to be who he's been this year -- a really good player we are going to have to really account for."