MHERST - The sweat was still present on Brandon Thomas forehead and his University of Massachusetts practice top as he rested his elbows on his knees while sitting in the third row of the Curry Hicks Cage bleachers.
He was tired, but happy. It had been over a year since Thomas was part of a basketball team and he missed it.
'It's nice to be in a team environment again,' said Thomas, who didn't play anywhere during the 2004-05 season. 'It's been great. We've been working so hard. I have no doubt that we're outworking most of the teams in the country. Coach Ford is pushing us that hard. I have nothing but high expectations.'
After an impressive high school career in San Antonio, Texas, Thomas signed with Long Island University. As a sophomore he led the Blackbirds in scoring at 12.3 points per game.
But he opted to leave the Brooklyn school. 'I wanted to find a better opportunity for myself,' he said, without elaborating further.
He enrolled in Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla. to get ahead academically, but didn't play basketball, preserving his two remaining years of eligibility.
Several potential better opportunities presented themselves in the spring as Thomas drew recruiting interest from Florida and Florida State as well as UMass.
'When I visited UMass, I just got that gut feeling that there was no other place for me,' Thomas said. 'The coaches are class acts and the program has a great tradition that hopefully we can bring back. I'm looking forward to it. I knew this was the place for me as soon as I stepped foot on campus.'
Thomas is a wild card in Travis Ford's first recruiting class in Amherst. At 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, Thomas could see playing time anywhere except at center.
An NCAA rule change has allowed coaches to work with their entire teams for two hours a week before full practice begins on Oct. 14. Thomas may be the only player in America to have practiced at both point guard and power forward during those workouts.
'I can play anywhere from the one to the four and I look forward to competing at all those positions,' Thomas said. 'I want to push all these guys to the max and they're going to help me get better as well. I'm looking forward to the challenge.'
He admitted that biggest challenge would be at point guard, where he hasn't played since middle school. On quite a few occasions, Ford has said he expects Thomas to be part of the rotation there.
'The one is an exciting new challenge for me, but it's going well,' Thomas said. 'The point guard is a totally different position than anywhere else on the floor. You have to lead. Coach is putting in an offense where the point guard doesn't have to take on such a big role, but it's definitely different than the others. Hopefully I'll keep getting better.'
Ford loves his versatility.
'He's probably most suited for the three spot, but he can handle the ball and play any position,' Ford said. 'We're looking a little at the four spot. He can do a lot of things on the basketball court.'
Thomas will have to wait until Nov. 18 before he can do some of those things in a basketball game when the Minutemen host Hartford.
'I've been looking forward to my next game for like two years now,' he said. 'Two months is a long time away, but hopefully it will be here soon.'
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com.