Jonathan Thomas still is the same person he was the past two years as he embarked on a mechanical engineering degree (with a minor in mathematics, no less) at Maryland.
The same can’t be said about his attire — and how he’s filling up his time outside of a rigorous class schedule.
“They see my bookbag and how I’m dressed now and they say ‘Are you on the basketball team?’ And I say ‘Yeah,’ ” said Thomas, a junior walk-on guard. “Someone told me yesterday ‘On the JV team?’ And I said ‘No, on the real team.’ “
And he’s playing, too. Thomas and freshman Arnold Richmond have gone from practice players with important behind-the-scenes roles to vital guys filling in gaps at the end of Maryland’s rotation as the Terrapins’ season winds to a close.
The pair combined for one second of work over a nearly six-week span before point guard Pe’Shon Howard suffered a season-ending right knee ligament tear, an injury that prompted coach Mark Turgeon to seek different and unexpected options to give his scholarship players a breather.
“Nobody expected that, and it devastated the entire team,” Richmond said of Howard’s injury. “He’s our point guard. At the same time, coach said that’s an opportunity for people to step up, and I’m going to step up. Simple as that.”
Richmond found himself on the floor at Duke just two days after Howard was lost for the year, playing a minute in the first half. Thomas, who played earlier in the season before Howard returned from a broken foot, provided a couple of steady minutes in last week’s victory over Miami.
Both are scout-team regulars, arriving well before practice to prepare to simulate opposing backcourts for Maryland’s regulars. And both credit the extra hours for allowing them to remain calm in a situation that doesn’t seem entirely conducive to remaining relaxed.
“It’s not easy stepping out there, I can tell you that,” guard Sean Mosley said. “JT and Arnold, they didn’t get recruited to play at a Division I [school] like this. To step into a game at Duke or here against Miami, which was a huge game for us, it’s not easy to do. I tip my hat to them. If my number was called and I was a walk-on, I’d be nervous. I’m not going to lie about that.”
Neither took a traditional route to this year’s roster. Richmond attended nearby Crossland High School, and he received interest from only one Division I school (Coastal Carolina). He took visits to Kilgore College (a junior college in Texas) and Minot State (a North Dakota school transitioning to Division II), but neither possibility worked out.
Over the summer, he learned about pickup games in College Park and began attending regularly, usually arriving first. As he grew more comfortable, he decided he would contact the Terps’ staff about joining the team. With no settled plans for school, he emailed Maryland coaches every day.
Eventually, he received the best possible response: He was asked to walk on. Though Richmond knew there was a chance he might not see the court in games, he approached every practice as if he would be needed - which, as it turns out, he is.
“You never expect to play big-time minutes, but you definitely have to be prepared for it at all times,” Richmond said. “In my position, that’s what I work hard for. I never doubted that I would be playing. I may have never said ‘Hey, I’m going to be playing big minutes,’ but I never [thought] I wouldn’t be playing.”
Thomas‘ path was improbable in a different way. A capable player at Tuscarora High School in Frederick, Md., Thomas was a regular student for two years before joining the program through a walk-on tryout in September.
He couldn’t have anticipated playing in the Terps’ first nine games with Howard out, a stretch that gave him some experience to better prepare for his more recent duty. And he certainly didn’t figure as he wound down his spring semester last year that he would have a good chance of seeing time Wednesday when Maryland (16-12, 6-8 ACC) visits No. 6 North Carolina (25-4, 12-2).
“I probably would have really laughed at them,” Thomas said. “Everything, from where I am to last year, it’s a 180-degree turn. Nobody would have guessed that.”
The same goes for Richmond, whose reward for earnestly trying to replicate North Carolina guard Kendall Marshall in practice this week might be a cameo at the Dean Dome to spell Terrell Stoglin.
Yet for both players, being part of a storied program is something to savor every day — though a few minutes on the floor certainly is appreciated, too.
“I thank God every day for just being here and having this experience - traveling with the team, being here, experiencing ACC play,” Richmond said. “Then to get the chance to play, that’s just a big blessing.”