ASHEVILLE, N.C. — So much gets made about the college basketball players who only stick around for a year or two, but the best stories to me are the ones about the kid who grinds and grinds — and finally finds his way.
That's Race Thompson.
It's been a long four years at Indiana for Thompson, the son of a football star from Plymouth, Minn. He enrolled a year early and was in way over his head. But then he has dealt with injuries and confidence issues for years and hasn't made much of an impact on this Indiana basketball program.
It wasn't until the end of last season where he finally started to feel like he belonged. You could see it coming, and you wondered what this new season would be like for him. There was hope. There was promise. There was, at long last, a light coming on.
Monday afternoon inside a bubble in Asheville, Race Thompson arrived. He had his best game as a Hoosier, by far. He scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds – both career highs — and helped Indiana slap Providence 79-58 in the first round of the Maui Invitational.
"We just got a monster effort from Race Thompson, and I'm just so happy for him.'' Indiana coach Archie Miller said. "We beat a really good team. We had to answer their physicality in the game, and we did that. That's how they play. We held our own on the boards and a lot of that had to do with Race.''
The players were happy for Thompson, too. Senior guard Al Durham, who arrived in Bloomington four years ago with Thompson, could barely contain his excitement after the game when asked about the 6-foot-8 forward's big day.
"Race knows I'm ecstatic that he's this type of game. I've seen Race grow since he's gotten here, and he's been through a lot, like everybody knows. He's been through so much, and just for him to have a game like this, I'm so proud of him.
"I'm just really happy for him.''
Changing his body, changing his game
It's hard not to be happy for him. He's been through a lot during his time in Bloomington, but this offseason, he turned into a man. He attacked the weight room and changed his body, and he added so much to his game out on the floor. He hit several mid-range jumpers on Monday, and was a beast on the board.
"My teammates, they're yelling at me all the time to shoot the ball,'' Thompson said. "It's all about confidence for me, and feeling good about making those shots. I worked hard on that all summer.''
"He's a very motivated player. He finished last season basically as a starter and he used the offseason as well as any player I've ever been around,'' Miller said. He worked on his game, and worked on his touch. His development in the last eight months has been tremendous.''
Getting a taste of success last winter spurred Thompson to get after it in the offseason. There's been nothing like 2020 though, between the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial tensions that emerged over the summer after the George Floyd episode in Minnesota. Thompson was home in Minnesota when that happened, and he became a vocal leader in talking about the topic.
And when he got back around the own teammates, they saw a change in him, too. No one outworked him, and no one improved everything about his game as much as he did.
That's all about just growing up.
"He's unquestionably one of our rock-solid leaders,'' Miller said. "His emergence is one of the special things about this offseason. It was great to see him get rewarded for that today.''
Providence is usually the big physical team that knocks people around, but it was Thompson who delivered the first blow, and then kept punching away.
"Offensive rebounding to me wasn't going to be our strength, but Race had a lot of timely rebounds. He had eight offensive rebounds, and he got to the line a lot, too,'' Miller said. "This is a team that has to pride itself on being tough-minded and scrappy, and that's how we played. He have to be resilient and we have to play smart, and I think we did that today.''
Thompson played 35 minutes, something you don't usually see this early in the season. But Thompson had the hot hand, and Indiana had a short bench with its big guys because center Joey Brunk is nursing a sore back. Indiana's coaches and medical staff are being very careful with him.
"We're being very cautious with Joe,'' Miller said. "Three games in three days is a lot, so we're going to listen to the doctors and listen to Joe. We're not going to do anything to jeopardize the long-term. I think he'll be available as things progress in this tournament. We can't panic, we just need to go slow with him.
"But we also know just having Race and Trayce (Jackson-Davis) isn't enough. Joe started 32 games for us last year, and we need him.
Providence coach Ed Cooley was impressed with Thompson. He was upset that the Friars' gave up 15 offensive rebounds, "because that 's just something we don't do,'' he said.
"They out-toughed us and manhandled us on the glass. Thompson played well,'' Cooley said. "The word would be flabbergasted. I was besides myself (about the early offensive rebounds). To give up 15 rebounds, that's a lack of concentration and a lack of mental toughness on our part.
"Thompson was the best player on the floor. Give him a lot of credit. He had his career game against us.''
He's had a career, that's for sure. He's different now, four years later. He's a man now, and he's confident that he can do big things this season.
Everyone else believes it now, too.
Related stories on Indiana basketball
- GAME STORY: Indiana cruises past Providence in first round of Maui Invitational in Asheville, N.C. CLICK HERE
- LIVE BLOG: Follow along in real time during the Hoosiers's win over Providence in the Maui Invitational CLICK HERE
- REBOUNDING A CONCERN FOR INDIANA AHEAD OF MAUI: Archie Miller is concerned with Indiana's ability to rebound. They hope if Joey Brunk returns, that should help out. CLICK HERE