By Kevin Posival
Killeen Daily Herald
He was an anxious and excited freshman about to start his first college game in front of a home crowd of more than 3,700 fans at the Hofheinz Pavilion on the University of Houston campus.
Tashawn Thomas, welcome to college basketball.
The former Killeen High School standout scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds to go along with a contribution cornucopia - three blocks, five assists and two steals - in the Cougars' season-opening win over Grambling State.
College basketball, meet Tashawn Thomas.
"My coaches tell me that a lot of freshmen come in and they're kind of intimidated when they first start playing," said Thomas, who's started all 22 games for Cougars this season. "They're telling me to play with a lot of confidence and that's what I've been trying to do throughout the year."
Thomas and former Harker Heights standout Royce O'Neale (Denver) are not your typical college freshmen who are adjusting to life away from home and higher-level competition. Already, the duo is fully vested in their respective programs' current and future success.
"It's a little bit of a surprise because I knew I was going to have to work for playing time if I was going to play," O'Neale said, "but I have been working really hard and it seems to be paying off."
At 6-foot-8, Thomas skied over his high school competition but is facing Division I talent as big, if not bigger, and more experienced than he is. So Thomas and his game evolved. He gained 15 pounds since arriving on campus and added a more aggressive and creative style of play.
"I think it helped me, if anything. I feel like I can move better, a little better and little faster. And me picking up the weight helped me to be able to play against the stronger people," Thomas said.
Thomas, who averages 10.9 point holds Houston's freshman single-season blocks records and is in the top-10 of seven other freshman single-season categories, including scoring average (10.9), field goals made (99), field goal percentage (57.6), rebounds (171), rebounding average (8.1), blocks average (2.3) and minutes average (28.3).
"There's a lot of people bigger than me - taller and stronger - but I had to find ways to either go around them or through them by being physical or using skill to get around them," Thomas said.
Thomas has six double-doubles this season and was two rebounds shy of picking up his fourth-straight in the Cougars' 75-54 loss at Tulane on Saturday. He had 11 points and a team-high eight rebounds in the loss.
Thomas has earned two Conference USA Freshman of Week awards, including the first one of the season after his strong debut against Grambling State. His second award came for the week of Jan. 2 when he averaged 12.5 points, 13 rebounds and 5.5 blocks in wins over North Carolina A&T and Texas State.
"All of my coaches here at Houston have a lot of experience, so I know they wouldn't lead me into doing anything wrong. I just have to trust them to do what they've told me to do," Thomas said.
O'Neale, a 6-5 forward, averages 9.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 26 minutes a game as the Pioneers' sixth man and plays the shot-in-the-arm role like a veteran.
"It's a great opportunity because I'm having an immediate impact on the team and being in the game at crunch time, doing what I can to help the team out," O'Neale said.
O'Neale is third in the Sun Belt Conference in both 3-point percentage (.463) and free-throw percentage (.855), sixth in field goal percentage (.519) and seventh in defensive rebounds (4.2 per game).
He recorded his first college career double-double with 21 points and 13 rebounds, both career highs, at Louisiana-Lafayette on Feb. 2.
O'Neale also had 21 points at North Texas on Jan. 21, when he also had five steals.
O'Neale had 14 points in Denver's 75-60 win Saturday over Middle Tennessee, dealing the Blue Raiders their first regular-season conference game loss since Feb. 19, 2011 and snapping the Pioneers' two-game losing streak.
"The way we're playing right now just fits my game," O'Neale said. "And the players all help me out with anything I need help with and I'm just playing the way I'm able to play."
Alex Byington contributed to this report.