The Arizona Wildcats never got to complete their historic 2019-20 season. After setting one record after another and securing what was sure to be a chance to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the team saw its drive for a special ending to the year stopped in its tracks when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world in mid-March.
While we’ll never know what this team could have accomplished in the NCAA Tournament, a full regular season and conference tournament worth of competition is more than enough to assess each individual player’s performance.
- Year: Junior
- Height: 6-foot
- Position: Small forward
- 2019-20 statistics: 32.6 MPG, 9.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.7 SPG, 1.5 BPG, 43.2 FG%, 35.4 3FG%, 79.5 FT%, 31 GP, 31 GS
Sam Thomas has been a crucial cog in the wheel of Arizona women’s basketball since she stepped foot on campus in 2017. This season was no different,
She ended the year on the Pac-12 All-Defense team and was All-Pac-12 honorable mention. She’s not bad in the classroom, either, gaining recognition on the 2020 Pac-12 Winter Academic Honor Roll.
Thomas is rarely going to be the top scorer in a game, although she was third on the team in scoring average and she had a monster game with 31 points when Aari McDonald sat out against Utah. But it’s not all about scoring, and she is going to be one of the most important players on the floor for Arizona in any given game.
What it all comes down to is versatility and defense. Thomas can guard any position on the floor and she has superb judgment. She was the only player in the Pac-12 to have at least 40 steals and 40 blocks. Despite the aggressive defense, she averages just two fouls per game.
Then, there was her ability to set up her teammates Thomas was second on the team with 2.2 assists per game. More impressive, she was able to do that while only turning the ball over 27 times all season for a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. Those numbers were the best of her career.
Thomas was also a workhorse, as she has been every year in Tucson. For the second time in her three years at Arizona, she led the team in minutes per game with 32.6. In her 98 career games as a Wildcat, she’s averaged 34.3 MPG.
Best stretch of play
Judging Thomas’ best stretch of play doesn’t just come down to her offensive output. She’s a very capable scorer, but it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when evaluating her play.
When the Wildcats most needed her to step up on the offensive end, though, she did. As McDonald struggled through the stress reaction in her left leg, Thomas took on a bigger offensive load to carry her team to a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament.
It started when the team returned home from the Oregon trip. Over a five-game stretch, Thomas hit 24 of her 47 shots for a 51 percent field goal percentage. Smack dab in the middle of the run, she put up 31 points on Utah by hitting 8 of 13.
The stretch wound up with the team’s first win over a Top 5 team when she went 6 for 10 in the victory over Stanford. Thomas scored 17 in that historic game.
It wasn’t just a scoring display, either. She had 14 blocks over those five games including six against Washington and five against Colorado. She added 10 steals to those defensive stats. She grabbed 20 rebounds with six against Utah and five against Colorado. Twenty one assists—with six against both Washington State and Stanford—versus just five turnovers.
Worst stretch of play
Thomas never goes on an extended streak of playing below average, but her poorest stretch came just before her big run down the stretch. In early February, the team traveled to Oregon and Oregon State, and she wasn’t at her best. Of course, few players are at their best when facing the Ducks and the Beavers.
Over the weekend, she went just 1 for 12 from the floor. The lone make was the big 3-pointer that helped the Wildcats upset the Beavers in Corvallis. She also had only one rebound that weekend, corralling a board against Oregon State. Three assists, one block and one steal rounded out her weekend in the state of Oregon.
It wasn’t a stellar weekend for Thomas, but her team managed to split the road trip and get the program’s first road win over a Top 10 team.
Arizona coach Adia Barnes on Thomas: “I’ve been saying this, Sam is very underrated. She’s underrated for her defense. She shuts down everybody she matches up with every single game. Just pay attention to that. ... Usually when a player like Sam blocks shots, they’re usually like jumping out of the gym...but you don’t see Sam doing that. So I think you’re surprised at some of the defensive plays (she makes). You’re like, ‘wow, how’d she do that?’ But she’s just so smart, so consistent. She’s never out of position. She’s not reaching for balls. She’s not reactive going for 10 steals, misses seven and gets three. She’s just solid and keeps people in front of her. Her dad was a coach. All her siblings play college basketball, so she’s really, really smart defensively and offensively.”
Thomas was the first top-100 recruit to commit to Barnes, and she’s lived up to the hype. In fact, she’s surpassed it.
Her senior year is already projected to be one of the best in school history with ESPN suggesting that the team should start the season in the Top 10 and be the second-best group in the Pac-12.
The team will have plenty of scorers with McDonald, Cate Reese and Helena Pueyo returning along with Shaina Pellington finally being available. Thomas won’t need to carry a big offensive load. If she can hover around the 10-point mark and fill the other categories on the stat sheet, that’s all Arizona needs her to do.