East Lansing — Adjusting to life in the Big Ten can be hard enough for most freshmen.
From getting used to college life while being counted on to compete against some of the best players in the country, there’s bound to be plenty of “freshmen moments” when things begin to get a bit overwhelming.
Now throw in not playing your senior year in high school while not seeing anything resembling regular playing time for most of the season and expecting a whole lot out of a first-year player might be asking a bit much.
None of it has bothered Michigan State’s Thomas Kithier. From spot minutes early in the season when the Spartans’ big men got in foul trouble to more extended minutes now with Nick Ward out because of a broken hand, Kithier has been as reliable as any player on the roster.
“I’d like to tell you I knew that,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s hard not to play a whole year and … I think so much more is gonna come of him in a year, but for what he’s done this year, never fearing the situation, never looking rattled. He’s almost a four-point student and that helps him because what he lacks in strength and sometimes athletic ability he makes up with brains.
“Because of that he’s been able to come on and the minutes have been sporadic, yet he’s shown me a lot. I’m really proud of him.”
Before being thrust into high-pressure minutes the last three games, Kithier was best known for what he didn’t do, which is play his senior year at Clarkston. After transferring from Macomb Dakota, Kithier was ruled ineligible. Appeals didn’t get him anywhere, forcing Kithier to sit and watch his Clarkston teammates march to the state championship.
That time, Kithier believes, has helped him be prepared this season.
“It was definitely weird not playing the whole year last year and then this year not knowing when I’ll get minutes,” Kithier said. “But I think it’s definitely helped me see the game better. You can watch the game from a different perspective, you can talk to people about their thoughts on the game. So, I think mentally it’s really helped me a lot
“I really don’t know but I def think my basketball IQ wouldn’t have improved as much. I’ll say that for a fact. It’s just really hard to tell siting out. You can look at it the same way as an injury.”
What Kithier has done this season likely won’t get noticed simply by looking at box scores. The 6-foot-8 forward only played double-digit minutes once in the first 23 games this season and hasn’t played at all in six games.
Almost every time he played, however, Kithier seemed to make a play or two that was critical to Michigan State winning a game. He had six points and five rebounds in a win at Iowa then had a career high eight points in a career-best 18 minutes in a victory over Minnesota.
But it was when Ward suffered the hand injury three games ago against Ohio State that everything changed for Kithier. He played 10 minutes in that win over the Buckeyes then played 11 solid minutes against Rutgers. It was another 11 minutes in the Spartans’ victory over Michigan last Sunday as he scored two second-half points, grabbed three rebounds and contained 7-foot Michigan center Jon Teske.
“It feels great, the fact the coaching staff has the confidence to throw me in there,” Kithier said. “When Nick went down in the middle of a game or if it’s a Big Ten game and (Xavier Tillman) gets two fouls and they throw me in there and trust me. That definitely helps you out a lot.
“Your game improves, and you’re not scared. You can go in there and the coaching staff really trusts you. That’s been a huge thing knowing the coaching staff trusts me.”
As long as Ward is out, the coaches will continue to count on Kithier, whose jump has been seamless. Or, at least, it has seemed to go almost without a hitch.
It didn’t just happen, though. Kithier admits it was an adjustment early on, but he’s put in plenty of work — Izzo pointed out Kithier has already become a film junkie — to get to the point he’s comfortable being used in whatever role the team needs.
“Definitely from high school to college is a huge jump,” Kithier said. “Not every game in high school are you playing a quality big. Every game here you’re playing somebody good, where in high school you could go 10 games without playing somebody solid. It’s just different. But really, like after the first two or three games you’re just like used to it and have an understanding of how the flow of practice is and how things are done around here.”
With just three games left in the regular season, Kithier will continue to play his role, being whatever the Spartans need. But he has an eye to the future, too. He thinks he can become a lot like Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, one of the best big men in the country.
“He’s a phenomenal player and can take people off the dribble and post guys up,” Kithier said. “That’s something I want watch more tape on and try to go off him.”
He’s not at Happ’s level yet and there’s no guarantee Kithier becomes that type of player. There’s hope he does someday, but for now, he’ll keep doing all the little things while maintaining the confidence from his coaches and teammates as Michigan State chases another Big Ten championship.
“You need a grunt guy, a guy the opponents don’t know much about,” Izzo said. “You need a guy that comes out of nowhere and plays better than anyone thought he would play. He’s been that guy for us and I’m happy for him.”