Clemson big Elijah Thomas ready to battle KU’s Udoka Azubuike

photo by: Nick Krug

Clemson forward Elijah Thomas comes in for a dunk during practice on Thursday, March 22, 2018 at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb.

Omaha, Neb. — As well as Clemson’s starting guards Shelton Mitchell, Gabe DeVoe and Marcquise Reed have played on the perimeter, directing the program to its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1997, the Tigers think their starting center could hold the key to toppling Kansas.

A 6-foot-9, 237-pound junior, Elijah Thomas might not possess the height or bulk of the Jayhawks’ 7-foot, 280-pound Udoka Azubuike. But Thomas, a member of the ACC’s All-Defensive Team, wasn’t worried about those measurables on the eve of the No. 5 seed Tigers’ matchup with top-seeded KU.

“I think he’s a really great player, but I don’t necessarily feel like my hands are full,” Thomas said in Clemson’s locker room Thursday afternoon, when asked about defending KU’s largest post player. “I play in the ACC. You’re playing against top-quality bigs every game. I mean, I’m from Texas. I’ve played AAU since 7th grade. You see 7-footers all throughout basketball. And we’ll just be ready to play tomorrow.”

Thomas, who averages 10.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game, swatted a career-high six blocks earlier this season against North Carolina. A Dallas native who began his college career at Texas A & M, he once played on the same AAU team as Malik Newman and was recruited by KU coach Bill Self as a prep. Thomas has proven integral to Clemson’s success since the team lost 6-8 senior Donte Grantham (14.2 points per game, 6.9 rebounds) to a season-ending knee injury in January.

“Not having him here kind of hurts. I miss playing with him,” Thomas said, while wearing Grantham’s No. 32 practice jersey at CenturyLink Center. “He made basketball 20 times easier for me. He’s a great passer, he blocked shots. This summer, I was his partner in workouts for conditioning and lifting weights and he pushed me.”

Added Thomas: “With him not here, me wearing his jersey makes me realize I have to step up and play his role.”

The big man’s impact hasn’t been lost on his teammates. Mitchell (12.3 points) said Thomas deserves a lot of credit for Clemson’s run to the Midwest regional semifinals.

“He’s really important. Everybody wants to talk about me, Gabe (13.7 points) and Marcquise (15.9 points), but without Eli we wouldn’t be where we are,” Mitchell said. “The things he does for us — protecting the paint, blocking shots, having a threat inside to where if you’ve got him one-on-one you could be in trouble. When teams double we get an easy shot.”

It will be up to Thomas, as well as Clemson 6-9 backup big Mark Donnal, to try and negate Azubuike’s impact for Kansas (29-7).

Tigers coach Brad Brownell said each of his post players will need to put KU’s recovering center (sprained MCL in his left knee) to work on both ends of the floor.

“We can’t just let him stand under the basket and dunk balls and not have to play defense,” Brownell said.

KU’s bigs spent much of their prep work the past few days discussing Thomas and watching footage of his 18-point, 11-rebound, three-block performance in a second-round drubbing of Auburn.

Azubuike said the speed of the Tigers center, in particular, stood out.

“He really can run the floor a lot,” said Azubuike, adding he isn’t worried his left knee will hamper him in keeping up. “He can run in transition and he’s a really good rebounder.”

Mitch Lightfoot said the Tigers’ transition, and Thomas out-running opposing bigs, was the first subject addressed in a recent video session. KU also examined Clemson’s post defense. Lightfoot said the Tigers (25-9) can trap, play one-on-one or front post-ups inside.

“Dok’s doing a great job in practice when it comes to trapping or something like that, so he’s making great decisions and I think we can keep that rolling into this game,” Lightfoot said.

Thomas’ teammates see a more focused and hungry version of their big man of late, and they trust he is up for the challenge of taking on Azubuike. Mitchell described Thomas as more attentive and hard-working than ever.

“I think Eli will do fine with him in the paint,” said DeVoe, adding Clemson’s guards match up well with KU’s perimeter players, too. “It’s going to be execution — who executes down the stretch.”

Clemson leading scorers

Marcquise Reed, 6-3, jr., G — 15.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 66 of 187 on 3-pointers (35.3%)

Gabe DeVoe, 6-3, sr., G — 13.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 83 of 208 on 3-pointers (39.9%)

Shelton Mitchell, 6-3, jr., G — 12.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 49 of 132 on 3-pointers (37.1%)

Elijah Thomas, 6-9, jr., F — 10.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 56.7% FGs