Exactly three and a half months ago, Rhys Thompson stood in the middle of Branch McCracken. The crowd at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall fell into silence as the fifth-year striker raised a microphone toward his mouth. Tears welled up in his eyes. His voice crackled as he tried to utter words of gratitude.
Thompson didn’t know if it was the last time he wore an Indiana shirt, and on Senior Night, he spoke as if that was the reality.
But after three and a half months, Thompson did not play in a European country. Thompson isn’t preparing for the 2022 NBA draft. Thompson hasn’t moved into a new apartment on a different campus.
Instead, the 6-foot-8 striker and All-Big Ten Honorable Mention is back in Bloomington, heading into summer training and preparing for his sixth and final season with the Hoosiers. His decision to come back wasn’t a dramatic, long process either. Once he became confident and comfortable with his choice, he posted a simple one-minute video on social media with a simple four-letter caption: “Let’s Run It Back.”
For the majority of college basketball players, six years is a long time spent in school, let alone the school itself. Fortunately for IU fans, Thompson doesn’t look like the majority of college basketball players, and his confidence in the only college he’s ever known is what brought him back for one final season.
“I want to leave a legacy here,” Thompson said at a news conference on Thursday. “I think I’ve made a mark. I hope to be able to pick two more imprints next year.” “And I think if I just keep playing the way I can, and maybe play a little bit better, and improve, as I do every year, I think that will really show what a real Hoosier is, and what all of this is about to be a Hoosier.”
Don’t make it crooked, though. Thompson still looks to the future and toward his dreams of playing professionally, even if those dreams don’t come true as quickly as he thought.
But this is where confidence comes into play. It’s a symbiotic relationship between him and IU’s coaching staff – Thompson believes the staff could develop it further; Staff believe Thompson can help move the program forward. If Thompson doesn’t feel comfortable, moving back to Indiana probably won’t be an option.
Except for the coaching staff assembled by coach Mike Woodson, it’s one of the places where Thompson said he feels most comfortable.
“Just having that relationship that we’ve built over the last year, I really trust them. I believe in them. They believe in me,” Thompson said. “They’re trying to make me the best player I can become, and I mean, that’s one of the main reasons I’m coming back. I think if I can improve my game the way they think I can, I can go where I’ve dreamed of going all my life.”
While training on the field is clearly an important factor in Thompson’s comfort, there are also the intangibles he learned along the way.
How to be a leader. How to create a winning culture. How to lead a locker room full of your teammates. It’s all part of Thompson’s maturity over the years, and even as he enters next season as the undisputed Indiana captain, he still allows himself to learn.
“It was so much fun being around (the coaches), coming to train every day and just talking to them, getting better with them,” Thompson said. “They push me to be a leader, they teach me and they teach me every single day.”
Thompson won’t have to ride alone in the cockpit of the proverbial IU ship. For a show that brings back more than 90 percent of its output and experience from a season ago, the often-independent Thompson won’t have to drive alone. He will have six other top players to help set the program’s parameters, including returning star Tracee Jackson-Davis and first point guard Xavier Johnson.
“I think it’s just about three of us being real leaders and showing them how it’s done, because we’ve done that and we’re trying to be better,” Thompson said. “So if we can get these guys, everybody else with us and they really buy the whole program and Coach Woodson and all of our other coaches, I think we can do something special.”
It’s a mindset and culture that Thompson has tried and hopes to instill since becoming a leadership role.
While the taste of success and victory in Thompson’s first four seasons was often rapid, appearing in one game and then disappearing altogether, last season was different. Hoosiers finally heard their name being called on Selection Sunday for the first time at the Thompson rally in Indiana. They overcame a long-running NCAA championship drought—since 2016—for one of college basketball’s most historic programs.
It was in the midst of IU’s Big Ten Tournament, which eventually cracked the Hoosiers’ ticket to the NCAA Championship, that Thompson took a deep breath and allowed himself to learn again. about his colleagues. About camaraderie. about relationships.
Indiana has finally found its recipe for success and rebirth, and Thompson wasn’t going to let these ingredients fall by the wayside this off season.
“If you don’t have a relationship with your teammates, you don’t really have anything,” Thompson said. “So I really keep getting to know them, and feel more comfortable around them, and make them more comfortable around everyone, around me… Make them feel at home and just make them a big family here.”
Although the sudden reaction to Thompson’s return was to immediately consider IU’s potential on the court with her veteran big man back in the fold, if she takes a step back, Thompson’s leadership is arguably the most important asset to return.
While, sure, you likely won’t find many better “sticky guys” in the Big Ten or the nation than Thompson, you’ll be hard-pressed to find teammates looking for a “glue guy” like Indiana does for Thompson.
And even if the Indiana captain doesn’t walk out of the show with the conference or national titles he might have been hoping for, the way he leaves is the way Thompson wants to be remembered most.
““Just a guy who went out and gave his all every time he went and stomped on the court,” Thompson said.