Daily Collegian (2024)
Daily Collegian (2024)
Devin Lippman

Stoic, steady and reliable: Keon Thompson stayed at UMass and it’s paying off

Frank Martin’s unshakeable point guard is a perfect fit

No one really knew how to go about the loss.

Some had just played in the last college basketball game of their careers, so it’s understandable that sadness and disappointment were prevalent emotions in the locker room. But for others, that game was the final obstacle they’d been waiting for before moving on. Their heads had been elsewhere for some time.

Just three members of the Massachusetts men’s basketball team knew what they wanted and what they had with Frank Martin. Matt Cross, Rahsool Diggins and freshman guard Keon Thompson trusted what Martin could do; the trio talked after the season and knew they had something there.

Richmond beat UMass 71-38 in the opening round of the 2023 Atlantic 10 Tournament. It was even uglier than the score suggests.

The Spiders scored more points in the second half than the Minutemen did the entire game. Thompson started, but played just 15 minutes, shot 0-for-8 and finished with one point, one assist and three turnovers.

“After the game it was really embarrassing,” Thompson said, “and I didn’t really want to show my face after that.”

The loss killed what once was a promising first season for Martin’s Minutemen and decimated the roster. Almost everyone left, and Thompson could’ve gone out the door, too.

Freshman year was in the books, but it wasn’t one to remember. The next time Thompson walked on the court for the Minutemen, he looked different. His small afro and sideburns gave way to a buzz cut. He changed his number from 22 to 5, his favorite.

But Thompson’s steady personality remained the same — and how could it change? He’s been that way his whole life. There’s stoicism and perhaps an apparent indifference in his face, but a clear level of focus. With a calm voice, he says he tries to never get too high or too low.

The six-foot guard hails from Merrillville, Indiana, a town of 35,000, about 45 minutes southeast of Chicago. He’s Merrillville High School’s all-time leading scorer and record holder for most points in a season with 1,353 points, and in a game with 52.

Thompson looks like he could be a linebacker for Don Brown’s football team. He’s listed at 210 pounds but looks closer to 225. His shoulders and arms are massive, which can make his jumper look a little clunky. Sometimes he wears black tape on his left shoulder to prevent a recent recurring issue from getting worse.

Daily Collegian (2023) (Kayla Wong)

Relaxed, unbothered posture and easy eye contact complete the look. Match his mindset with a solid and explosive frame, and voilà: the prototypical Frank Martin point guard.

In this case, lateral quickness isn’t lost with the huge lower body. He can squat 415 pounds, but also stay in front of opposing ball handlers better than last year. The chase-down block pinned against the backboard has become a signature move.

Late during a win over Rhode Island, Thompson followed a Robert Davis Jr. missed three with a spectacular put-back layup. Thompson slowly preyed on the board from the weak side. He timed the jump, exploding off both legs and extending his arms up and over the two centers who were fighting for position under the basket, essentially laying the ball into the hoop over them. The play showcased his athleticism and feel for the game. He flew in for the board over four players who were in better position. Every pair of arms in the Mullins Center went up.

On the offensive side of the court, Thompson’s ability to change gears and explode to the basket for a layup seems unstoppable at times, as if the defender’s feet are rooted to the ground. It shouldn’t be that easy to get from A to B in a straight line. Yet he does it like how a wide receiver with new cleats burns a cornerback wearing Vans.

The sophomore’s decision to stay at UMass paid off almost immediately in the short-term — with an eye-opening performance as the Minutemen’s new starting point guard in the season opener against Albany — and in the long run, as UMass skyrocketed up the A-10 ladder with him as the primary ball handler.

He helped the Minutemen to a 20-win season and a top-four finish in the conference, earning direct qualification to the quarterfinals of the A-10 Tournament for the first time since 2008.

After UMass went on a 1-3 stretch at the start of conference play, Thompson picked up the slack himself. He scored in double figures for seven straight games, averaging 13.4 points and less than one turnover per game while leading the Minutemen to a 5-2 record over that time.

One of the clearest aspects of his improvement was the pacing and control in his play, much improved over the offseason. The cliché rang true: the game slowed down for Thompson. He makes the right reads and plays on two feet. Unlike last year when excessive responsibility forced him to grow, he now looks comfortable and measured.

What’s changed hasn’t necessarily been his skillset. It’s his mindset. He goes into games with a free, relaxed mind. “Whatever happens, happens,” he says.

“[I’m] just not overthinking anything, just playing off my natural instincts as a basketball player … going with the flow, wherever my mind is at in the moment, and just [carrying] on from there.”

That freedom was never easy to come by for Thompson, a graduate of Hargrave Military Academy, where he played for a year after high school.

Hargrave toughened him. It’s an extremely strict and regimented private, all-male, military boarding school in Chatham, Virginia.

The academy’s campus is small but beautiful. Rolling hills and full trees surround a few large Colonial Revival-style brick buildings with white windows — just like some of the halls at UMass. According to Thompson, Virginia is more isolated and sparse in comparison with Western Massachusetts. He says it was a ghost town next to the school.

Like many others, Thompson went there to play basketball — the school’s program molded NBA players like David West, Josh Howard and Terry Rozier — but while athletes had it easier than regular cadets, a routine like his could break anybody’s spirit.

An average day for Thompson would be some iteration of the following: wake up at 6:15 a.m. to a loudspeaker, like the ones in war movies; make his bed very carefully; get out to the hallway and line up for roll call. Then have breakfast and put on the specific uniform for that day before getting out for formation. Thompson went to class, got lunch, and went to class again; more formation, followed by some type of extracurriculars; get screamed at. Then his day started: basketball practice, lifting, homework. Formation. Finally, 10 p.m. roll call.

Sometimes, Thompson would be so tired he’d come back to his room at the end of the day and jump on the bed with his clothes still on, sweaty and dirty, falling asleep in seconds.

He didn’t like life there. Yes, he attended Hargrave for basketball and played at an incredibly high level. He was named a second-team prep school All-American. He scored over 2000 points in his high school and prep career. But Thompson didn’t enjoy the stress of sergeants and TACs screaming at him constantly. He says life is freer and more relaxed in Amherst, but he’s just overqualified to withstand Martin’s coaching style.

Make no mistake about it; Hargrave didn’t change Thompson. The straight-faced personality has been there since he was a kid. People have always pointed it out to him. His father is the same way, and his sister is quiet too. Going to a military academy perhaps strengthened his body, mind and sense of duty, but it didn’t make him quiet and reserved.

“Only thing I can tell that [Thompson] went to military school is how strong he is,” Diggins said with a laugh. Then he got serious. “He is very disciplined. He will not fall for peer pressure, he’s his own person. He doesn’t drink, smoke, party. He just plays the game and shoots basketballs, mostly.”

Daily Collegian (2023) (Jonathan Shi)

Thompson took some of the habits and routine to Massachusetts with him. He likes to stay busy, focused on his path. But when the recruit arrived at UMass it was a change. The environment wasn’t conducive to his style. The locker room was distracting; some players didn’t focus. The situation was especially harmful for a freshman, and it got worse when the Minutemen lost eight of their last 10 games in 2023.

“It was embarrassing, honestly,” Thompson said.

“Just losing. Losing was embarrassing. It got to the point where the vibe — it wasn’t there. There were sparks, but it wasn’t clicking.”

According to Martin, people were in Thompson’s ear telling him to get out of there after his first season, but he stayed out of loyalty for the coach. Leaving wasn’t ever on his mind. The cool headed, almost unemotional point guard had a job to do.

“Something was just telling me [to stay] …” Thompson said. “It’s a lot that went into it. Just going through a long year, me getting thrown into the fire like I did, just the team falling off in conference play. It was a lot going on, I was just in the midst of everything … trying to figure everything out as the year went on.

“I don’t know, something’s telling me, just the vibe was telling me, ‘Give it another try.’”

A month after the Richmond game, the only players left working out in the Champions Center weight room were Thompson, Cross, Diggins, Gianni Thompson (who also left eventually) and the walk-ons. The trio got closer and Thompson began to open up more.

That moment marked the start of a new season, and an entirely different one. When new recruits started coming in, the energy in the building improved. Players were focused on winning and progressing. Martin mentioned the selflessness of this group quite often throughout the season.

Thompson was at the forefront of that new wave of energy. He said Martin pushed him to grow as a leader, physically and emotionally, guiding newcomers with his newfound understanding that it’s a long season. The guard was never the vocal kind, so he always led by example, but this time he made an effort to increase his vocal presence on the court too.

When watching Thompson from year one to two, there’s a clear difference in confidence. He’s gotten to the point where he can be considered an organizer. Now he can scream and wave teammates into the right position when needed.

His consistent presence, a stoic mindset and appearance keep himself and the team grounded. With him on the court, the Minutemen won the turnover battle in 22 of 29 games. Thompson himself averages a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio on the year, fourth-best in the league.

Martin emphasized to him the importance of accountability on both good and bad days, advice Thompson took to the heart.

During a February game at La Salle with UMass as the heavy favorites, Thompson picked up a second personal foul four minutes into the game. Martin benched him for the entire half. While Thompson sat, the Explorers built a double-digit lead they never relinquished. But Thompson never let the benching negatively affect him to the point where it also affected his teammates.

“Obviously as a competitive player I’m irritated,” Thompson said. “As a competitive player, I’m trying to play … Especially when I see we’re on a tough stretch, I want to get back in. During the moment I’m trying to stay positive, I’m trying to encourage my guys no matter how frustrating it may be sitting on the bench.”

His growth as a leader wouldn’t have happened if he never warmed up to his teammates. If there’s anything about Thompson that those around him agree upon, it’s that he won’t open up until he knows someone.

That’s why UMass’ summertime trip to Puerto Rico came at the right time for Thompson and the Minutemen.

The NCAA allows schools to go on foreign tours once every four years, and this one gave UMass a head start in building chemistry after an offseason of turbulence and change. It helped the brand-new squad bond right away by spending the entire day together and playing basketball against pros for hours in a gym that more so resembled a sauna.

When Thompson and Diggins were out in Puerto Rico, Thompson said he hadn’t talked to a girl in a long time — Hargrave’s all-boys policy didn’t help — as he contemplated approaching someone. Diggins laughed recalling the story.

“He’s older, 20, 21, and you know what he said to her?” Diggins’ voice was still loaded with amusement as he quoted Thompson’s pickup line: “‘Hey, you’re adorable.’ And I just looked at him and said, ‘Bro, she’s not a kid.’

“He ended up getting her number.”

During that trip, Diggins realized this was a new Thompson. He got closer to his teammates, and not just the returners, but the younger guys and the transfers, too.

Another aspect that helped UMass turn it around with an almost entirely new roster was the fact that Martin returned his two starting guards, Thompson and Diggins. It means the players who control the game already know what Martin wants.

As Thompson and Diggins conducted the team’s growth, their relationship flourished. Lifting together in the offseason with such a small group — after most players had left — expedited that process.

“[Thompson] was the person I found so I could stay in the gym, that was the person I followed after, and when we had a routine going we clicked since then, and then we ended up being roommates. We’re the older guys here, so we always stick together and clique up, I guess. I think us being roommates and this year us having to step up into different and bigger roles brought us closer.”

No one has gotten a better view of ‘Key’ than his roommate. That includes a level of familiarity with Thompson’s habits and his true, open self.

Diggins confirmed that the guard eats an amount of food proportionate to his amount of muscle.

“He eats a lot. [Thompson] is a greedy person,” Diggins said with a smile. “He loves the Five Guys trips. He’s big on pancakes, stacks them up.”

When Diggins walks past Thompson’s room at night, he’ll often hear rain sounds. Thompson uses them to shut down and sleep, and pairs them with headphones and a sleep mask. Throughout the day, Diggins says Thompson will pop his head out here and there to mess with his roommates, but he’s usually calm in the room. Diggins will hear him yelling in a game or cooking in his little crockpot.

“[Thompson] actually talks a lot,” Diggins said. “He’ll play around, make little jokes … It’s kind of like, you ever watch ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’? The first impression’s like, ‘ah he’s mean, yeah whatever,’ then at the end of the movie he’s all happy and everybody loves him. That’s [Thompson]. That’s [Thompson] to me.”

Diggins knows him well enough to decipher the patterns through which Thompson avoids expressing emotion. The tough military kid can even be bashful after telling a joke. “He will laugh, look at you and look down,” Diggins said. “That’s his M.O. right there. Laugh, look at you, look down.”

Naturally, after getting to know each other off the court for two years, their chemistry improved immensely on the court as well.

“He knows when I’m about to shoot, I know when he’s about to shoot,” Diggins said. “I could be in the game in the corner, and I can see how his man is guarding him, and I’ll yell from the corner, ‘go, just go.’ And then you’ll see him get a downhill layup. But the chemistry thing I think is more so on the defensive end. I know if I’m pressing the ball up top, I know if [Thompson’s] behind me, I’m safe. No matter who the person is in front of me, I know if [he’s] behind me I’m safe.”

Cross, the third returner and another of the team’s crucial leaders, says he spends more time with Thompson than with anybody else. Cross says Thompson’s demeanor reminds him of himself as an underclassman.

“[Thompson] does the straight face and that’s because he doesn’t open up to you unless you really know him,” Cross said. “To the public he’s like that but once you get to know him, [he] is one of the funniest dudes. He doesn’t talk to anybody he doesn’t know, he’s quiet, he does his own thing, he seems so monotone, straight face all the time, but you just got to dig deep.”

“He doesn’t trust a lot of people, but when he trusts you, he’s the best guy to have in your corner,” Cross said. “I love Keon.”

Whether it’s shyness, a way of protecting himself or just a byproduct of his upbringing, Thompson’s carapace no longer fools those who are familiar with him.

“We know that it’s fake,” Diggins said of his straight-face personality. “At this point, he plays so much, like he plays a lot. I play a lot and he plays with us. At this point, the team knows when people say like, ‘oh Keon always has a straight face,’ they’ll be like, ‘yeah it’s fake.’ He’s really a goofball. Coach [Martin] knows it.”

He does know it. And he takes advantage.

On a sunny afternoon in early December, the bright glass lobby of the Champions Center was lively after practice. Staff were in the adjacent weight room, 45-pound plates hitting the floor, music blasting through the speakers. Some of the players were having lunch at the tables on the far side of the spacious room. Aluminum foil trays full of food lined another table. Thompson was pulled aside to the sofas for post-practice media availability.

A few minutes into the interview, Martin walked by with his unmistakable slow, heavy step. Thompson interrupted himself mid-answer the moment he noticed Martin in the background.

“Bro what are you looking at?” Thompson confronted him, probably sarcastically, accusing Martin of making faces behind the reporters’ backs.

Martin approached the sofas and asked the media if they knew about Thompson’s nickname, “Lil’ Key.” Thompson instantly rebutted, “It’s Big Key!” Martin yelled to the tables across the room, asking Cross to support his claim.

Cross was clearly an accomplice. He popped his chair back and confirmed the “Lil’ Key” moniker. Thompson could only shake his head when Martin teased him in front of the media. To add insult to injury, Martin labeled Thompson a small dude and “the pet of the team.”

“[Thompson] is [Martin’s] go-to,” Diggins said. “If he wants to make somebody laugh, he goes to [Thompson].”

There are two ways to tell whether Martin loves a player. One, he screams at them; two, he makes fun of them. Thompson has been Martin’s number one target for either treatment. Unfortunately for Martin, Thompson has played so well that the coach simply can’t yell at him as often as he’d like.

Daily Collegian (2023) (Jonathan Shi)

After UMass beat Fordham in the season finale without Thompson — who was nursing a foot injury before the conference tournament — Martin praised, to a level rarely seen before, an under appreciated aspect of the guard’s skillset: his “unbelievable” ball-screen defense. Thompson’s absence only highlighted his strength in the everyday arts of basketball. He isn’t always flashy, he isn’t a lights-out shooter, and he certainly isn’t an extravagant personality. But Thompson’s steadiness and reliability turned him into the bedrock of the team.

The season-opening win against Albany showed what was to come both this season and in future years. He had a lot of limitations, as all freshmen do, but he was always the Frank Martin type. Suddenly, it was clear Thompson could take the reins of the team.

“It’s a 30-point game and [Thompson] went headfirst into the sidelines going after a loose ball, created a dunk [for Diggins] and it was all him,” Martin said. “That’s the kind of energy that he brings every day. I know his teammates respect the heck out of him.”

At every step since his arrival to UMass, Thompson has had a crucial role to play. He stepped in during his first year when the team suffered from injuries, and he never dwindled or faded. In his second year, he was the one to shepherd Martin’s almost entirely new roster, leading and providing the new freshmen a better environment than he had. Now, he’s set to return from injury just in time for the Minutemen’s clash against VCU in the A-10 quarterfinals Thursday.

Martin would’ve struggled to find a more perfect fit to start off his tenure at UMass.

“I coach to see kids like [Thompson],” he said after the Albany game. “I don’t like to share private stuff about individuals publicly, but I will say this. [Thompson] stood his ground and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I belong here.’ He could have left. You don’t lose your last game of season by 40 without there being some kind of dysfunction in your locker room. And he said ‘no, Frank’s my guy, and I came here to help.'”

“And that’s what he did.”

Pedro Gray Soares can be reached at [email protected] and followed on X/Twitter @P_GraySoares.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *