WATERVILLE — Last year, Levi Barnes was listening to pitches from college basketball coaches who were trying to convince the Skowhegan Area High School senior to come play at their school. It was what wasn’t said by Thomas College head coach T.J. Maines that convinced Barnes that he wanted to be a Terrier.
“He never promised me anything. He never promised me I’m going to get playing time,” Barnes said of his meeting with Maines. “He came in and told me I had to work hard to get minutes, and that’s what I really liked.”
Just a few weeks of practice and two games into his college basketball career, Barnes earned playing time and a start. Barnes scored 16 points on 50 percent shooting in his first career start, a 115-111 win over the University of Maine at Machias. In the Terriers’ season-opening 99-76 win over the University of New England, Barnes came off the bench to score six points and grab six rebounds.
After his solid debut, Barnes was named the North Atlantic Conference Rookie of the Week. Thomas (2-0) plays at Green Mountain College in a conference game Friday.
“He loves the game. Any positive things that come his way, he’s earned,” Maines said. “We were very happy he decided to come here. He’s an exceptional athlete. Offensively he can be explosive. He can score in bunches.”
A 6-foot-2, 175-pound guard, Barnes chose Thomas over a handful of schools, including Plymouth State, Colby-Sawyer and Malone University, a Division II school in Canton, Ohio. Along with Maines’ candid approach, Barnes liked Thomas’ proximity to his Skowhegan home and the up-tempo style the Terriers play.
“I was really intrigued by the style of play,” Barnes said. “We run an up-tempo offense, which I think is really good for us, because we have really quick guards. I think it just fits us perfectly.”
Barnes made just 3 of 13 shots in the season opener. He followed that with a strong 7 of 14 effort the next night. Only junior guard Franklin Salvador took more shots for the Terriers in their first two games, and that’s fine with Maines, who wants Barnes to shoot as much as possible.
“The style we’re playing, we want guys to get shots up. We have confidence in him to take those shots,” Maines said. “He has confidence in himself. The older guys love him, because he works harder than just about anybody. He puts the time in, and they all saw that this fall.”
Barnes is just 2 for 12 from 3-point range, but Maines said he expects that percentage to improve. The Terriers run a drill called Sprint Shooting, which consists of taking perimeter shots at a fast pace.
“(Barnes) made, one day, it was 28 of 31. You’re sprinting the whole time. It’s not an easy drill. We know those shots are going to go down,” Maines said.
Barnes chalked up his first game shooting as just one of those nights.
“I didn’t really shoot the ball well, but I also did things to help the team win,” Barnes said. “Play defense, go after loose balls, try to rebound. Yeah, I had some freshman jitters, but the second game, I think I really helped our team a lot. I think I just got into the rhythm of the game better.”
Maines is just as excited to see Barnes develop defensively as he is to see the newcomer’s offense improve.
“So long, people probably said, ‘Oh, he’s not a good defender,’ because if you say somebody’s good on one end of it you have to say something negative. That’s always been his hangup. He’s going to have the opportunity to be a pretty good defensive player for us,” Maines said. “I don’t have to correct him too often. If I correct him once, the second time he does it the right way.”
When this first season is complete, Barnes wants to look back and know he’s improved.
“I just want to become a better overall player. I also want to win a championship,” Barnes said.
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242