Scotch Plains native and current Duke senior power forward Lance Thomas knows this is it.
It's his last chance for him to play on the grandest of sports stages: The NCAA Final Four. Duke, a staple during the NCAA Tournament's final weekend – the Blue Devils have made 10 Final Fours under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewksi – hasn't made the Final Four since 2004 and gone beyond the Round of 16 during Thomas's career.
"It's been pretty tough to handle not being able to advance to the Final Four," Thomas said. "We're Duke, we're expected to advance far and compete for championships."
This year, Thomas, who has started 16 of Duke's 17 games and is one of the team's two co-captains – sterling senior point guard Jon Scheyer is the other – has carved out a niche with this year's team, which stands at 15-2 overall as the Blue Devils begin their trek through the arduous Atlantic Coast Conference. Duke is 3-1 in ACC play thus far.
"I don't mind being the enforcer down low," said Thomas, who's averaging 5.4 points and 3.9 rebounds a game. "I'm very good at it and I've embraced the role and my position on the team."
If Thomas, who was highly touted coming out of Newark's St. Benedict's Prep, ended up at Rutgers or Seton Hall, he probably could've been more of a focal point on offense and putting up bigger numbers offensively and defensively. But he has no regrets about picking Duke.
"I made the right decision," Thomas said. "I've moved on from that, it's been four years and I'm keeping my eyes on the prize. I'm at a college that's always on TV and in contention for the national title. If I went to another program without Duke's pedigree, I wouldn't be in this position."
Thomas, who was born in Brooklyn and moved to Scotch Plains when he was five, played high school basketball two years at Scotch Plains-Fanwood before transferring to Newark's St. Benedict's Prep. While there, Thomas flourished under the tutelage of ex-Seton Hall standout Danny Hurley (brother of famous former Duke point guard Bobby Hurley) and became a 2006 McDonalds High School All-American.
What was the reason he transferred from Scotch Plains-Fanwood? Thomas said it was simple.
"It was basketball-related," said Thomas about his transfer. "Going to St. Benedict's helped me prepare for college, both academically and athletically. Everybody I grew up with didn't look at me differently upon my transfer."
Thomas, whose mom, Lily Irvin, still resides in Scotch Plains, loves and embraces his hometown. A number of his family members, mom included, made the train ride from New Jersey to New York on Dec. 20 to watch Thomas play at Madison Square Garden (Duke won 76-41 over Gonzaga).
"Scotch Plains is my home," Thomas said. "I'm very proud to be from there and I have many friends still in the area and graduated from Scotch Plains-Fanwood."
Thomas, who's majoring in visual arts and spent 2009 interning in Duke's Athletic Department designing game programs, also spends time participating in the Role Model Speaker Series at the Emily K Center in Durham.
"It's important to give back to the community, especially here at Duke," he said. "The game of basketball has given me a lot and it's essential for basketball players to give back, especially to kids that enjoy playing the game."
With a little over two months left in his college basketball career, Thomas hasn't thought much about playing in the NBA or professionally overseas; or even getting into the graphic arts field upon graduation. He's thinking about just one thing.
"I'll cross my future path when it comes," he said. "Not winning is something I'm not used to and I want a national championship."