OMAHA, Neb. — Elijah Thomas has a lot of respect for Donte Grantham.
He wore Grantham’s practice jersey in practice Thursday at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha as fifth seed Clemson prepares to play No. 1 Kansas in the Midwest Regional Semifinals Friday at 7 p.m.
“He’s just not a guy on the team, he is our best player,” Thomas said. “He was my best friend on the court before he got injured and he still is off the court.”
Grantham of course got injured on Jan. 20 when he tore his ACL in his right knee in the Tigers’ win over Notre Dame. Since then, he has been like a players’ coach to Thomas and the rest of the Tigers.
“He is coaching me and giving me tips every time I come to the bench,” Thomas said.
Thomas admits this is not the first time he has worn Grantham’s jersey as a tribute. He has done it a few times before. He says each time he wears it, it makes him take a more serious look at his role on the team.
“It allows me to step my leadership up when I am on the court,” he said. “It just reminds me that Donte is not out here and I need to step up and talk to the team and make sure the other guys are in the right place like he used to do.
“I realized when I continued to where No. 32, it allowed me to step my game up.”
Thomas leans on Grantham a lot both on and off the court. He says the senior forward has been like a big brother to him, leading in many different ways.
“Our talks are more on a leadership style of things,” Thomas said. “He wants us to stay focused, stay patient and we will be fine. He kind of gives me that edge.”
Jokingly, Thomas admits he does not always wear Grantham’s jersey in practice.
“I have to keep my swagger going,” he said. “I wear his jersey every now and then.”
And when he does, it always means something special.