Two seasons ago, Fred Thatch was one of the only bench players the Billikens had going into the NCAA Tournament. A team that carried a minimal rotation of players, essentially asking its starting five to play 35+ minutes every single night and there was Fred Thatch Jr, a surprise freshman role player out of Sikeston, Missouri.

He became known for his ability to cause havoc on defense, rebound effectively, and chime in on offense in the moments when called upon. Essentially, he was excellent at not making mistakes. He was there when you needed him and never found himself being the odd man out.

Last year, the odd man out was exactly what he became.

Sidelined for virtually the entire season with an illness that remained a mystery to him, his trainers, and his doctors. The illness caused extreme cramping and exhaustion, essentially making him unable to play or practice for any extended period of time. For the first half of the season, everyone around the program believed he would potentially rebound and overcome the illness in time to play that season. Ultimately, he did not play again, formally shutting down his basketball season in February, leaving him to focus on his education and getting healthy. The Illness was ultimately diagnosed as a variant of isolated myalgia tied with him having the Sickle Cell gene.

Fortunately for Thatch, he seemed to have turned a corner in his fight to get back onto the court over the summer and came back to the team in the fall looking to once again battle for not only a roster spot but to become the key figure he was shaping up to be after his freshman year.

That path has not been obvious this year, but it is there if you look deep enough. Through the Billikens first seven games, in which they are 6-1, Fred Thatch Jr has had very pedestrian numbers. Averaging just 3.3 points and 3.2 rebounds per game and playing 12 minutes a game, his impact has been minimal. But there’s something there.

In the Billiken’s first loss of the season, Thatch was a breakout player. He played 20 minutes, had 11 points with 8 rebounds, including an astonishing 5 offensive rebounds. He used his amazing athleticism to leap over opposing players and play some of the best defense of the year, slowing down a surging Marcus Carr (who had 32 points on the Billikens) and ultimately kept the Billikens in the game. All physical marvels that seemed impossible a year ago when he couldn’t run in practice for more than 15 minutes at a time.

“He’s slowly getting back into shape, he’s slowly getting his rhythm back,” Head Coach Travis Ford said after the Billikens loss to Minnesota, where Fred Thatch had his first breakout performance. “I thought he really took a big jump in that game to where he just looked comfortable and I wouldn’t say he looked comfortable in our first couple of games. And that’s natural.”

Dec 20, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Saint Louis Billikens guard Fred Thatch Jr. (20) drives to the basket as Minnesota Gophers guard Both Gach (11) guards him during the second half at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

“He was able to knock some of the rust off and get in shape. But no question it was good to see him make some of the plays that we hope and knew he could make that we haven’t seen in a while. The aggressive defensive plays, and he made some really good decisions on offense and that shows you that he’s getting his feel back.”

Fred has a long way to go in terms of getting his form back. After not having played a competitive college basketball game in over a year, and even longer if you consider he only played a sparing 6 games in his season last year, there is some feel to the game he still has to regenerate.

Fred Thatch Jr is the type of individual who is always looking for opportunities to grow. He sets personal goals in addition to the team goals and looks for ways to improve even in the worst situations. Last year after not playing all season, he showed that grit in getting onto the A-10 Commissioner’s honor roll for his success in the classroom and maintaining a 3.0 GPA or above for the entire year.

This year, Fred says he is looking to find the positive in every situation:

“In every game there’s always something that you can take out of the game.” Fred said before practice after the Minnesota game, “I feel that no matter how the game goes, each individual has personal goals or personal things that they try to get better at, mentally or physically…even if you lose the game you can try to work on your defense or something and you try to pick up habits that you need. So that’s still a plus if you can take something out of the game. So, I felt that game really helped…I hate that we lost but I got something out of it for sure.”

Thatch needs time to get back into the swing of things. Still, his performance was a reminder of what he could be, and, if everyone is patient enough, what the future of SLU basketball could look like. Thatch has been granted an extra year of eligibility from a hardship waiver due to his injury last season. In tandem with this season not counting towards players eligibility due to a blanket COVID blanket waiver, Fred will have another three seasons after this one where he could suit up for the Billikens. Hypothetically, he could have six full school years at school and get a bachelor’s and master’s degree paid for.

Fred Thatch was dealt a bad hand last season, but he’s on the way back.