IImar'I Thomas' brain works differently than most.
She's a genius. Literally. After skipping a grade in elementary school, Thomas arrived on the University of Cincinnati campus at just 16 years old.
Four years later, the 5-foot-10 senior forward has become one of the best women's basketball players in program history.
"I really love the game. I study it. I live it. I breathe basketball," Thomas told The Enquirer. "That's all I'm ever really doing. Just watching it, trying to get better."
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made everything about this season unpredictable for third-year Cincinnati head coach Michelle Clark-Heard and the UC women's basketball team. Games have been postponed or cancelled, the Bearcats' roster has been riddled with injuries, and Thomas and her teammates have been forced to live in isolation outside of practice and on game days. But through the turbulent ride that has led to a 3-10 (2-7 AAC) record, Thomas has been the one steady constant for Cincinnati.
"Her IQ is very high," Clark-Heard said. "She wants to do a lot of things right all the time. So what I need from her is to not get frustrated, just continue to be that coach on the floor for me. She's really worked to become more vocal, but she's leading by example. I mean, look at her stats, she's basically leading our team in every category."
Thomas is averaging 23.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game this season, all career-highs. Entering Wednesday's home game against Wichita State, Thomas led the American Athletic Conference in 10 statistical categories.
Thomas helped take the program to new heights last season, leading the Bearcats to their second-straight 20-win campaign and an appearance in a conference tournament final, both of which hadn't happened since 2002-03.
Cincinnati lost in the AAC tournament championship game to the University of Connecticut, the team that partly inspired Thomas to leave her hometown of Oakland, California, four years ago and venture to Cincinnati.
"It allowed me to be on the stage that I've always wanted to be on," said Thomas, who scored 14 points in the loss. "I always said that I wanted to be able to play at the highest level. I came in and played three years against UConn, the No. 1 team in the country, usually, and in this conference. So that allowed me to play against the best and really get a chance to showcase my game, play on national television."
Connecticut left the American and rejoined the Big East Conference this season, paving the way for the Bearcats and thrusting Thomas to the front of the line of the AAC's top players.
Thomas, who was the conference's Freshman of the Year three seasons ago and a first-team All-AAC selection in each of the past two seasons, opened her senior campaign as the American's Co-Preseason Player of the Year along with Temple forward Mia Davis.
But with Thomas being one of the most potent offensive players in the league, teams have done everything in their power this season to keep her from taking over games.
"I've probably faced every defense I've ever faced in my career just in this one season," she said. "I've faced box-and-one, double-teams, people not even letting me catch the ball. I guess it's frustrating at times, but it's a respect thing so I'll take it."
Despite seeing a variety of different looks from opposing teams, Thomas said, "I can still get mine."
Thomas has done just that for four years. Her .588 field goal percentage is the highest in program history, and she ranks eighth all time with 1,656 career points. Thomas is on pace to be third on the all-time list by the end of the season. That would put her behind No. 1 Cheryl Cook (2,367), the only UC women's player to have her number retired, and No. 2 Valerie King (2,156), a player Clark-Heard coached in the early 2000s when she served as an assistant under then-UC head coach Laurie Pirtle.
"She stacks up right at the top with them," Clark-Heard said of Thomas. "Just because of everything that she's done. Not only what she's done in her career, but how she's grown every year. And this year, man, this year, it really puts a stamp on how much she's grown and who she is."
Off the court, Thomas is pursing a degree in sport administration with a minor in communication as she eyes a career as a sports agent. That will happen after she fulfills her dream of playing professional basketball, she said.
Thomas unplugs from basketball by plugging in the online video game "Fortnite" or watching "Harry Potter" fantasy movies.
On the court, Thomas' legacy is no fantasy. Regardless of how the remainder of this season goes, she will go down as one of the best to ever play at Fifth Third Arena, Clark-Heard said.
"In my mind, when you think about Cincinnati women's basketball, IImar'I Thomas is going to be one that everybody is going to talk about for a long time."