Recently we looked at some of the underrated players of the last 25 years in the WVU football program. Today, it’s some of the unsung men’s basketball players in the spotlight. As with our football list, consider this not an attempt to name all the underrated players of the past quarter of a century, but an ode to them.
There are many who would say that Nathan Adrian wasn’t underrated, and certainly he has come to be more appreciated in his post-career years, but there was a time when he actually was booed by the fans.
Adrian was the man at the point on the “Press Virginia” defense that dominated opponents’ offenses. At 6-9 he harassed point guards, dove on the floor, and was responsible as much as national Defensive Player of the Year Jevon Carter for what the Mountaineers were doing defensively.
“When he makes a play like that that, other people maybe think it’s a great play, we see him do it everyday,” Huggins said after one of so many of the plays he made that changed a game. “So I don’t think anybody thought it was anything out of the ordinary.”
Adrian was a vital cog even though he never averaged 10 points a game, struggling badly through one year shooting because of a painful cyst in his shooting wrist. As a sophomore he shot just 30 percent from the field, including 17 percent from 3-point range, but he never complained, never revealed the problem, trying to play through it because he knew if he did reveal what he was going through he wouldn’t be able to play.
His career scoring average was just 5.7 points a game but that was because he sacrificed for the team..
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WVU’s 2010 Final Four team under Huggins belonged to Da’Sean Butler and his late-game heroics, to say nothing of the rebounding and scoring of Kevin Jones and the all-court presence of Devin Ebanks, but this was a team where there were two underrated players who made it what it was.
Wellington Smith was a starting forward, Cam Thoroughman came off the bench.
They were different types of players, Smith a smooth complementary player who never averaged more than 6.6 points and 4.1 rebounds a game, but who was always there when needed. Thoroughman came off the bench with more effort and moxie than fluidity.
Thoroughman played only 11.2 minutes a game for his career and scored only 1.5 points per game, averaging more bruises than points, but he gave the Mountaineers a tough-guy edge.
“Cam was a 6-foot-5, maybe 6-foot-6 center in the Big East and he did everything you asked him to do,” Huggins said a couple of years ago. “He played hard and played physical and wanted to win in the worst way. I’ll take those guys. I’d rather have those guys.
One of Thoroughman’s greatest moments came in the Coliseum against Notre Dame tough guy Luke Harangody, a star player.
“He cared, man. He cared,” Huggins said. “One of the greatest moments in Coliseum history was when he and Harangody went at it and everyone in the Coliseum was giving him a standing ovation, but that’s what West Virignia is. They appreciate hard work. It’s a state of hardworking people.”
Smith’s performance on that Final Four team was appreciated far more by the players than the fans.
“People definitely overlook him more than anybody,” Butler said during that Final Four run that ended with a loss to Duke after the Mountaineers throttled Kentucky. “He brings so much energy. He does all the dirty work. If he wasn’t here, we wouldn’t be able to guard any big person.
“Last year he was the guy who had to guard (Pittsburgh’s) DeJuan Blair and (Louisville’s) Samardo Samuels and (Connecticut’s) Hasheem Thabeet.”
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WVU has had some great point guards over the years but the least appreciated may have been the first one John Beilein had as he replaced Gale Catlett (and, yes, Dan Dakich, who was at WVU for about a week) and that was J.D. Collins.
Collins was 5-10 and not highly recruited, having scared recruiters off when he played hurt his last year in high school.
In 2002 he wasn’t on WVU’s recruiting list, but then who was, as the coaching situation changed so dramatically, ending up with Beilein when Huggins wasn’t interested at the time and Dakich found problems in the program that he didn’t want to take on.
Collins wanted to play in the big time, so much so that he paid $100 for a Greyhound bus ticket to take a 36-hour bus ride to visit WVU as a recruit.
“Getting on that Greyhound bus was the worst experience ever,” Collins said, having reached the pinnacle of the sport, awaiting to play Louisville in an Elite Eight game that could have taken them to the Final Four. “It was a 36-hour ride, and I had to make some annoying transfer stops. Once I got there, the braids I had back then were coming loose. And they lost my luggage.”
Collins wound up playing four years for Beilein and was just the kind of point guard Beilein appreciated. Though he scored only 3.9 points a game for his career, he dished out 402 assists against just 166 turnovers.
And at key moments he was at his best, beating St. John’s on the road, 67-66, with a basket with just 1.4 seconds left — his only basket of the game on one of his two shots — and then playing his heart out as WVU built a 19-point lead against Louisville in the Elite Eight, scoring 11 points with five assists in 37 minutes in a game WVU would lose in overtime.
So spent was Collins at the end that he laid on the court for endless minutes, not an ounce of energy left in his body.
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WVU has one of those underrated players on its roster today in Gabe Osabuohien, a player who averaged only 1.7 points a game last season, who made only 14 field goals in 29 games played, who shot only 34 percent from the field and 39 percent from the free throw line, yet was one of the team’s most important players.
He was the man who gave Derek Culver rest, who keyed the defense with his endless hustle, grabbed offensive rebounds and changed games by his presence on the court, especially at the defensive end, where he took 23 charges — probably more, as many seemed to be called blocks — and led the team in deflections …. maybe the world.
Osabuohien, a Canadian who transferred to WVU from Arkansas, may not have scored much but his big offensive game last year was the 10 points he scored against No. 1 Gonzaga.
And he set the tone for the team’s work ethic, both on the court and off it.
“Gabe puts time in, Gabe puts a lot of time in,” Huggins said.
“I said basketball is like your girlfriend, if you don’t pay any attention to her, you’re probably going to lose her. If you don’t pay any attention to basketball, it’s going to get you. When guys don’t get in the gym, they don’t get extra shots up, when they don’t show some appreciation, it gets them. And we’ve had guys being guilty of that but Gabe gets in the gym.”
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Brent Solheim was a Bob Huggins type player before Huggins got back to WVU, playing for Gale Catlett from 1995 to 1998.
He wasn’t a star, but he wasn’t a role player, either. He was what he was, a hard-working, consistent player who did exactly what Catlett needed him to do.
He mixed things up on the inside, made more shots than he missed, played defense and from year to year was virtually the same player. He averaged 8.3 points as a freshman and finished his career averaging 8.0 points a game. Solheim was a banger, fouling out of 13 games, but he gave WVU the Big East style center it needed.
Solheim could stand for a whole group of underrated, physical centers who played at WVU over the years, including the likes of Kevin Noreen, Deniz Kilicli, Elijah Macon and Jamie Smalligan.