Cam Thoroughman has always been defined as a "role player" at West Virginia, and in one respect that's true. He converted himself from a scoring wing in high school to a gritty, do-what-it-takes defender and rebounder in college, and as such has been unfairly pigeonholed in that slot. While there's no doubt that Thoroughman deserves a great deal of credit for battling through near-crippling knee problems and totally reshaping his game, there's much more to him that that.
Take, for instance, his interactions with fellow center Deniz Kilicli in WVU's recent wins over Cincinnati and Seton Hall. In each contest, at important points in the second half, Thoroughman delivered quick, intense and direct messages to Kilicli. Each time, they seemed to take hold, as the big guy responded to the pep talks with solid play.
The first occurrence came against the Bearcats. When Kilicli came on as a sub for Thoroughman midway through the second half, West Virginia was beginning to throttle its foe with the strong defense that has become its trademark in recent weeks. Thoroughman, not wanting to lose that intensity, grabbed Kilicli by the head and shouted some encouragement and motivation before heading for the bench.
"I was just into it," Thoroughman said of the brief interlude. "I wanted to have some urgency, and get him moving. I just wanted to help him out."
Four days later, Kilicli got involved in a verbal flare-up with Seton Hall's Herb Pope, who tried to goad the big sophomore into doing something silly. The verbal jabs were the capper in a line of Pirate tricks, including one in which Kilicli was pulled to the floor by a grab of his shorts. Kilicli didn't respond in an overt manner, but Thoroughman was right there to make sure he didn't.
"He told me the other guy [Pope] didn't have anything to lose [by doing that], but that I did," said Kilicli as he recounted the incident. "He just made sure I wasn't going to do anything silly."
Taken by themselves, the incidents don't appear to be of great import. Put them together, add in more instances that the public doesn't see in practice and on the bench, and they become an indication of the vital role Thoroughman is playing in the maturation of the team. It's no mystery as to why West Virginia is defending better and playing harder over its last four games. As the leadership factor on the team has improved, so too has its play, and Thoroughman has been a big part of that.
"Some of the young guys don't realize the importance of certain things, and I was in those same shoes, and someone did that for me [when I was younger]," Thoroughman explained. "Deniz has unbelievable talent and unbelievable potential, and I am just trying to do everything I can to help him. That's just one of the areas where I have been trying to lead and make a difference."
Just as the screens he sets and the battles for position he initiates are often unnoticed, so too are these leadership moments. Making himself a bigger part of that process has been a journey for Thoroughman and the other seniors on the team, but it looks as if it's finally paying off.
"We have to lead ourselves before we can lead other people, and I think we're starting to put all of that together," the Ohio native said. "I think it might be changing the morale of the team."
The leadership arena is just one place that Thoroughman is making his mark, however. There has been, of course, the increased scoring over the last two games, in which he has totaled 14 points and displayed the ability to knock down mid-range jumpers. Despite quips to the contrary from head coach Bob Huggins, Thoroughman was a solid shooter in high school, and it was only after the aforementioned knee injuries that his shot became somewhat skewed. He's also going up against much bigger players when he gets the ball in the post, and without much spring left in his knees, scoring over people inside is also a challenge. However, even Huggins said that he has been encouraging Thoroughman to shoot the ball when left alone by defenders, and he has responded by making the most of those chances. Although Thoroughman shouldn't be expected to put up double digits in every game, his ability to knock down a shot or two outside the lane could help West Virginia's offense achieve a bit more consistency.
Then, of course, there's defense. Thoroughman made his mark there by being an "energy guy" battling much bigger and taller foes with a variety of tactics. He also recently unveiled another weapon in that fight, which we're calling the "woo-woo" defense.
When he's matched up against bigger players that aren't as much of a threat to put the ball on the floor, Thoroughman crowds them relentlessly, yelling "woo-woo", waving his arms, and poking at the ball whenever possible. On one level, it looks a bit like a middle school tactic, but on the other hand, there's no denying its success. USF and Cincinnati centers were both affected by the ploy, and each committed a pair of turnovers when faced by Thoroughman's distracting actions.
"It definitely bothers people," Thoroughman said. "We've been trying to show energy and show enthusiasm, and I think that's a perfect way to show it. You're out there talking and high-fiving and everything, so I thought, heck, when the guy gets the ball why not scream and yell too? It's worked a few times."
The move is just another addition to the long list of reasons fans appreciate Thoroughman. With his hustle, hard work and determination, he has made himself into a much more vital part of this year's Mountaineer team than anyone would have predicted. His abilities in some of the finer points of the game are often overlooked, and he deserves more credit for them. But there's no doubt that his assumption of one of the leadership roles has been a key element in helping WVU climb back up the Big East standings.
"I think you find the best about people through adversity," he said of the losses, both in games and personnel, that West Virginia has weathered. "People dig down deep, and you find out who really cares. You are finding out that these guys are really good people and mean a lot to this team."