The forward came off the bench in seventh-seeded West Virginia's 73-67 win over two-seed Duke on Saturday to score four points and grab four rebounds. Two came on a key possession inside five minutes left, when the Mountaineers not only ate a full minute off the clock, but extended their lead to 62-51 on Thoroughman's lay-in off a feed from Joe Mazzulla. The display was likely a shock for a national audience that had yet to get much of a glimpse of the sophomore.
That's also about how much time WVU had seen him play of late. Thoroughman had not seen any postseason action – and had recorded just 10 minutes in 10 games since West Virginia began its surge into the NCAA Tournament after a loss at Villanova on Feb. 20. The 6-7, 215-pound post in a forward's body had served basically as insurance, head coach Bob Huggins using him for fouls and time. He didn't expect much more in the round of 32. But with much of the team in foul trouble, Thoroughman entered with 11 minutes left in place of forward Wellington Smith – a first-time starter after Huggins and Jamie Smalligan agreed it would be better if the center sat.
"I was out of options," Huggins said. "We felt like there could be a time where we could use him because he is physical and aggressive and he does rebound the ball pretty well for such a short guy. He really, really understands how to play. That's his best asset, his good basketball knowledge."
That was tested early. In his first four minutes of play, Throughman had as many fouls and turnovers as he had points. The he flipped that switch first glimpsed at Providence in early February, when he came off the bench to provided a pulse to his flat-lining teammates in WVU's 77-65 win. He scored just two points against the Friars, but had three assists and three rebounds to go with a key steal that started a rally.
It was a similar setup against Duke. Thoroughman scored four points and gritted out the rebounds that helped WVU seal the victory and amass a 47-27 edge on the boards. Led by Mazzulla's five and three each from Thoroughman and Alex Ruoff, the Mountaineers dominated the offensive glass with 19 rebounds for 17 second-chance points. It was a clutch performance that almost never came.
Thoroughman, who suffered a severe ligament sprain when his knee popped out in preseason practice, has since had the joint dislocate six times despite doctors telling him there was no need for surgery and that it could simply be rehabilitated. The frequency of reinjury concerned both player and coach and spurred a private conversation before the postseason. Huggins told Thoroughman he might need him down the stretch, but that he could not promise playing time. There were two options: have knee surgery and miss the remainder of the year, or wait until the offseason with the risk that the knee might continue to dislocate.
"He really thought about having knee surgery," Huggins said. "I said to him ‘If you can go, man, we need you.' That's the kind of guys we have."
Thoroughman chose to wait, and West Virginia reaped the benefits to move onto its third Sweet 16 in four years. The Portsmouth, Ohio native, once an afterthought when Huggins was hired, believes he made the right decision.
"I know when I come in, I am not going to shoot a lot of threes or score a lot," Thoroughman said. "I go in there to rebound and play defense and set screens and things. Me and Jamie are similar players in that we only care about the team. We just want to win more than anything else, whether we play or not. I really wanted to go in. I'm always ready. But the main reason I am so happy is that coming in I knew we wanted to go to the Sweet 16, and now we are."
The Mountaineers meet Xavier in the third round in Phoenix, Ariz. on March 27 in a match of the No. 7 and No. 3 seeds. The winner will likely meet UCLA, who survived a test from Texas A&M by scoring on its final possession and getting a last stop. Otherwise, West Virginia would surprisingly be the higher ranked seed playing in the Elite Eight should it win its next contest.
"He is a blue-collar player," Ruoff said of Thoroughman. "He doesn't mind getting in there and mixing it up. He had huge rebounds for us. I think it speaks for itself."
Joe Alexander, emerging star, agreed.
"If you want to understand how we are outrebounding people, just look at Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman as examples. Both undersized, both getting a lot of rebounds. The way we rebounding is outworking people."
And out-toughing them as well.