BUFFALO, N.Y. — There was a play here on Thursday afternoon that, even amid the constant churn of pressure and energy of a West Virginia win, managed to stand out. With the fifth-seeded Mountaineers leading Bucknell by seven with 15 minutes left, Bison forward Zach Thomas attempted to inbound the ball from in front of the West Virginia bench by bouncing a pass to guard Avi Toomer. But Toomer was being hounded by Nathan Adrian, the 6’ 9” senior forward who heads the Mountaineers’ vaunted full-court press, and despite Toomer’s bumping Adrian and cutting to his left to create space, Thomas’s pass was not wide enough to elude the defender’s reach. Instead, in one motion, Adrian dove to the floor and intercepted the pass, then turned to bounce a pass of his own from his back to teammate Lamont West, who caught it on a beeline to the hoop and soared without dribbling for an immediate dunk.
It was the kind of play coaches rave about, an uncanny mix of savvy, effort, and athleticism, of the things big and small that inch a team’s odds of winning that bit further in the right direction. (It was followed, on the ensuing inbound, by Adrian falling backward to draw an offensive foul on Toomer to force a turnover again.) But when West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was asked about the play during a post-game press conference, he offered no soliloquy on the virtues of hustle nor did he expound on the extent of Adrian’s value to his team. Instead Huggins more or less shrugged.
“When he makes a play like that that other people maybe think is a great play, we see him do it everyday,” Huggins said. “So I don't think anybody thought it was anything out of the ordinary.”
That play, in other words, is Adrian’s m.o. He is third among West Virginia players in scoring (9.9 points per game) and assists (2.9), first in rebounds (6.1) and perhaps tops too in significance to the team-wide defensive prowess that has earned the team its “Press Virginia” moniker and driven it to Saturday’s second-round matchup with Notre Dame. He harasses ballhandlers trying to bring up the ball. He switches onto smaller guards in the halfcourt and matches their every step. He throws his body to the floor in a crash of limb-on-wood collisions in pursuit of loose balls. When asked about Adrian’s importance to the defense that ranks first nationally in turnover percentage, Mountaineers assistant Ron Everhart says, “He’s the whole deal.”
If Adrian seems particularly well-cast as a representative of West Virginia, that’s because he is. He grew up in Morgantown and is an avid deer hunter on his family’s 2,000 acres of land in Barbour County, 45 minutes south of town. (“We did a gun range one time as a team,” says Mountaineers guard James Long, Adrian’s closest friend on the roster. “We did like 50 different shots—pistols, rifles. He missed two shots all day.”) He began regularly attending Mountaineers basketball games with his family as a grade-schooler, decked out in blue and yellow, and as he began to grow into something of a prospect himself, he nodded along to interest from smaller schools while angling for a hometown offer that would need no evaluation. When West Virginia finally came calling, before Adrian’s junior year of high school, no sales pitch was needed. “It didn’t take too much,” Adrian says. “They just gave me an offer and I accepted it. There wasn’t much recruitment there.”
Adrian was the first Morgantown High player to receive a hoops scholarship at West Virginia since 1956, when Jay Jacobs stayed in town to play alongside Jerry West, but Adrian’s local celebrity did him few favors. A solid first season off the bench begat a disastrous sophomore campaign, during which he averaged just 2.8 points while shooting 30.7% from the field and 17.7% from three. Out came the social media pitchforks, and the physical world was not much kinder. Fans booed at the WVU Coliseum. Friends around town passed along second-hand criticism, in a misguided attempt to keep him in the know. “We were walking to class one time,” recalls Long, “and these four guys yelled out of a truck, ‘Hey, Nate! You suck!’”
What neither spectators nor coaches knew was that Adrian’s right wrist was in such pain that he could hardly lift his shooting hand backward. He stayed silent so that he could stay playing; only after the season did an examination reveal that a cyst in the joint was impairing its movement, as was tendinitis in the same hand. “I figured I just broke it so it’d get better over time,” says Adrian, nonchalantly. “But it didn’t, so eventually I had to say something.” (Here there is precedent. As a high school senior, Adrian played through a broken second metatarsal in his right foot. Asked how the injury occurred, Adrian explained it “just kind of happened. Foot went numb.” Asked how he managed to play on it, Adrian smiled and repeated himself: “Foot went numb.”)
If the pain of fans’ criticism registered more deeply, he made sure few saw. “He would just brush it off like, ‘Eh, oh well,’” says Long. Adrian realized he was no longer enjoying playing, but vowed that he had not quit anything in his life, and basketball—especially basketball at his hometown, dream school—would be no such first. He began spending extra time working on his ballhandling and challenging guards one on one to improve his footwork, biding his time for redemption. “Not a lot of players say, ‘I’m gonna go to the gym and work on my defense,’” says Everhart.
By midway through his junior season, Adrian had ample chance to showcase improved skill and spirits alike. In January he was inserted into the starting lineup in place of injured forward Esa Ahmad for a home game against Kansas State. The crowd booed his introduction but could only cheer his 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, and Adrian has remained a starter ever since. Two weeks later he took part in an athletic department Facebook video reading “mean tweets” from fans. “Nathan Adrian is the primary cause of stress in my life,” wrote one who goes by @DerekCrane2. Adrian read the tweet aloud and then deadpanned, “Thanks for caring, buddy.”
One glance in the stands at Mountaineers fans imitating Adrian’s headband-centric look will show how many others care now too, and how differently they do so. Should the Mountaineers emerge Sweet 16-bound, it will likely be because the local kid nearly run out of town has now proven an essential cog in Huggins’s chaotic, balanced, relentless machine.
“He’s made himself a hell of a player,” says Everhart. “On the other hand you look at it and say, damn, what are we gonna do when he leaves?” With each now-routine dive, Adrian hopes to delay the answer that much more.