Lamont West didn't know what to expect when he showed up last season for his first practice at West Virginia and sized up Nathan Adrian. With his long hair and beard, the 6-foot-9 forward looked like he came straight from central casting to play the lead in Jesus of Nazareth. This guy was a basketball player?
West quickly found out who carried the cross for the Mountaineers. He attempted to put a body on Adrian and watched him slip away. Adrian may have been short on natural talent and athleticism, but he was unstoppable. He made up for his slow feet with smarts and competitiveness, like another Midwestern legend, Larry Bird.
"I couldn't guard him at all," West said. "I knew then and there that he was going to be good. Today, he really played hard, and we appreciate that as a team. Without him, I don't think we would have won this game. If you want to go far in the NCAA Tournament, you need guys like him."
West Virginia's chances of beating Bucknell in the first round without Adrian is open for debate, but Adrian's importance to his team is not. Adrian has been the Mountaineers' steady hand and inspirational leader all season, the player his teammates and coach Bob Huggins turn toward when WVU needs direction.
Yes, there were some hairy moments in West Virginia's 86-80 victory over a stubborn Bucknell team that gave WVU a difficult test. The Mountaineers never trailed after imposing their will during a 17-2 run early, but it wasn't as if they coasted home with an easy win and started thinking about Notre Dame.
Nothing is that simple for West Virginia, which last year committed the cardinal sin of overlooking Stephen F. Austin and was promptly sent home with a loss. Adrian understood the importance of sharpening WVU's competitive edge when they showed in Buffalo for their first game in the Big Dance.
If there was anyone who understood the disappointment last season, and the sense of urgency to get things right this year, it was Adrian. He was born in Morgantown and raised in the shadows of the university, like Huggins. He was barely recruited in high school before the only school that mattered offered him an opportunity.
"I was looking for West Virginia's offer, and I got it, so I was happy about it," Adrian said. "Everyone supports us. It means a lot to me to win this for them. That is our pro team in our state, so it's nice for me."
Adrian was booed during his sophomore year while mired in a shooting slump. Little did anyone know, including Huggins, he was battling through a cyst on his wrist that hindered his shooting ability. He never complained about the injury, battled through pain and brushed off criticism.
People respected his refusal to make excuses and embraced him as an old soul who embodied the quiet toughness of his region. He regained his status as favorite son and evolved into a cult hero. Fans wearing his trademark headband were splashed across KeyBank Center on Thursday, which has been their custom all season.
His popularity comes from performing well on the court. He carried West Virginia in the first half Thursday while his teammates gained their footing. He scored four straight buckets during a 5½-minute stretch in the first half and helped the Mountaineers pull ahead. As it turned out, every basket was critical.
"He's a major piece of the puzzle," forward Esa Ahmad said. "He's a glue guy who keeps this team together. He's a senior. We look to him for guidance because he's another coach out there on the floor. It's great to have a teammate like him. And he's like that all the time. That's just him. It's great to have him."
Adrian, who averaged 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds going into the tournament, had 10 points in the first half alone. He finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the game and exemplified WVU's defensive tenacity and teamwork with a bang-bang play in the second half that gave the Mountaineers a 54-45 lead with 15 minutes left.
He was putting pressure on the ball during an in-bounds play when an errant pass bounced off his hands. In true West Virginia fashion, he was the first player on the floor for the loose ball. He grabbed possession and made a perfect pass from his back to a cutting Lamont West for a dunk.
"It's just kind of what we do," Adrian said. "We see a ball on the ground, we get on the ground. We have to go get it. We have to have every 50-50 ball for us to win. I just grabbed it, tried to get my head up and look for the first guy open."
Adrian, with his long arms and range, played the point with West Virginia turning to a 1-3-1 trapping defense that eventually wore down Bucknell. The Bison deserved credit for playing with patience against an aggressive defensive team. At times, they broke the press and exposed its weakness with jumpers from the corner.
Kimbal Mackenzie, a 6-1 sophomore from Oakville, Ontario, played one of his best games of the season for Bucknell. He did an admirable job against WVU's pressure, made some big shots in key situations in the second half and finished with game-high 23 points in defeat. He was 5 of 7 from three-point range.
West Virginia simply was too much to handle.
The Mountaineers will play Notre Dame on Saturday. The Fighting Irish beat Princeton, 60-58, in the first game in Buffalo. West Virginia will have a tougher time shutting down Notre Dame's guards, particularly Matt Farrell. It should be a good matchup between two teams from power conferences.
WVU hasn't gone deep into the NCAAs since 2010, when it reached the Final Four before falling to Duke. West Virginia beat Kentucky to win the regional in Syracuse. Adrian attended the game as a teenage fan. Now, he wants to experience the same success in his final season as a player.
West Virginia would be wise to follow his lead, play with the required discipline, make the necessary sacrifices and continue pressing forward. Adrian isn't going to carry his team to the mountaintop. He's one piece among many, not some miracle worker. He played Thursday like the game was his last.
"It could be any day now, so I'm just trying to enjoy them all," Adrian said. "I don't feel too much pressure. We're just trying to play a solid game. If we play the way we know how to play, we'll be all right."