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College Basketball: Isaiah Cuthbertson

SALISBURY — Mars Hill’s Rick Scruggs has spent 35 years in the coaching ranks, a lot of it at the Division I level, but he’s never seen anyone quite like his 6-foot-6, 220-pound senior Isaiah Cuthbertson.

“He’s as good a rebounder as I’ve ever coached,” Scruggs said. “He plays with great energy, he gets position, and he’s got a feel for where the ball is coming off. And when he gets to where the ball is, he knows what to do.”

Cuthbertson, a West Rowan High graduate who spent two years at Catawba Valley Community College before arriving at Mars Hill, is currently second in the South Atlantic Conference in rebounding with 8.7 boards per game. He trails only Lenoir-Rhyne’s Rob Noyes, who checks in with a 9.4 average.

“It’s not like I’m a high-flyer, but I do have a good sense of where the ball will go when a shot is missed,” said Cuthbertson, a second-team pick on the preseason All-SAC team. “There’s no secret to rebounding. It’s just who wants it most, and who’s willing to go get it.”

Cuthbertson goes and gets it. He averaged 13.6 points and 9.7 rebounds as a junior, when he ranked third among SAC rebounders. His junior season included a monster game in Mars Hill’s Stanford Arena against Catawba. In that one, he pulled down a SAC-record 24 rebounds and scored 26 points. He grabbed 11 offensive rebounds and shot 9-for-14 from the field.

Cuthbertson’s college accomplishments have come against long odds.  As a junior at West Rowan, still growing into his body, he played mostly on the jayvee team. He scored three varsity points.

As a senior for West Rowan coach Mike Gurley in 2009-10, Cuthbertson averaged a modest 5.3 points a game. His potential was starting to show the second half of that season, but his career high as a prep player was 12 points.

Gurley, who calls him “The Big I”  is as proud of Cuthbertson’s late-blooming success as anyone.

“He made himself into a player,” Gurley said. “His  tenacity and hard work as a person are the same traits that make him a great rebounder. He wants it.”

Cuthbertson’s career may have ended the night West Rowan lost to Concord, 67-63, in a Western Regional contest,  but he eventually got a chance to play for Catawba Valley Community College coach Bryan Garmroth. Cuthbertson wasn’t a prolific scorer for CVCC, but he showed he would expend every ounce of energy he possessed as a tireless rebounder. That will to rebound led to a chance to play at Mars Hill.

“He showed what patience and perseverance can do for a person — namely a college scholarship,” Gurley said.

Early in his Mars Hill career, Cuthbertson showed Scruggs he’d landed a diamond-in-the-rough. When the Lions went to Farmville, Va., to play an exhibition game against Division I Longwood, Cuthbertson produced 20 points and 14 rebounds.

He’s had similar production a lot of nights in the SAC, at least when he can avoid foul trouble. He’s aggressive and physical, and he hears more than his share of whistles. He’s been called for 58 fouls in Mars Hill’s 16 games and fouled out for the third time this season when the Lions (7-9)  lost  Saturday at Catawba.

“I almost feel like the refs don’t like me sometimes,” said Cuthbertson, managing a small smile. “My teammates joke about it.  They say the refs have put a ‘hit’ out on me.”

Cuthbertson got his fourth and fifth fouls 10 seconds apart when Mars Hill visited Catawba last season.

Cuthbertson’s foul woes also were part of the reason Catawba won easily Saturday — 86-63 — against a Mars Hill team that played competitively against Lincoln Memorial and Newberry, the SAC’s two nationally-ranked teams.

“Cuthbertson is a grit player,” Catawba coach Rob Perron said. “He’s tough, and he’s smart as far as using his body to create passing angles for his teammates.”

Cuthbertson hopes to lead the SAC in rebounding this season. That’s a reasonable goal, but it’s going to depend on how many minutes he can stay on the floor between whistles.

The interesting new development  is that even after Cuthbertson plays his final basketball game for the Lions this season, his athletic career in blue and gold may not be over.

Cuthbertson is on track to graduate in December, so he’ll still be in school this fall. He’s been approached by Mars Hill football coach Tim Clifton about suiting up for the Lions as a tight end.

Cuthbertson was a member of  West Rowan’s 2009 3A state championship team as a backup wide receiver.  That’s the last time he’s worn a helmet.

“I’ll have some months to lift weights and get ready for football,” Cuthbertson said. “I’d really like to try it.”

It would be a big jump for him to contribute to the football Lions, but Cuthbertson is no stranger to surprising people.

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