Cuthbertson the player is helping to establish Cuthbertson the school
by Aaron Garcia
Following his team’s two-game slide to open the 2010-2011 season, Cuthbertson High boys basketball coach Mike Helms wanted to use the Cavaliers’ disappointing start as a teaching moment.
Last season, they swatted conventional wisdom and finished their first season with a 15-11 mark and a playoff berth without a single senior on the roster. This season, the Cavaliers would have to concentrate on teamwork in order to build on last year’s success, so he reiterated that point after the losses.
“We were talking to (the team) probably last week about having to give up self and (how) you really have to play for the name on the front of the jersey and not worry about the one that’s on the back of that shooting shirt,” said Helms, referring to the shirts his team uses to warm up before games. Each shirt has the players’ last names on the back.
Helms paused and looked at his star senior center.
“Well, except Mike,” Helms said with a chuckle, “because his name’s on the front, too.”
That would be Mike Cuthbertson, who does a little bit of everything for the Cavaliers.
But just because Cuthbertson got an apparent reprieve from Helms because of his last name – at least during that particular meeting – doesn’t mean he’s played like it. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. He’s been central to the Cavaliers’ success this season and is expected to be all year long.
Mike Cuthbertson is Cuthbertson High’s first star in what is shaping up to be an impressive program. The 6-foot-6 Cuthbertson averaged 16 points and over 10 rebounds a game last year and has continued his strong play this season for the Cavaliers, who sport a 2-2 record.
With few exceptions, he’s one of the tallest players in Union County this season, and teams must approach a game against the Cavaliers with some kind of plan to stop the high-flying performer. He’s not just big; he’s among the strongest athletes at the school and has surprising quickness and explosiveness, especially around the basket. Think Issac Blakeny from last year’s state-championship Monroe team.
Last year, although he’d started at Parkwood the previous two years, Cuthbertson and his team were relative unknowns in the area, and they took advantage of that fact, even recording a five-game winning streak. But this year, it’s not uncommon to see opposing teams stick two or three defenders on him.
That, Helms said, is where his standout is learning to make the biggest impact.
“Everyone’s game-planning for Mike,” Helms said. “We’ve been trying to tell him, ‘Look, everyone’s going to double(-team) you, now. You’ve got to do a better job of being patient and reading those double teams and spreading the ball around out of those (double teams). Then, when we’re making shots, that’s going to open things back up for you. So you’ve got to be a little more patient about getting your opportunities.
“In our league, he’s going to be as good as any post player we play, so everyone’s trying to prepare for him and take him away,” said Helms.
For a player who’s always been among the biggest and most explosive athletes on the court, the change in mind-set has been an adjustment. But it’s coming, Helms said. In a 79-30 win over Central Academy on Dec. 7, the coach was impressed with how his player let the game come to him rather than trying to bully his way through double and triple teams.
“That’s going to be a work in progress.” Helms said. “He’s going to be better at that some nights than others, but he’ll get it.”
One thing he won’t have to adjust is his play on the defensive end of the court. He anchors the Cavs’ defense from the back and serves as a tall safety valve. Few players will beat him to the basket. And if they do, they still have to contend with his long arms and impeccable timing that have sent many a layup attempt into the stands.
“He can have that kind of effect on a game,” Helms said. “On the defensive end, its not just when he’s blocking shots – it’s the shots he changes just because he’s there. They rush it because he’s there. There’s always that thought (of) ‘Where is he?’
“You rush your shot, or all of a sudden you’re not focused and concentrating, and you don’t finish,” added Helms. “He contributes to us when he’s not blocking shots.”
Before joining the Cavaliers, Helms was the coach at Porter Ridge High, and he was content. Even after he was offered the job at Cuthbertson, Helms was a bit hesitant. He told administrators he needed some time to sleep on it.
And he did, at least for a few hours.
“I was up at about 5 a.m. (the next morning), drawing plays up for Mike,” said Helms. “I was sitting out on my back patio because he’s the kind of kid you can build around.
“Mike was a big factor in making the switch from Porter Ridge,” continued Helms. “I was in a good situation there, but this is a little bit closer to home and I was getting a post guy that I knew could make a difference. When you’ve got that guy, it changes the way people have to play you.”
Surprisingly, the Cavaliers’ centerpiece is a bit of a neophyte in the game of basketball, at least as a post player. As a youngster, he was a point guard. From fourth to eighth grade he had the ball in his hands. When he got to Parkwood, he outgrew the position, at least relative to the Rebels’ team needs at the time. So he moved down to center with mixed results.
“As a freshman and sophomore, (opponents) pushed him around,” said Cuthbertson’s father, Raymond Nixon.
As the head coach at Porter Ridge, Helms still liked what he saw in the spindly underclassman.
“He was a skinny little freshman when he first started out in the post at Parkwood, but you could just see so much potential,” Helms said. “I still don’t think Mike’s scratched the surface of what he can be.”
In a little more than a year of playing for the Cavaliers, he has evolved into one of the county’s best. But still, the coincidence is impressive. And since he promises to be at the top of several statistical categories in the school’s record book by the time he graduates, it will continue to be.
But not as impressive as the player’s plans for Cuthbertson the school.
“Everyone asked me if I helped build the school (when I first got here),” he said. “I was like, ‘No, but I can make a big name for it.’”