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January 27, 2010
Perhaps he should have set his sights higher.
Whiteside leads the nation with 5.4 blocked shots per game. Only 10 triple-doubles have been recorded across the country this season, and Whiteside has two of them. His instant impact has allowed Marshall to emerge as a contender for the Conference USA title.
"I knew coming in that I'd be the best freshman at blocking shots," Whiteside said, "but I really didn't know how good I'd be against all the seniors and juniors and sophomores in the country."
Marshall (15-4, 4-1 Conference USA) has lost two in a row, but the Thundering Herd are just a game behind first-place UAB in the conference standings heading into Wednesday's home showdown with Memphis (14-5, 4-1).
The Herd probably wouldn't be enjoying this level of success without Whiteside, a 7-footer who ranks as one of the season's biggest surprises. Although he's already an elite shot blocker, a few years ago Whiteside was struggling to earn consistent playing time on his high school team. His lack of coordination and confidence kept him from making the most of his physical skills.
"He was very, very raw," said Anthony Tavares, a coach at East Side High School in Newark, N.J. "He had a nice form on his jump shot, but he really didn't have a clue on how to play basketball."
But what he lacked in polish, Whiteside made up for in work ethic. Tavares remembered how Whiteside would go directly from practice to the local gym, where he would spend a few hours lifting weights and playing more basketball. By the time he left East Side for The Patterson School in Lenoir, N.C., Whiteside was starting to develop into a legitimate prospect.
"Probably in my 10 years of coaching, I've never seen someone improve as much in a short period of time as Hassan did," Tavares said.
Before long, his body was growing at a similar rate. A 6-inch growth spurt late in his high school career caused Whiteside to sprout to 6-11 during the recruiting process. Whiteside now is a legitimate 7-footer who may not be done growing.
Because he didn't have the height of a typical Division I post player until recently, Whiteside spent much of his teenage years developing perimeter skills. His combination of size and athleticism has helped him as a shot blocker.
"He's got really, really incredible timing," Marshall coach Donnie Jones said. "He's got a 7-7 wingspan, so that tells you how long he is. But it's not only his length. He can really time shots."
Whiteside's emergence at The Patterson School helped make him the No. 87 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class. So it came as something of a surprise when he signed with Marshall, which has had just one winning record in the past eight seasons.
At the time he was being recruited, Whiteside knew Marshall primarily as the alma mater of his favorite football player, New England Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss. Whiteside also was familiar with the movie "We Are Marshall," which chronicled how the school and community came together after the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 Marshall football players and five coaches. He soon learned about Jones' background working with Florida post players Al Horford and Joakim Noah as an assistant on Billy Donovan's staff.
Whiteside eventually decided on Marshall primarily because he wanted to help build a program rather than becoming a cog in an established power. Whiteside may look more like Goliath, but he identifies with David. "I've always been for the underdogs," he said. "I always felt like I was an underdog."
Marshall's era as an underdog ended almost as soon as Whiteside stepped on campus. Marshall returned four starters from a team that went 15-17 last season, and Whiteside's arrival gave the Herd the post presence they had lacked.
Whiteside already owns Marshall's single-season record for blocks with 102, and he is threatening to set the NCAA freshman record for per-game blocks; he's at 5.37 and the record is 5.44 by Northeastern's Shawn James in 2004-05.
After Whiteside had 14 points, 17 rebounds and nine blocks against Ohio in an early season victory, Ohio coach John Groce reportedly compared Whiteside's defensive abilities to those of Portland Trail Blazers center Greg Oden. Groce coached Oden while working as an assistant at Ohio State.
Whiteside has received similar praise from other coaches.
"You get a [7-footer] in the middle who's leading the country in blocked shots, and it's going to make a difference," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "They can show some different things defensively because of him, because they've got a goalkeeper. It's just hard to get it in the basket against him."
While recruiting experts predicted Whiteside could make an instant impact as a shot blocker, conventional wisdom before the season labeled him as a defensive specialist who would need a couple of years to develop an all-around game. But instead of being a liability, Whiteside has emerged as a key performer on offense.
Whiteside averages 12.7 points per game to tie for the team lead. He also ranks second in C-USA in rebounding (9.4) and third in field-goal percentage (.559).
"I always thought I had good offense but, really, when you're a really good shot blocker, it usually overshadows your offense," Whiteside said. "People usually said I'm a really good defensive player, but I always thought I was good at both ends of the court."
Whiteside's play has raised speculation about how long he might stay at Marshall. Whiteside already is projected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft by nbadraft.net, while draftexpress.com projects him as the No. 9 selection in that draft. Of course, he could choose to enter the draft as soon as this year.
Whiteside turns 21 on June 13, making him older than most of his classmates. But he doesn't seem in any hurry to enter the pro ranks.
"Right now, it looks like I'm probably coming back to Marshall," Whiteside said. "I want to win a conference tournament. And I just want to get bigger."
Whiteside is listed as 235 pounds and knows he must add some muscle before he can handle the physical rigors of the NBA's 82-game schedule. And the guy who loved Marshall's underdog nature also doesn't want to leave until he has helped the Herd earn their first NCAA bid since 1987.
"I wasn't even alive then," Whiteside said. "To come in and take them [to the tournament], for a community that's been through tragedy and all that and hasn't seen the team do that in a long, long time, it would be real exciting around here."
Marshall's return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than two decades certainly would create plenty of excitement. But it wouldn't be nearly as stunning as Whiteside's transformation.
"It's an unbelievable story, to be honest with you," Tavares said. "From when he first got here to what he's doing now, it's unbelievable."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.