One of the main strengths of the West Virginia University men's basketball team was obvious last season. The Mountaineers could go big.
In Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, WVU featured two of the top young post players in college basketball. And the Mountaineers get them this season with another year under their belts, Tshiebwe now a sophomore and Culver now a junior.
As good as the two have been, WVU coach Bob Huggins sees important areas where the two can grow. And he sees how much their return has helped some of the Mountaineers' newer post players.
Both Tshiebwe and Culver were Big 12 honorees after the COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 campaign. Tshiebwe was named the all-conference second team, all-newcomer team and all-freshman team. Culver was earned all-conference honorable mention. They were two of the Big 12's best rebounders, Tshiebwe finishing second (9.3 per game) and Culver finishing fifth (8.6 per game).
Huggins said their ability to score needed to improve. Tshiebwe was 20th in the conference (11.2 points per game) and Culver was 24th (10.4 points per game). The key, he said, will be for the duo to use their size and strength, even if it feels foreign.
“Obviously, our downhill slide started at Oklahoma when we were 0 for 21 from inside 4 feet,” Huggins said Thursday. “Obviously, they've got to score the ball. They're working at it. There's some mechanical things that we've got to get straightened out. But it's hard.”
There are bad habits that both need to break, Huggins said, and both Tshiebwe and Culver must attack the basket with more force. The two spent their earlier years in the sport not needing to play that way down low. Now it's a necessity.
“Derek has spent a lifetime missing easy shots,” Huggins said. “Oscar has missed a lot of easy shots. We've got to get them to finish inside. We've got to get their head on the rim. It's hard to score, man, when you never look at the rim. You kind of throw it up there and hope. I think that's what we did a year ago and we can't do that anymore. And they understand that.”
That improvement, and the work needed to achieve it, is something Huggins hopes will rub off on the rest of the Mountaineers' backcourt players, especially highly touted freshman Isaiah Cottrell. Cottrell was a national top-100 player coming out of Huntington Prep and, at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, he provides another big body beside the 6-9, 260-pound Tshiebwe and 6-10, 255-pound Culver.
Huggins appreciates Cottrell's skills. He passes well, shoots well and handles the ball in Huggins' estimation better than most of WVU's post players. Yet the freshman is learning quickly that size alone only gets a player so far in power-conference college basketball.
“I think he'll be the first to tell you that it's hard, particularly for a big, because people are bigger, stronger, faster,” Huggins said. “They get to the ball so much faster. It's so much harder to move and he's finding that out.”
That's why it will be important for Cottrell to get those practice minutes on the floor with Tshiebwe and Culver when practice begins this week. It also helps that WVU signed another Huntington Prep big man, 6-10, 235-pound Seny Ndiaye, as another post player to work with.
All that, Huggins said, should get Cottrell ready to go when the Big 12 schedule begins.
“You're playing against men,” Huggins said. “It's not high school anymore, you're playing against men, real men. I think that can do nothing but help him.”