LAWRENCE, Kan. — The West Virginia University men’s basketball team did not win its Top 25 clash at No. 3 Kansas on Saturday, but one Mountaineer newcomer showed why he was perhaps the most anticipated WVU recruit this century, if not ever.
In the build for Saturday’s Big 12 opener at KU’s Allen Fieldhouse, much of the attention was on how West Virginia’s two big men — sophomore Derek Culver and freshman Oscar Tshiebwe — would handle playing against 7-foot Kansas center Udoka Azubuike, the league’s preseason player of the year.
Culver held his own on the boards against the Jayhawks, but otherwise was not great. If somehow folks around the Big 12 had not heard of Tshiebwe prior to Saturday, it only took 20 minutes for the freshman — making his debut in conference play at one of the toughest places to play in the country — to make his presence felt.
Tshiebwe finished the first half with 15 points and 10 rebounds, mostly in direct competition with Azubuike. He was much less spectacular in the second half, finishing with 17 points and 17 rebounds as West Virginia’s 10-point lead late in the first half was erased and surpassed by the Jayhawks. Still, it’s hard to imagine the show Tshienbwe put on in the first half at the “Phog” will soon be forgotten. Certainly not by Azubuike, at least.
“Oscar, [he’s] a grown man,” Azubuike said. “I’ve never played against somebody like that.
“[Tshiebwe] is hard to move in the paint. I tried to box him out and he wasn’t moving.”
The Kansas center was not the only Jayhawk impressed with Tshiebwe’s performance on Saturday.
“We had to play small in order to have a chance to drive it in there,” KU coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t play very tough at all in the first half. Oscar just dominated.
“You can’t simulate [Tshiebwe’s size and physical presence] in practice. Those weren’t fouls. Oscar, he’s a monster.”
Remember, as Bob Huggins likes to point out, that Tshiebwe is not a basketball lifer. Last season’s Mr. Basketball in Pennsylvania has only been involved with organized basketball for a few years and is (sometimes more than others) obviously still very green in some aspects of the game. Saturday, against one of the nation’s premier players and in one of the hallowed arenas in the sport, was just another lesson along the way.
“I learned a lot,” Tshiebwe said. “College basketball is tough. You’ve got to use your head. You have to be tougher to play at this level.”
That commitment to learning and getting better every day has made an impression on Huggins. Tshiebwe might not make all the plays, but he takes well to coaching and never ties to do too much.
“The beautiful thing about Oscar is that Oscar’s Oscar,” Huggins said. “He doesn’t try to be anybody else. He’s really good at what he does and you don’t have to worry about him going out and dribbling the ball between his legs and losing it or jacking up 3s like some guys in his situation would do.
“Oscar knows who he is. Oscar is happy with who he is. — and he’s pretty damn good at who he is.”
Consider yourself warned, Big 12 teams. Performances like the one Tshiebwe put on in the first half Saturday draw high praise from one of the league’s best players and two of its best coaches. There were signs during non-conference play that this kid could be special and nothing that happened Saturday in Kansas did anything to make one suspect the Big 12 will be too much for him to handle.
If the Mountaineer big man can stay on the floor (fouls have been a issue at times for the freshman), expect more ‘monster’ games from West Virginia’s “Big O” in the near future.