Oscar Tshiebwe is experiencing a lot of basketball firsts this season at West Virginia University.
Veteran WVU coach Bob Huggins has been quick to point out that this is only Tshiebwe’s third season of organized basketball and it is also the first time he has played against competition that can — sometimes — match up with the native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo listed at 6-foot-9 and 258 pounds.
It is also the first time Tshiebwe has been asked to play on the same team and at the same time as another player who can match his size and strength. That player, in this case, is 6-foot-10 Mountaineer sophomore Derek Culver.
The duo has the potential to be one of the best frontcourts in the country, but there have been some growing pains through the first month of the season.
On paper there is a lot to like about the pairing. Having two true big men who can run, defend the paint and are capable on the offensive end is a rarity in college basketball these days, but there are some hurdles the pair needs to get over.
Culver and Tshiebwe have been on the floor together with varying results, and for one reason or another the duo has been forced to split time in the Mountaineer lineup at times too. They have each had very good games this season, but getting both players to have big games on the same night has proven difficult so far for Huggins and West Virginia.
It took some time for things to click for Culver last season as a freshman. Once they did, he turned into one of the Big 12’s best forwards. There have been flashes from Tshiebwe signaling he is starting to get it, but there have been almost as many moments where you are reminded of his inexperience.
Now Culver has taken Tshiebwe under his wing with one more month of non-conference play before the Big 12 portion of the schedule begins on Jan. 4 at perennial league and national powerhouse Kansas.
Huggins said Culver has been a good teammate in situations where it could be easy to become frustrated as the freshman learns on the fly.
“It has never been a problem, to this point,” Huggins said. “Actually, Derek tries to help Oscar as much as he can. I can see where Derek would get frustrated too because Oscar is not where he is supposed to be in a lot of instances. We’ve got a lot of work to do with him in terms of understanding spacing and knowing what we’re trying to run and what we’re trying to accomplish with whatever we’re doing. We clog things up so bad, it looks like roller derby.”
Culver said it is simple — he wishes he had an older teammate who could help him make a smoother transition to the college game last season, so he wants to make sure he provides that service for Tshiebwe this season.
“I’m trying to show him the ropes like I wish somebody would have helped me last year when I got thrown into the fire,” Culver said.
Against Rhode Island on Sunday, Tshiebwe was in the starting lineup but Culver was the star. The Youngtown, Ohio, native scored a career-high 25 points to go with 11 rebounds off the bench to lead the Mountaineers to the win. Tshiebwe started slow and sat for stretches with foul trouble before WVU coaches and Culver gave the freshman a halftime pep talk.
“I told him, ‘Yo, bro just relax. Everything is going to come,’ ” Culver said. “’Just look at you — you’re 6-9, 250-whatever the case may be. Bro, you’re a freak of nature. A lot of people don’t want to be bothered with that all of the time. Be on them constantly, constantly, constantly and they’re going to break.’”
Even with the encouraging words from Culver, it took Tshiebwe some time to get into a rhythm in the second half against Rhode Island before he made some important baskets and grabbed several key rebounds down the stretch as the Rams refused to go away late in the game. Culver said he didn’t say much to Tshiebwe on the floor during the final 20 minutes. He had told him what needed to be said during the break, and now it was time to see if the freshman could figure it out.
“Any basketball player who is at this level has been there before and you’re going to struggle,” Culver said. “You’re not going to go out there and knock the lights out every time. There are going to be times you are going to face turmoil and you’re going to have to figure out what you’re going to do.
“Once I saw him go through that without me saying anything — when he worked that out on his own — that’s how I know there are not going to be too many times when I have to say something to him. He’s going to figure it out on his own.”