TCU West Virginia Basketball

TCU guard Jaire Grayer (5) is defended by West Virginia forward Derek Culver during the first half of a Jan. 14 game in Morgantown, W.Va.

Bob Huggins has made it clear this season that he wants to play with freshman Oscar Tshiebwe and sophomore Derek Culver on the floor together as much as possible.

When the No. 13 Mountaineers (17-4, 5-3 Big 12) are able to do that, it makes them unlike almost any other team in the country with their ability to deploy the pair of big men at the same time.

What that means is there won’t be many, if any, teams West Virginia plays that can match their size in the frontcourt. The other side of that, however, means one of WVU’s twin towers is often required to defend someone much smaller who is going to pull them away from the the paint.

That duty has mostly fallen to Culver, listed at 6-foot-10 and 255, who accepted the task with no hesitation.

The results have been almost all positive for Huggins and the Mountaineers. Culver is a big body, but he is a player with quick hands and solid footwork. Relocating from the paint to defend smaller players, often guards, fits his skill set.

Add that ability to his known strengths — rebounding on both ends of the floor in particular — and Culver’s game is starting to take shape for the next level. His full arsenal was on display Saturday as the led the Mountaineers with 19 points and 14 rebounds while also showing off his ability to pass and defend.

“I tried to explain to him, ‘Take a look at Tristan Thompson. Tristan Thompson got the max [contract] in Cleveland, and they never throw him the ball,” Huggins said after Saturday’s win against Kansas State.

“They never throw him the ball, but he offensive rebounds it, he defensive rebounds it and he can switch and guard guards, which is a luxury.’ I said to Derek, ‘That’s what you need to model your game after if you plan on playing for pay.’ They don’t have post guys anymore. They don’t want post guys anymore.

“They want somebody who can switch ball screens and stay in front of guards,” Huggins added. “And that’s all everyone says — he’s got a chance just because he brings that to the table. There aren’t that many big guys who can do what he does. He’s got to keep getting better at it, but he knows that.”

Culver’s passing has been an asset for West Virginia this season as well, with the sophomore forward tied for the team lead (along with freshman guard Miles McBride) at 41 assists. Huggins will take that, reluctantly, from the big man. It seems like Huggins’ way of praising Culver while also sending a subtle message to other players on the team.

“Sadly, [Culver] might be our best passer,” Huggins said.

KNAPPER RETURNS TO ROTATION

Sophomore guard Brandon Knapper missed last week’s trip to Texas Tech due to an illness, and prior to that he appeared to be in Huggins’ dog house.

The former South Charleston High standout and Gazette-Mail Kanawha Valley Player of the Year saw his minutes take a major hit going back to a January loss at Kansas State and was spotted on the Mountaineer bench getting a ear full from Huggins when it appeared he might get in West Virginia’s lopsided win against Texas. Knapper sat back down and never played against the Longhorns.

That trend appeared to turn in Saturday’s win against K-State. Knapper played more than 12 minutes against the Wildcats, scoring 5 points and leading the Mountaineers with two blocks.

Knapper, who appeared lighter and claimed he was down about 10 pounds from his usual weight, said he was still fighting off the last of the illness that kept him home for the trip to Texas Tech but was glad to be back on the floor for West Virginia.

“To be honest, I’m a little fatigued,” Knapper said following the win against the Wildcats. “I’ve still got some symptoms, but I’m fighting through it.

“I’m getting [my weight] back up there. I’m drinking a lot of fluids and trying to keep my energy up.”

Contact Tom Bragg at tom.bragg@wvgazettemail.com or 304-348-4871. Follow him on Twitter @TomBraggSports. Read Tom’s WVU sports blog at http://blogs.wvgazettemail.com/wvu/.