Finding humans who have both the size and athletic skills to play in the paint for a major college basketball team is a difficult proposition.
It’s estimated that just one percent of the world’s population is taller than 6-foot-4 and only 0.1 are taller than 6-foot-7.
Thus, recruiting talented athletes who are also 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9 or taller is far from simple.
Fortunately for the Mountaineer men’s basketball team of 2020-21, it has more than its share of size, skill and experience in comparison to most college programs.
Veteran head coach Bob Huggins welcomes back both his starting big men from last year in Oscar Tshiebwe (6-9, 258 lbs., Soph.) and Derek Culver (6-10, 255 lbs., Jr.). Also top reserve Gabe Osabuohien (6-7, 235 lbs., Sr.) returns, and two talented newcomers, Isaiah Cottrell (6-10, 240 lbs., Fr.) and Seny Ndiaye (6-10, 225 lbs., Fr.) have joined the Mountaineers to provide further depth up front.
The five are somewhat interchangeable at the center and power forward positions. Osabuohien is the only one who unlikely to play center, as he’s pretty much strictly a power forward, but he could swing to that position if need be. The other four can swap back and forth. Last year West Virginia typically started Tshiebwe at center with Culver at power forward. Then Logan Routt, who was a senior in 2019-20, was a backup at center, and Osabuohien was usually the first power forward off the bench. Besides starting at power forward last year, Culver saw time at center as well. It was also the position where he spent a bulk of his time as a true freshman in 2018-19.
In all, Huggins will have plenty of options at center, though part of his task this season will also be to break in a couple of new ones.
Cottrell and Ndiaye each played at national powerhouse Huntington (W.Va.) Prep last season. Cottrell had spent his previous high school years at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, but moved to Huntington Prep for the 2019-20 campaign, where he averaged 15.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. He’ has perimeter offensive skills, so if he can handle the defensive assignments at power forward, he ultimately could settle in at that spot. Initially, though, he figures to see most of his playing time at center, and at least on paper, he would seem to be the top backup behind Tshiebwe.
A native of Dakar, Senegal, Ndiaye is still somewhat new to basketball, having only played the sport for a few years, the last couple in the U.S. He averaged five points, six rebounds and three blocks for Huntington Prep last year. His offensive skills are still developing, though he’s starting to find a consistent mid-range jumper, while work on post moves continue. His size, athleticism and work ethic all would seem to spell a promising future for the young big man no matter where he eventually plays. While circumstances could always change the plans, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ndiaye redshirt this coming season, thus allowing his game to develop even further while he also can get bigger and stronger in the weight room.
While Cottrell and Ndiaye are waiting in the wings to provide help off the bench or, in Ndiaye’s case, maybe sitting this year as a redshirt, West Virginia’s center responsibility will fall mainly on the shoulders of Tshiebwe.
A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who spent his final high school years at Kennedy Catholic (Pa.), Tshiebwe had an incredible freshman year by most any standard. He led WVU in scoring (11.2 points per game), rebounding (9.3) and blocked shots (1.0). His scoring average was the fifth best for a freshman in West Virginia history, and only Warren Baker (11.2 rebounds per game in 1972-73) pulled down more boards in his freshman year.
Tshiebwe recorded 10 double-doubles last season. Twice he posted games with at least 19 points and 17 rebounds – 20/17 at Pitt in his second-ever college game and 19/18 vs. Wichita State. Only two other Mountaineer freshmen in the last 65 years managed even one game with such numbers – Culver in the 2018-19 season with a 22/21 effort at TCU and Baker with a 22/17 performance at Virginia Tech in 1972-73.
After a rookie season that saw him unanimously selected to the Big 12 all-freshman team and also named a second-team all-Big 12 selection, Tshiebwe placed his name into the pool for the NBA draft but ultimately pulled out and is returning to West Virginia for his sophomore season.
Tshiebwe has worked to extend his shooting range, so he could potentially step away from the paint at times, though most of his work will almost assuredly remain down low.
Culver can and certainly will continue to see some game action at the center position this coming season, but if Huggins wants to continue to play D.C. and Oscar together, one will have to slide out to power forward.
Last year that was Culver, as the Youngstown, Ohio, native had more experience, offensive passing ability and better open-court defensive skills necessary to play the four. It took Culver a little while to get comfortable at the new position, as well as having to share the front court with another big man, but eventually he settled in. He averaged 10.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Both numbers were just a slight tick down from his freshman season – 11.5 points and 9.9 rebounds – but considering he had to split touches with Tshiebwe, a small drop wasn’t unexpected.
When on the floor together, Tshiebwe handles the center spot and Culver is at the power forward. In the past, Culver often moved down to center when Tshiebwe went to the bench. That still maybe the main rotation, though the availability of Cottrell also could change Huggins’ substitution patterns.
It could be that Tshiebwe and Cottrell will split the center minutes in possibly a 25-15 fashion, while Culver and Osabuohien will do the same at the power forward.
Unforeseen circumstances could obviously change all that, but it certainly seems that Huggins has plenty of options and depth inside.
Oh yeah, in case you’re wondering about 7-footers, there are estimated to be only 2,800 of those in the whole world, which has a population of 7.4 billion. That means the likelihood of finding someone that height or better is 0.000038 percent. Until Huggins reaches into that group, he’ll have to be “content” with multiple guys 6-foot-9+.