MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s Derek Culver didn’t suddenly go from Shaquille O’Neal to Rick Barry at the foul line in the space of a few days.
For much of his Mountaineer career, Culver’s free throw shooting (55.8%) has been statistically much close to Shaq (52.7%) than it has to that of the king of the granny shot (90%).
Lately, though, Derek has found his stroke.
After making 58.5% of his foul shots as a freshman (93 of 159) and 51.7% as a sophomore (91 of 176), Culver started the 2020-21 season well enough. He knocked down 23 of 36 free throw attempts through the first seven games this season (63.9%), but then went into a 16-of-40 funk (40%) over the next eight contests.
That led to some post-practice, one-on-one work with WVU head coach Bob Huggins.
“All I’ve tried to do is to make sure Derek gets his elbow under the ball to help him get it over the rim,” said Huggins, who himself shot 80.9% from the foul line in his three-year Mountaineer career (1975-77). “Once you get the elbow in the right spot then the next thing is to try to get him to shoot it in a straight line, but if you get it over the rim, you at least have a chance.
“You have to have your elbow under the ball or you’re going to shoot it flat,” continued WVU’s coach. “You can’t get the ball up with your elbow out. If you’re going to lift something, you have to get under it, right? That’s what getting your elbow under the ball does.”
After Huggins’ instruction, Culver found a rhythm, albeit with an awkward pause right before his release – “The hesitation wasn’t my idea, by the way,” quickly noted WVU’s coach.
Whatever the form, Culver had arguably his best-ever game from the foul line, making 14-of-17 free throws (82.4%) last Saturday against Florida en route to a career-high 28 points, albeit in a hard-luck, 85-70 Mountaineer loss.
“I’ve found a pretty good rhythm that I’m using, and I think I’m going to stick with,” said Culver after his charity strip performance against the Gators.
Things continued to go well at the foul line for the 6-foot-10, 255-pound junior at Iowa State on Tuesday, though in a much smaller sample, as he hit three of his four tries. That makes him 17 of 21 (80.9%) over WVU’s last two games, which is a marked improvement over his previous career average of 54.5%.
Certainly the better Culver is at the foul line, the higher his scoring average can go. After averaging 11.5 points per game as a freshman and 10.4 as a sophomore, he’s currently checking in at 14.0. He’s scored a total of 860 points in his career.
Scoring is nice, but Culver’s biggest attribute for the Mountaineers is his ability to rebound. He has 702 in his career so far, and at his current rate should become just the fifth Mountaineer ever to have over 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his time with WVU. He’d join Jerry West (1958-60: 2,309 points, 1,240 rebounds), Lloyd Sharrar (1956-58: 1,101 points, 1,178 rebounds), Warren Baker (1973-76: 1,556 points, 1,070 rebounds) and Kevin Jones (2009-12: 1,882 points, 1048 rebounds) in that category.
D.C. is also chasing those four and a few other Mountaineer notables in terms of career double-doubles. He has nine so far this season and 25 in his career. The Youngstown big man has achieved double-doubles in each of WVU’s past two games and four of its last six.
West’s total of 70 double-doubles in his 93-game career and his single-season school record of an amazing 30 double-doubles in the 31-game 1959-60 campaign alone are out of reach for Culver, and probably anyone else who ever pulls on a gold and blue jersey. Derek, who actually has two more seasons eligibility remaining after this present one if he wants to use them, could certainly reach anyone else on the double-double list, though, as Baker is No. 2 behind West in the career category with 54 and Sharrar is No. 3 in terms of single season with 23, as West holds both the No. 1 and No. 2 (25 in 1958-59) slots.
Despite his achievements to date, Huggins thinks Culver, who is one of 10 national candidates for the Kareem Abdul Jabbar Award, is still capable of even more.
“With Derek, it’s a consistency thing. He had six the other day, but then he had 12,” said WVU’s coach of D.C.’s rebounding effort. “He had (19 and 16) in back-to-back games not long ago, and I understand you’re not going to get that every game. I fully understand that. But I think Derek should consistently be a double-figure rebounding guy.
“I’ve never had a (good) rebounder who didn’t want to rebound. I think as Derek becomes more consistent in his play – which he has over the years – I think he’ll become one of the best, in not the premier, rebounder in America,” added Huggins. “It’s going to be consistency, though.”
Since Oscar Tshiebwe left the team after 10 games this season, West Virginia has been somewhat thin in the post. Senior Gabe Osabuohien gives WVU strong effort, especially on the defensive end, but he averages just 1.7 points per game.
Freshman Seny Ndiaye is starting to help out a bit more inside. The 6-foot-10, 235-pounder from Huntington (W.Va.) Prep by way of Dakar, Senegal, saw action in only three of the Mountaineers’ first 10 games, when Tshiebwe was still on the roster, playing a total of just five minutes in that time.
In West Virginia’s eight games since the first of the year, though, Ndiaye has been used in six games and has amassed 22 minutes of PT. He’s scored just two points so far in his WVU career, but has shown some promise on the defensive end, where he’s blocked a couple of shots.
The Mountaineers had originally planned to redshirt Ndiaye this season, allowing him to further develop his raw skills. But when the NCAA declared this season did not count against any winter sport student-athlete’s eligibility, Huggins decided to give the young big man a small taste of game action. Then when Tsheibwe departed, and another WVU post player – freshman Isaiah Cottrell – was lost to a torn Achilles tendon, Ndiaye became a stopgap, providing depth behind Culver and Osabuohien.
Ndiaye is still far from a finished product, but his coach is seeing progress.
“You ever go to the zoo and see the young giraffes?” asked Huggins. “When my kids were young, we went to the Cincinnati Zoo, and when you saw the young giraffes, they kind of wobbled when they walked because their bodies hadn’t caught up to their legs yet. That’s kind of where Seny is.
“He does practice every day against a 260-pound man (Culver), and Gabe is not Twiggy either. So, Seny gets knocked around pretty good, which is good for him. He’s got to learn to play with a lower base, so he doesn’t get moved around as much.
“He’s an extremely bright guy, who speaks six different languages,” noted Huggins of Ndiaye. “He’s a very intelligent guy who picks things up fast, but it’s one thing to know them and another to do them. We’re trying to transition to the do-it stage now.”