MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The press release West Virginia University’s athletic department emailed out Friday morning featured the headline, “Tshiebwe steps away from Mountaineer basketball.”
That announcement seemed to leave open an opportunity for the sophomore forward to return to the team at some point.
WVU basketball coach Bob Huggins pretty much slammed that door shut later Friday, though, during his regularly scheduled video press conference.
“No, absolutely not,” Huggins stated emphatically when asked if there was a chance for Oscar Tsheibwe to return later this season.
The coach didn’t specifically address a return next year, but the answer to that was certainly obvious in Huggins’ tone. The Big O has played his final game for the Mountaineers. “No return,” emphasized Huggins.
Having averaged 8.5 points and 7.8 rebounds this season, the 6-foot-9, 258-pound Tshiebwe finishes his one-and-a-half year WVU career with a total of 433 points and 365 rebounds.
His departure, combined with the season-ending Achilles tendon injury suffered by freshman forward Isaiah Cottrell in Tuesday’s win over Northeastern, leaves the Mountaineers very thin inside.
“Did it catch me by surprise? No,” stated Huggins of Tshiebwe’s exodus. “What do we do going forward? We’re going to win more games. I think this gives us an opportunity to spread the floor a little more.
“Guys like J.B. (Jalen Bridges) will be able to spread the floor, make more shots. It will give Derek (Culver, the 6-foot-10, 255-pound junior) a lot more room down there.
“Anytime you are a man down, it opens up opportunities. It’s all what they make of it. That’s up to them.
“We have guys that worked their butts off and worked their butts off all summer to get an opportunity,” added Huggins. “I am more than confident that they will do a great job for us.”
The minutes that had been used by Tshiebwe will now be distributed among others. Bridges and Gabe Osabuohien are two players Huggins mentioned prominently when talking about WVU’s adjustments.
A 6-foot-8, 235-pound senior, Osabuohien was already a regular part of West Virginia’s rotation, coming off the bench to play 19 minutes per game. He’s not a huge scoring threat, averaging 2.7 points per game, but he has posted good numbers in terms of rebounds (5.7), assists (2.4) and steals (1.2).
The only drawback with the forward from Toronto, Canada, is he also leads WVU in fouls with 31 in 10 games.
“We just want Gabe to stay in the game. What Gabe does for us is better than any big we have; we just couldn’t keep him in the game long enough,” said Huggins. “Gabe has been extremely valuable to us for a lot of different reasons. He’s not a guy hunting shots, for sure. He can rebound it. He can pass it. He can do a myriad of things. We just have to keep him on the floor; that’s all.”
Bridges, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound redshirt freshman from Fairmont, West Virginia, has not seen as much action as Osabuohien this season. Bridges had played in nine of WVU’s 10 games so far, averaging 6.4 minutes, 1.6 points and 1.2 rebounds per game.
He likely factors in much more in the future, though, as the Mountaineers reconfigure their rotation.
“We can do a lot of things. It depends on the opposition. It depends on what we are trying to get,” said Huggins. “For instance, you can put J.B. at the four spot (power forward). A year ago, at the end of the year, J.B. rebounded the ball better than anyone in practice, other than Derek. We were all pumped and excited about J.B. getting time and making shots. Now he has struggled a little bit to make shots to this point, but I’m 100% confident that he’s a guy who can step out and make shots and spread the floor. That will give Derek so much more room to operate.
“Let’s tell the truth, (Culver) is the best big in the league. Derek is by far the best big in the league. To have him isoed down there is not a bad thing.”
The Mountaineer who would have been the obvious candidate to step into an increased role among the bigs was Cottrell. The freshman’s injury will keep him out of game action the rest of the season, but Huggins likes his attitude as he begins his rehab.
“Here is the thing that to me is exciting,” said Huggins. “(Cottrell) came in to practice (Thursday) with his scooter, and he stayed the whole practice because he didn’t want to miss out on anything. That’s the kind of guys we’re fortunate enough to have in this program.
“We are going to be really good this year, but getting Isaiah back does nothing but elevate us another step up the rung or two.”
Another true freshman, 6-foot-10, 235-pound Seny Ndiaye, could potentially provide some help inside, if necessary.
“He was really good yesterday. He was as good yesterday as he has been all year,” Huggins said of the Huntington (W.Va.) Prep product who is a native of Dakar, Senegal. “The plan was never to play him (this season). It was to go against Derek in practice every day and get better, which he has done.
“I wouldn’t have a problem putting him in the game.”
Without Tshiebwe and Cottrell, things will certainly change for West Virginia, especially in terms of style and minute distribution. But Huggins said his squad, which is 8-2 as it heads to Oklahoma (5-2) for a Saturday showdown in Norman (4 p.m. on ESPN2), is still capable of good things.
“They were all there yesterday, so they know what the game plan is,” the coach said of his players. “They know what we’re going to do and how they’re going to do it.
“I’m more excited about being able to go and play a couple games this weekend (Saturday’s matchup at OU will be followed by a Monday night contest at Oklahoma State) then I have been since the beginning because of their attitudes, their willingness to learn and the fact that they do care about this basketball program, this university and certainly this state,” Huggins concluded.