For the sake of these West Virginia men’s basketball position previews, I’ll divide the Mountaineers’ power forward and center jobs for the 2020-21 season into two separate stories, though in reality I could combine them because the five players who are listed at these two spots are somewhat interchangeable.
For now, though, we’ll break it down like this – Derek Culver and Gabe Osabuohien as the main power forwards with Oscar Tshiebwe and Isaiah Cottrell as the top centers. The latest addition to West Virginia’s roster, Seny Ndiaye, also is best grouped with the centers, though there is a good chance the 6-foot-10, 225-pounder from Senegal will be a redshirt candidate this come season. The other four, though, not only will be major contributors but each could interchange between power forward and center.
A 6-foot-10, 255-pound junior, Culver has been a key element in the paint for the Mountaineers for the last season and three-quarters.
The Youngstown, Ohio, native was held out of the first 10 games in his true freshman season in 2018-19 as basically an “attitude adjustment.” Since then, Culver has been a good citizen, a good student (twice an Academic All-Big 12 team member) and a good player.
Culver spent his freshman season playing the center position and averaged 11.5 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, earning a unanimous selection to the Big 12’s all-freshman team. He started 14 of the 26 games he played that year and averaged 27.0 minutes per game while recording 10 double-doubles. He scored 22 points and pulled down 21 rebounds at TCU late in the season, becoming the first Mountaineer to record a 20-20 game more than 40 years.
Culver had a bit of an adjustment as a sophomore, though. Playing along side freshman Oscar Tshiebwe (6-9, 258 lbs.), Culver moved to the power forward spot, mainly because his experience, quick feet and excellent athleticism made him a better fit there than the younger Tshiebwe in terms of perimeter defense. Culver was capable of guarding a smaller, faster player in the open court, a feat he normally accomplished very well.
Culver’s adaptation to power forward wasn’t always smooth (he shot 45.7 percent from the field and he had a team-high 71 turnovers), but there were many bright spots. He dished out 54 assists, not far off the team lead of 58 by Jermaine Haley, and despite sharing the low-post offensive focus with Tshiebwe, Culver still came close to his previous year’s numbers, averaging 10.4 points and 8.6 rebounds. Each stat was down a touch from his freshman season, but his game was good enough for the Big 12 coaches to name him to the league’s honorable mention squad. He had six more double-doubles in 2019-20 and now enters his junior year with 16 total, which already places him in the top 25 in school history in that category with two seasons of eligibility remaining. With 525 career rebounds, Culver should move into the top 25 in West Virginia history on that stat list as well before the 2020-21 campaign is too far along.
Learning to play a new position and alongside a second big man in Tshiebwe was part of the learning curve for Culver, who started 25 of WVU’s 31 games last year. But now with that experience under his belt, he should be more adapted to the role. It’s unlikely he’ll ever become much of an outside shooting threat (he’s 0-of-2 from three in his career), but he is one of the team’s best passers and he also has superior open-court defensive skills for a big man. Those traits make him West Virginia’s best option at the power forward.
The Mountaineers’ second option at the power forward has filled a different role.
In the summer of 2019 Osabuohien (6-7, 235 lbs., Sr.) left Arkansas after two years and transferred to West Virginia. It wasn’t initially clear if the Toronto, Canada, native would be eligible immediately for the 2019-20 season or if he would have to sit out a year. Eventually after missing the first three games of the season, the NCAA granted his waiver to play right away, and Osabuohien hit the court running, seeing action in all the other 28 contests, even starting one. Though not much of a scoring threat – he averaged just 3.1 points on the season and reached double figures in points only twice – Osabuohien proved to be a good distributor (53 assists), defender (34 steals) and rebounder (4.1 per game). He is a high-energy player, which made him foul prone (a team high in both fouls, 89, and disqualifications, four), but was a very nice asset for the Mountaineers, as they marched to a 21-10 record. It would certainly help if he shot better – 30-of-83 from the field (36.1 percent) and 0-of-4 from three – but he’s still a valuable piece even if he’s not a prolific scorer.
Culver and Osabuohien have the best perimeter defensive skills of West Virginia’s power forward options, but if it’s perimeter offensive skills head coach Bob Huggins wants from that position, he would be better served by flipping his two main would-be centers to power forward.
As a true freshman last year, Tshiebwe led WVU in scoring (11.2 points per game), rebounding (9.3) and blocks (1.0). He didn’t try a three-pointer on the season, but he had a nice shooting stroke from the foul line (70.8 percent) and in practice showed the ability to step outside and hit perimeter shots, even from beyond the three-point line.
Incoming freshman Isaiah Cottrell (6-10, 240 lbs.) displayed very good offensive skills from both inside and outside during his prep days, first at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, where he averaged 15.2 points and 9.3 rebounds, and then last year at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, where he scored 18.9 points per game and collected 9.3 rebounds per contest. Though he’ll likely begin his Mountaineer career at center, his offensive skills may actually translate better at power forward in the future.
A product of Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, Ndiaye (6-10, 225 lbs., Fr.) has a combination of skills that ultimately could allow him to step outside and play some power forward, but for now his college learning figures to start at center. Long and athletic with a highly-regarded work ethic, Ndiaya is still raw in terms of his basketball skills. A native of Dakar, Senegal, he’s only played basketball for a few years, first in Spain and the last couple in the U.S. He averaged five points, six rebounds and three blocks per game for Huntington Prep last season, playing against some of the nation’s top competition. Though he already shows a nice mid-range jump shot, he likely needs further grooming, which probably means a redshirt.
In the end, each of the five WVU bigs will probably have to rotate between the two post positions. Though the Mountaineers don’t necessarily have the “stretch four” that other teams feature – though Cottrell eventually may fit that label – West Virginia has more inside size, strength and skill than most any college squad in the country.