MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — He is like a kernel of corn inside an air popper, ready to burst upon the world with a loud pop.
We know, Derek Culver has been around for a couple of years. He has put himself in position to be maybe (Is “certainly” a better word?) the best big man in the Big 12 Conference, and considering that has now been placed on the Midseason Top 25 John Wooden Award watch list there really is no limit on how high he can pop.
Anyone who watches him play — his determination, his effort, his battle for any rebound, his willingness to pass, his ever-improving shooting — can see this.
But to say Derek Culver is just a basketball player is to say that Roberto Clemente was just a baseball player.
You judge people on so much more than the numbers you can find on line.
Earlier this week, as WVU wiped out a 19-point deficit in just 12 minutes to beat Oklahoma State with Culver a rebound shy of a 20-20 double-double, there was one thing he said after the game that opened the door into just what kind of person he is.
“For the most part, I will go to war 110 percent every day with the guys I got in the locker room.. That’s a no-brainer,” he said.
See, Culver may be a blossoming star with a huge NBA contract awaiting him in the future, but he is also just one of the guys in locker room that has believed in itself as a group of one despite such obstacles as a pandemic and the defection his twin tower partner Oscar Tshiebwe. That has changed his role and forced Coach Bob Huggins to change much of what WVU does offensively and defensively.
Maybe it was his upbringing in the tough town of Youngstown, Ohio, where he somehow survived the streets and became not an angry young man but the driven, appreciative young man he is.
His education was stressed and his bio out of WVU tells us he’s a member of both the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll and the Garrett Ford Academic Honor Roll.
This tells you that you don’t have to limit the discussion to basketball when you talk to him and there are moments when he shows off a nice sense of humor. As he went before the ZOOM camera after the come-from-behind win over Oklahoma State, he mentioned his hair
Culver smiled for the camera, reached up and grabbed on a braid that was not cooperating with the rest on his head.
“Right now, I got an antenna going,” he joked.
That he would have survived college life this long was hardly anticipated, especially when Huggins not only suspended him for his first semester but wouldn’t even allow him around the team in an effort to make an impression on him that this was now Advanced Basketball 101 and it involved not only showing up for practice, but on time, along with being a teammate and a student.
Now he is a leader on the team … and we’re not talking about being a statistical leader.
Huggins has grown close to him and, when Tshiebwe left, he sat him down for a chat.
“He and I had a little heart-to-heart the day before the Oklahoma State game about how much we need him on the floor and competing,” Huggins said.
In an era when college athletes seem to head for the door when things don’t go their way, Culver has accepted whatever role Huggins has put in front of him.
“Me and my teammates are doing a pretty good job of adjusting on the fly,” he said. “We’re opening with four out and one in. That way we are able to get the guards to get a little more movement and it gives me more room to operate in the post.”
He has made the most of that, but if there has been any moment this year that told how different Culver is than most college basketball stars, it came at a key moment in the Oklahoma State game.
Huggins assigned Culver, 6-11, 255-pound inside player, to guard Cade Cunningham, the Cowboys’ super frosh who many believe to be the best player in the conference.
Cunningham is a smaller, more mobile player than maybe Culver, but try as he might, he could not shake the guard dog that Huggins had unleashed upon him. With the footwork of a ballerina and the grace of a matador, he countered every move Cunningham had in his bag and forced him to pass the ball rather than go one-on-one.
But now comes a key moment in the season as WVU hosts No. 4 Texas at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Coliseum and then travels to play unbeaten, No. 2 Baylor in Waco, Texas, at 9 p.m. Tuesday.