MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — He sat out the first 10 games, and he plays on a last-place team. Yet West Virginia forward Derek Culver warrants consideration for Big 12 Freshman of the Year.
According to Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, it’s not far-fetched.
“The other day, all of our coaches were talking after our film session about who was going to be All-Freshmen and the Newcomer of the Year and all of that stuff,” Weber said. “They said, ‘Culver.’ I said [Jarrett] Culver at Texas Tech isn’t a freshmen. They said, ‘No, Culver from West Virginia.’ I told my coaches, ‘He isn’t a freshman!’ They said he was.
“He’s a man. He plays hard. For their future, he’s somebody who is going to be really tough to deal with over the next four years. I dread it. You have to have enough big guys to keep fouling him and battle him.”
In the span of just 16 games, Culver’s hustle, scoring and rebounding has made an impact on the rest of the Big 12.
Culver has recorded six double-doubles, he’s averaging 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, and he has recorded at least 10 rebounds in his last five games.
The problem is you will not find his name anywhere on the Big 12 leaderboard.
The Big 12 and the NCAA only list players who have appeared in at least 75 percent of their team’s games. Culver was suspended for the first semester as he worked to improve academically.
As of Tuesday, he has played in 62 percent of West Virginia’s games and unless the Mountaineers (10-16, 2-11) make some kind of miracle turnaround and qualify for the NCAA tournament, Culver won’t reach the requisite 75 percent.
That rule, according to the Big 12 office, does not apply to conference postseason awards that are voted on by the coaches. It opens the door for Culver to join in the running for top freshman — won last season by Trae Young of Oklahoma — even if he’s not listed among the stat leaders.
In winning Monday night’s matchup 65-51, Kansas State sometimes triple-teamed Culver. That mimicked the extra defensive attention Kansas gave Culver on Saturday. Word is out on West Virginia’s 6-foot-10 forward, as opponents swarm him in the paint.
“I haven’t seen a quadruple-team yet,” Culver said. “You just have to learn on the fly and try to take what they give you. You can’t force anything. If you beat your man, what are you going to do, beat two more people?”
As this season hits the home stretch, it could become more difficult for Culver to find room, unless the Mountaineers find some consistent outside shooting to draw defenders away from the interior. West Virginia is shooting 30.5 percent from 3-point range, which ranks last in the league.
With guard Beetle Bolden sidelined for the past few weeks, West Virginia hasn’t shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range in a game since its first meeting against Kansas State on Jan. 9.
“Teams send guys from the backside help and they drop a guy from the wing to the free-throw line,” Culver said. “It’s kind of like four-on-one. It’s tough.”
West Virginia coaches have devoted practice time to helping Culver make adjustments. They’ve tried to help him get used to the additional physical contact, having managers whack him with blocking pads.
“When we go to individual offense and work on our skills, I get the ball in the post, and as soon as I face up, they send another guy running at me full speed and I have to make my decisions quick,” Culver said.
The pared-down roster brings more responsibility for Culver, whose attitude seems to have done an about-face since the start of he season.
“Whatever the situation may be, I’m ready for the task,” he said. “I’m ready to take on any workload my teammates and my coaches allow me to take on. I just have to keep improving.”
Top contenders for Big 12 Freshman of the Year:
Derek Culver (West Virginia): 11.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists
Devon Dotson (Kansas): 12.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists
Jaxon Hayes (Texas): 10.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.3 blocks
Kevin Samuel (TCU): 7.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.1 blocks
Talen Horton-Tucker (Iowa State): 12.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists