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Culver, Tshiebwe are WVU standouts

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — No. 12 West Virginia’s opponents don’t have to dribble the ball past midcourt to the point of exhaustion anymore. But it comes at a cost.

In abandoning a suffocating full-court pressure defense from past seasons, the Mountaineers have doubled down on an even-greater priority: keeping teams out of the paint.

Press Virginia is gone, replaced by a smothering half-court defense anchored by arguably one of the best frontcourt tandems in college basketball — 6-foot-10 sophomore Derek Culver and 6-9, 260-pound freshman Oscar Tshiebwe, a former McDonald’s All-American.

Culver was a high school standout at Warren G. Harding and Tshiebwe starred at Kennedy Catholic in Sharon, Pa.

“I think this is the way we can win,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who needs two more to tie Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp for seventh place all time with 876 Division I coaching victories.

With Culver and Tshiebwe swatting and altering shots with regularity, the Mountaineers have bounced back in a big way from a last place finish in the Big 12 a year ago.

West Virginia (14-2, 3-1 Big 12) has held five straight opponents to 60 points or less, and seven out of the past eight.

Toughness is part of the equation when Huggins recruits a player. This version of his defense is predicated on a feeding frenzy close to the basket, and the ball is the main course.

“I feel like we are the best defensive team in the country,” Tshiebwe said. “It’s going to be so hard for people just to beat us to the rim.”

Huggins rotates his lineup often to keep fresh legs in the game. Eleven players are averaging at least 10 minutes per contest. The constant shuffling has paid off: West Virginia is second in Division I in field-goal percentage defense at 35%.

“I feel like we just have more bodies, more legs and more stamina to pull games out,” Culver said. “If you want to be a team that goes deep into the (NCAA) tournament and make a deep run, you have to have defense first.”

Culver and Tshiebwe are the top two scorers on the team and the two best rebounders in the Big 12, respectively, averaging a combined 19 per game, including 12 on the defensive end. Tshiebwe has four games so far with at least 17 rebounds.

“I think they’re a notch above in rebounding,” said TCU coach Jamie Dixon.