MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — The running joke with the West Virginia men’s basketball team — in this case, literally — is that forward Derek Culver believes he is faster than freshman teammate Oscar Tshiebwe.
“They were supposed to race, but they’ve never raced yet,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins began the story. “Derek says to me, ‘Don’t you think I can run?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never seen you. I’ve seen you trotting up and down the floor with me yelling at you, but I’ve never really seen you run.’ ”
Kennedy Catholic (Hermitage, Pa.) boys’ basketball coach Rick Mancino, who coached Tshiebwe the past two years in high school, has an idea of how that race would end up.
“We played against Derek in high school,” Mancino said. “I know I’m biased here, but there’s no way Derek would beat Oscar in a race. I’ll say this, ‘If Derek can beat Oscar, then West Virginia is flat-out loaded this year.”
In any sense, the 6-foot-9, 258-pound Tshiebwe is just the second McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Mountaineers and he chose WVU over Kentucky.
His college debut — the annual Gold-Blue debut is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Oct. 11 — will be one West Virginia fans have been eagerly anticipating ever since a 15-21 debacle of a season ended with an 18-point loss against Coastal Carolina in the second round of the CBI last March.
Yet, those associated with the WVU program are not calling Tshiebwe some sort of savior and likely have their fingers crossed that he isn’t viewed as one by those outside of the program.
Huggins is the first to tell you that Tshiebwe still doesn’t know what he’s doing on offense.
“He’s talented. You can watch him run up and down and watch him rebound the ball and see that,” Huggins said. “It’s just hard when you don’t know what you’re doing and you have so many things going through your head. Am I supposed to screen? Am I supposed to cut? Then they just kind of freeze. He’s a little bit like that, but he doesn’t freeze when the ball gets on the rim, though, and that’s a good thing.”
Savior or just an athletically-gifted college freshman, there is more to Tshiebwe than just points and rebounds.
As his past and current coach, Mancino and Huggins already know how special a young man Tshiebwe is.
They shared their thoughts.
On Tshiebwe’s speed
Getting back to what may lie ahead for Culver in any potential race, Mancino said Tshiebwe is already used to having his foot speed challenged.
“We would have guys line up on one baseline and go down and back,” Mancino said. “Sometimes Oscar would actually wait a second and give the other guys a head start.
“He would still beat everyone.”
Where does Tshiebwe’s speed come from? Well Huggins had this story that is maybe, at best, a half-truth.
“He told me one time that his father was a bow hunter,” Huggins said. “He’d shoot the bow and yell, ‘Run.’ Oscar had to outrun the arrow and bring it back so he could shoot it again. Now, if you believe that, I’ll tell you another one.
“I do believe he chased them. He’s convinced me of that.”
A unique young man
Mancino describes Tshiebwe as a sort of gentle giant, but that only goes so far.
“Don’t let that big smile fool you,” Mancino said. “He’s a bad man on the floor.”
One with a giant heart, apparently.
Kennedy Catholic played as a Class A school during Tshiebwe’s junior season, meaning the Lancers’ schedule sometimes featured opponents who didn’t come close to matching up size-wise.
In one such instance, Tshiebwe went up to Mancino before the game and said he couldn’t play.
“He was afraid he was going to hurt someone,” Mancino said.
When Tshiebwe first transferred to Kennedy Catholic, Mancino set up an open gym to get him acquainted with his new teammates.
“He comes up to me and says, ‘Coach, I hate to do this to you, but I can’t make it. I have to go find the church I’m going to attend first,’ ” Mancino said.
When Kennedy Catholic played at Morgantown High last season, Mancino told the story on how the Lancers would begin practice at 4 p.m., but Tshiebwe didn’t start until 4:30, because he was busy talking to all of the kids who were there to watch him.
“I know this for sure: After every home game at West Virginia, Oscar will be the last to leave the gym,” Mancino said. “He will shake everyone’s hand. He will talk to every kid that waited to talk to him. He loves people.
“He has a very unique personality.”
Along the lines of realistic expectations this season, Huggins called Tshiebwe grounded and that there was no need to sit him down and talk about trying to do too much to impress everyone.
Mancino said he already has high expectations.
“I told him, if you’re not averaging double figures in rebounds, we’re going to have a talk,” he said with a laugh.
More to the point of Tshiebwe’s future past WVU, Mancino said the freshman is well aware of what a NBA contract would mean to him and his family, but that Tshiebwe also understands that contract doesn’t come overnight.
“He really does understand that it’s all a business, but he would love to be able to take care of his mother and his family,” Mancino said. “He dreams about the NBA just like every kid does, but he also understands there is a process of getting there.”
That doesn’t hold Mancino back from his own expectations on Tshiebwe’s potential.
“I honestly believe that if high school kids were still allowed to go into the NBA Draft, he would have been a first-round pick this year,” Mancino said. “He passed up Kentucky to go to West Virginia, and people have asked me, Do I think that will hurt his NBA chances?
“I know the way coach Huggins is going to work Oscar, and it’s the best thing for him. He may not be on all of the mock drafts right now and West Virginia may not be getting all the hype that Kentucky gets, but Oscar has already told me, ‘Coach, just wait until we get a couple of months into the season. People will see.’ ”
Mancino, who also coached former WVU standout Sagaba Konate, who left college early last season, but went undrafted in 2019, said he has also discussed with Tshiebwe on how to handle his personal business.
“We’ve talked a lot on keeping his inner circle small,” Mancino said. “I think he knows it’s important to be with people who only have his best interest at heart.”
Finally, one last story
Like many kids born in Africa — Tshiebwe is from Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo — the freshman took up soccer as a youngster.
That all changed later, when someone asked him about switching to basketball.
“At the time, Oscar really didn’t know much about basketball. He really didn’t start playing until he was in the seventh grade,” Mancino said. “So, he goes to his first basketball practice and he’s wearing his soccer cleats.”