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For only the second time this season, sophomore Derek Culver wasn’t in the West Virginia starting lineup in the Mountaineers 86-81 home victory over Rhode Island Sunday afternoon.

The talented WVU (7-0) forward responded with his best performance of the season.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins inserted Arkansas transfer Gabe Osabuohien in Culver’s place in the starting lineup. But most of Culver’s bench time was limited to the early game. In his role as sixth-man Sunday, Culver played 32 minutes and put up a double-double with a team-high 25 points and a game-leading 11 rebounds.

The Mountaineers needed all of the production Culver delivered to hold off a pesky Rams (5-3) squad that battled back from an 11-point halftime deficit to battle WVU to the wire.

Culver was the Mountaineers best player last season. Before Sunday, he wasn’t the same dominant force he developed into as a freshman. Part of Culver’s reduced production can be attributed to the arrival of five-star freshman Oscar Tshiewbe. Culver and Tshiewbe are similar players – back to the basket forwards who rely on dominating the glass and scoring from the post.

It’s completely expected that the Mountaineers wouldn’t require the same workload from Culver this season as last. They’re a significantly better and deeper team than the train-wreck they were last year. A big reason Huggins relied so heavily on Culver last year is he didn’t have other options.

Tshiewbe and Osabuohien, among others, have changed that dynamic. Culver isn’t going to be the dominant force for the Mountaineers, game in, game out, that he was last year. That’s good. It means WVU is a better team.

But if the Mountaineers are going to be an NCAA tournament team and a Big 12 Conference contender, they are going to need Culver to contribute. Not always the kind of dominating effort he turned in Sunday. Sometimes they will need Culver to be a star. It was encouraging to see him deliver that.

Hopefully the malaise that Culver seemed to be under to start the season is gone. It had to be a difficult adjustment for him. He’s gone from the team’s undisputed best player as a freshman to being eclipsed by newcomer Tshiewbe as well as sharing time and touches with a much-improved supporting cast. Culver didn’t appear to adjust well to the transition early. That appears to have changed in the past few games.

Tshiewbe’s been in college basketball for just seven games, but he’s already West Virginia’s best player. His skill set is basically the exact same as Culver. He’s just a little better in every aspect. Tshiewbe is a little quicker, a little stronger on the glass, a little smoother in his footwork, has a little softer hands and touch.

But Tshiewbe is still young. He hasn’t yet developed consistency from game to game. Especially in games where Tshiewbe’s contributions are middling or non-existent (Tshiewbe finished 11 points and nine rebounds Sunday), WVU needs someone to pick up the slack. Perhaps Osabuohien is capable of doing so. Culver certainly is.

Besides the obvious benefit of his statistical production, an encouraging aspect of Culver’s standout performance Sunday was how well he took to not starting. He seems to have adjusted and accepted the new reality of his role with the team.

From winning the Cancun Challenge to their current standing as the No. 1 rated team in the RPI, there has been plenty of positive developments for the WVU basketball team.

None may be better for the Mountaineers than the reemergence of Culver.

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