The physical play of Derek Culver has earned him quite a bit of time at the free throw line — and it’s an aspect of his game in which he’s made massive strides for that reason.
Culver’s 176 free throw attempts were the most of anyone in the Big 12 last season, so this was a common sight for Mountaineer fans at the WVU Coliseum: he’d get to the line, gather the ball, lift it up for a few seconds, and let it go — and only 51 percent of the time did it actually go in. Many times, the collective groan was even audible on the television broadcasts.
This year, however, is much different. He is again one of the league’s biggest visitors of the charity stripe with 102 attempts so far, but their relationship is markedly better. For the season, he’s made 61 percent of his foul shots, and he seems to get better every game. Against Florida on Jan. 30, he made 14 of his 17 tries — a number that would be nearly unheard-of in his freshman or sophomore seasons.
Culver himself has attributed this improvement to a change in mechanics.
“I’ve found a pretty good rhythm I use, which I’m probably going to end up sticking with,” he said after the Florida game. “Less ball movement, I keep my elbow tucked in, but yeah it’s probably something I’ll stick with.”
While that’s important, his coach has noticed something a little deeper. It’s one thing to fix one’s form, but it’s another to really put it to practice.
“He’s worked at it. We got his alignment straightened out, now what it is is neuromuscular integration and so you have to do it. You can’t just go to sleep and say, hey, I’ve changed my shot, I know what I’ve gotta do now — you’ve gotta work at it, and he’s worked at it.”
With such a high volume of free throw attempts, making at least most of them is crucial for Culver’s offensive game. The Florida game demonstrated this as he took advantage of the second-most foul shots taken this season by a player in the Big 12.
Huggins says that Culver has recognized this, and has made it a point to prioritize that.
“Since the Florida game, he’s probably shot more free throws than he has the whole rest of the year put together,” “You know, he’s…realized how important it is to him.”
That hard work has paid off. He’s made 77 percent of his free throws in the last four games, most recently going 7-for-9 from the line against No. 7 Texas Tech. With 14th-ranked West Virginia in the midst of its toughest stretch of the season, it will be critical for him to keep this up.
Of course, Huggins there’s one more guy that should get credit for his steps.
“He’s got one of the great instructors in all of basketball helping him. That’s me,” Huggins joked.