In nearly every game Kentucky has played to date, there have been one or two occasions where one of the Wildcats has gone out of their way to end an opponent’s possession and attempted to grab a rebound that fell in his area. Because every missed shot is in Oscar Tshiebwe’s area, however, many times two British players would end up with their hands on the ball.
Oscar won each of these confrontations.
“Coaches say everyone has a role in this team,” Tshiebwe told Sporting News. “When they put their hands on the ball, and I have two hands on it, they already know: it’s Oscar’s basketball.”
Has a college basketball player ever made a more proven claim? Tshiebwe finished the regular season with 15.3 rebounds per game. He hasn’t finished playing, so we don’t know where his final average will land, but only one player since 1980 has finished with 15 or more rebounds per game. Tim Duncan came close to Wake Forest in 1997 and Blake Griffin to Oklahoma in 2009. David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon led the nation but were nowhere near that number.
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Tshiebwe didn’t just take the basketball off the boards for Kentucky and then get out of everyone’s way. He leads the team with 17.3 points per game, five more than any of his talented teammates. He leads the field goal percentage at 60.6%. He leads in blocks with 1.5 per game. At 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, he was even the team leader for interceptions. He recorded 25 double-doubles, achieving that distinction in all but half a dozen matches.
He’s not the player anyone outside the program was expecting at the start of the 2021-22 season. At West Virginia, before deciding to transfer about a month into last season, Tshiebwe had given each 41 games proof that he would be a solid post presence and a very capable rebounder. There was no reason to expect a historic rebound performance, no reason to expect First Team All-America designations, no reason to expect him to claim the first of college basketball major player honors.
But here it is: Oscar Tshiebwe is Sporting News Player of the Year, an award that stretches back to legends George Mikan (1945) and Bob Kurland (1946), through recipients Oscar Robertson (1958-60) and Michael Jordan (1983 and 1984) to previous Kentucky winner Anthony Davis in 2012.
Tshiebwe’s rise has been staggering. The Southeastern Conference included 10 players from the All-SEC preseason squad. He wasn’t. On CBS Sports’ annual preseason list of the 100 Greatest College Game Players, he was No. 58. There were nine centers ahead of him, including two from Purdue.
Now he stands alone, above such extraordinary players as Johnny Davis of Wisconsin and Ochai Agbaji of Kansas.
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But he’s not just standing there. He’s a much more mobile player than when he arrived in Kentucky, something that grew out of the UK’s encouragement to improve his body by shedding a few pounds.
“We have a great chance to win it all,” Tshiebwe said. “I just want everyone to sacrifice themselves, because if you really want something good to happen, you have to sacrifice yourself. You have to give everything. How long does it take, two weeks, March Madness? If you are not ready to fight to help this team, fight with everything you have, you will never forget it.
Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tshiebwe came to the United States largely through the influence of Bismack Biyombo, who is in his ninth NBA season and has run camps and clinics in his home country and was among those who discovered Oscar. As a freshman in high school, Tshiebwe enrolled at Mountain Mission School in Virginia, but wanted to leave after a few years.
He found a new home at Kennedy Catholic in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Pittsburgh, where he helped lead the team to a 6A state championship in 2019 and was named McDonald’s All-American. . He told TSN he moved because he wanted to live with a family rather than in a prep school dorm.
“Some of my relatives helped me find a family in another different place,” Tshiebwe said. “They accepted me. I wanted to live with people who can push me. Nobody was pushing me to do good, nobody was pushing me to do good in school, in basketball.
Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua recalls one of the first times he saw Tshiebwe play, with an adidas team in Virginia known as Team Loaded. He was the center of the third string then, still a sophomore in high school, playing behind Armando Bacot (now a star for North Carolina) and David McCormack (a starter for Kansas).
“I reminded him of that, by the way, this year when we played against them,” Antigua said.
Tshiebwe beat McCormack 17-3 and passed him, 14-1. Bacot fared better individually, picking up 22 points and 10 rebounds to Tshiebwe’s 16 and 12, but the latter only played 22 minutes due to an early foul. Kentucky won both games by a combined 47 points.
When he arrived from West Virginia, one of the most important items on the Kentucky staff’s agenda was to build his confidence. He told TSN he fears a mistake could lead to his withdrawal from the game. Antigua, who originally scouted him for Illinois before becoming his coach in the UK, said Tshiebwe had “a lot doubts” about himself as a player.
“He had a lot of questions about: is he good enough? Is he a good enough player? We just talked about not what he couldn’t do, let’s talk about what he can do. What makes you different as a player? And own that.
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He spent a lot of time believing in his foul line jumper and tweaking his low post game, especially playing with more patience and only doing two moves – one move and one counter – before giving up. the ball for a restart.
“Just a little TLC,” Antigua said. “Just a little love.”
Tshiebwe brings that out in the people around him. His teammates love him. Coaches love working with him. Kentucky fans love him so much some even called him “The Big O”. It might be a bit sacrilegious, given Robertson’s stature in the game, maybe a bit like calling someone else “The Babe” or “Magic.”
Tshiebwe averaged 11.2 points and 9.3 rebounds as a freshman at West Virginia, which he picked despite an offer from Kentucky. Ten games into his second season, he left the Mountaineers, with the school saying he left for “personal reasons”.
While chatting with TSN, he initially called West Virginia a “bad choice” but later corrected himself and explained that it was part of the journey that brought him here, to this place, to this program. , to the adoration of a fanbase like no other. another in college basketball – and the achievement that no other player has matched this season.
“I’m blessed to be here today, to do what I’m doing today,” Tshiebwe said. “I am where God wanted me to be now.”