During the course of nearly every Kentucky game played to date, there has been an occasion or two when one of the Wildcats endeavored to do his duty at the end of an opponent’s possession and tried to grab a rebound that fell to his area. Because every missed shot is in Oscar Tshiebwe’s area, however, many times two UK players would end up with their hands on the ball.
Oscar won every one of those faceoffs.
“The coaches say everybody’s got a role in this team,” Tshiebwe told Sporting News. “When they put their hands on the ball, and I’ve got two hands on it, they already know: It is Oscar’s basketball.”
Has any college basketball player, ever, made a statement more provably true? Tshiebwe finished the regular season with 15.3 rebounds per game. He is not done 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 for Wake Forest in 1997, and Blake Griffin at Oklahoma in 2009. David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon led the nation but were nowhere near that number.
Tshiebwe did not just pull the basketball off the boards for Kentucky and then stand out of everyone’s way. He is leading the team in scoring at 17.3 points per game, five more than any of his gifted teammates. He leads in field goal percentage at 60.6 percent. He leads in blocks with 1.5 per game. At 6-9, 250 pounds, he even was the team leader in steals. He rang up 25 double-doubles, reaching that distinction in all but a half-dozen games..
This is not the player anyone outside the program was expecting when the 2021-22 season began. At West Virginia, before he decided to transfer about a month into last season, Tshiebwe had given everyone 41 games of evidence he would be a solid presence in the post and a very capable rebounder. There was no reason to expect an historic rebounding performance, no reason to expect first-team All-America designations, no reason to expect he would claim the first of college basketball’s major player honors.
But here he is: Oscar Tshiebwe is the Sporting News Player of the Year, an award that dates all the way back to legends George Mikan (1945) and Bob Kurland (1946), carrying through repeat winners Oscar Robertson (1958-60) and Michael Jordan (1983 and 1984) to Kentucky’s one previous winner, Anthony Davis, in 2012.
Tshiebwe’s ascent has been staggering. The Southeastern Conference included 10 players on the preseason All-SEC team. He was not one. On CBS Sports’ annual preseason list of the top 100 players in the college game, he was No. 58. There were nine centers listed 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.
But he doesn’t just stand. He is a far more mobile player than when he arrived at Kentucky, something that developed from UK’s encouragement to improve his body by dropping a few pounds.
“We have a great chance to win all things,” Tshiebwe said. “I just want everybody to sacrifice, because if you really want something good to happen, you have to sacrifice. We’ve to got to give everything. How long does it take, two weeks, March Madness? If you’re not willing to fight to help this team, fight with everything you’ve got, you’re never going to 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 high school freshman, Tshiebwe enrolled at Mountain Mission school in Virginia but wanted to leave after a couple years.
He found a new home at Kennedy Catholic in Hermitage, Pa., about an hour north of Pittsburgh, where he helped lead the team to a 6A state championship in 2019 and was named a McDonald’s All-American. He told TSN he made the move because he wanted to live with a family rather than in a prep school dormitory.
“Some of my people helped me to find a family in another, different place,” Tshiebwe said. “They accepted me. I wanted to live with people that can push me. I didn’t have nobody pushing me to do good, nobody’s pushing me to do good in school, basketball.”
Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua remembers one of the first times he saw Tshiebwe play, with an adidas squad in Virginia known as Team Loaded. He was the third-string center then, still a high school sophomore, playing behind Armando Bacot (now starring 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 outscored McCormack 17-3 and outrebounded him, 14-1. Bacot fared better individually, getting 22 points and 10 rebounds to Tshiebwe’s 16 and 12, but the latter played only 22 minutes because of early foul trouble. Kentucky won the two games by a combined 47 points.
When he arrived from West Virginia, one of the most important agenda items for the Kentucky staff was to build his confidence. He told TSN he worried that a mistake would lead to his removal from the game. Antigua, who initially scouted him for Illinois before becoming his position coach at UK, said Tshiebwe had “a lot of 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 separates you as a player? And owning that.”
There has been considerable time spent on gaining belief in his foul-line jumper and polishing his low-post game, particularly playing with more patience and sticking with just two moves – a move and a 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. Teammates love him. Coaches love working with him. Kentucky fans adore him so much that some even have called him, “The Big O.” That may be a tad sacrilegious, given Robertson’s stature in the game, perhaps too much 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 chose despite an offer from Kentucky. Ten games into his second season, he left the Mountaineers, the school saying he had departed for “personal reasons.”
In talking with TSN, he at first called West Virginia a “wrong choice”, but then corrected himself and explained it was part of the journey that led him here, to this place, this program, to the adoration of a fan base unlike any other in college basketball -- and to the achievement no other player this season has matched.
“I am blessed to be here today, doing what I’m doing today,” Tshiebwe said. “I’m where God wanted me to be now.”