LEXINGTON, Ky. — When Kennedy Catholic graduate Oscar Tshiebwe first arrived on campus at the University of Kentucky, he raised more than a few eyebrows with his predictions that he’d be able to average 20 points and 20 rebounds per game once he got rolling with Kentucky.
Nobody’s surprised by that prediction now, not when Tshiebwe dominated on the glass in Kentucky’s first two matchups against Duke and Robert Morris and produced a double-double in each game. The Wildcats look like they could be a contender for both the SEC championship and the Final Four again this year, and if they are, it’s clear that Tshiebwe and his rebounding are going to play a large part of that.
“Rebounding, to me, is a way to help your team win the game,” Tshiebwe said after the Wildcats routed Robert Morris on Friday. “It’s one more chance for your team, so whether I’ve got to pick it up off the ground or fight and work for the rebounds, I’ve got to fight.
“I’ve got to know where the ball’s going, I’ve got to know where my guy is and I’ve got to be in position where I can go get that ball.”
So far, it hasn’t mattered what kind of caliber of opponent the ex-West Virginia big man has faced during this young season. Against Robert Morris, Tshiebwe grabbed 20 rebounds to match his early predictions and nearly outrebounded the Colonials by himself. He was every bit as good against Duke, snagging another 20 rebounds against the Blue Devils despite having to battle Duke’s powerful frontcourt duo of Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams.
“He goes up every time,” Robert Morris coach Andy Toole said. “He usually doesn’t leave the paint for the entire possession, so he’s already there, which makes it hard when you can’t move him anywhere.
“He’s relentless in his pursuit and he has great instincts that come off the rim, and really, anything that touches his hands becomes his. It’s incredible to see him work with that kind of consistency on every shot. Very few guys are willing to do that, but obviously, he is.”
That work ethic combined with the instruction he’s receiving from Kentucky coach John Calipari has proven a perfect fit to this point. Not only has Tshiebwe emerged as the nation’s top rebounder, but he’s become a natural leader in the Kentucky locker room.
After the win over the Colonials, Tshiebwe spoke glowingly about several of his teammates and how they were starting to get the lesson that scoring isn’t the only way to help the Wildcats succeed, and that it’s going to take all kinds of contributions for Kentucky to reach its goals.
“If you’re not scoring, then find some other thing that you can help us with,” Tshiebwe said. “That can be something like playing good defense so they cannot score. If you’re not playing good defense, find some way to bring energy, because that’s something that we need.”
Despite Tshiebwe’s hot start to the season, he’s well aware that there’s still more that he can bring to the Wildcats as well. His rebounding has come along much faster than his scoring in large part because Calipari is trying to change how Tshiebwe plays in the paint on offense to both fit his system and take advantage of Tshiebwe’s considerable physical gifts.
That’s a bit of an odd statement on the surface to make about someone who’s averaging 15.5 points a game, but his total could have been higher than 14 points against Robert Morris had he not shot 5-for-11, which happened in large part because he often went up for a jump shot instead of a dunk near the basket.
“He’s got to learn to dunk balls when we throw lobs,” Calipari said. “When we throw a lob, dunk the ball, but he’s never played that way. It’s always been bounce pass into the post and push him out, but now we’re running to the goal.”
While the offense is likely to come with time, Calipari has no such concerns about Tshiebwe’s ability and success on the glass. When it comes to rebounding, his main concern is whether opponents might try to get him to pick up cheap fouls as a way to neutralize him.
A year ago, West Virginia nearly derailed Gonzaga’s undefeated regular season just three games in, but lost Tshiebwe to fouls with 7:26 to play. With Tshiebwe out, the Bulldogs grabbed three offensive rebounds and turned them all into putbacks — six points that made the difference in an 87-82 result.
Calipari has no desire to see that repeat itself this season.
“He’s so big that there are times where he’s going to jump for a rebound, and the guy in front of him is going to act like he got hit,” Calipari said. “But these officials have got to know he’s 255 pounds with seven percent body fat. If he pushes in the back, call it, but if he jumps for a rebound and that guy’s fighting like crazy and ducks his head, it is not a foul.
“(Tshiebwe) is 255 pounds and he goes after every ball like that, and if you’re ducking, you’re not going to get the ball. My concern right now is if the guy’s moving over when trying to box him out and he rebounds it and they say over the back. Then, I’ll lose my mind, because we are working and teaching holding your ground and going after the ball.”
Tshiebwe is learning so well in Lexington that not only is his original goal now looking realistic, but he’s got a new goal in mind. After grabbing 40 rebounds in his first two games, he learned that he’d beaten the two-game mark previously held by Dan Issel, Kentucky’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,078 in three years with the Wildcats.
“I’m going to catch him soon,” Tshiebwe said with a smile.
That might not be possible unless Tshiebwe stays in Lexington for a second year, but Bill Spivey’s single-season mark of 567 might be another matter. If Kentucky plays 35 games, Tshiebwe would need to average 16.2 rebounds a night to match it, and Toole isn’t betting against him.
“He also wanted to average double-digit offensive rebounds as well, and so far, he’s a man of his word,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a long season. I’m not sure that you can get to 20, but if he was around 15, that wouldn’t surprise me in any way, shape or form.”