NEW ORLEANS — Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe spent an entire season relentlessly chasing and pulling down seemingly every rebound that came his way — and plenty that didn’t, too.
“I want to be the greatest rebounder I can be,” Tshiebwe said.
The 6-foot-9, 255-pound junior put up better rebounding numbers than anyone in Division I in decades. And it’s a big reason why he is The Associated Press men’s college basketball national player of the year.
Tshiebwe was the clear choice for the award announced Friday, receiving 46 of 60 votes from AP Top 25 voters. Johnny Davis, a 6-5 sophomore who averaged 19.7 points and led Wisconsin to a share of the Big Ten regular-season title, was second with 10 votes. Iowa sophomore Keegan Murray (three) and Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn (one) also earned votes.
Tshiebwe, a West Virginia transfer and native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is only the second player in the storied history of the Wildcats program to win the AP’s top honor. The other was one-and-done star Anthony Davis, who led Kentucky to its eighth NCAA title a decade ago before becoming the No. 1 NBA draft pick in 2012.
“It is amazing to be join somebody like Anthony Davis,” Tshiebwe said. “And that gives me confidence and gives me more help for my future, too, for what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m just putting God first because God knows what I need, and he has great plans for me.”
Tshiebwe thrived all season while averaging 15.1 rebounds, the highest per-game output in Division I since 1980. He had five games of at least 20 rebounds this season and three games with at least 10 boards on the offensive glass alone.
The highlight came when he had a Division I high of 28 rebounds in a December win against Western Kentucky.
He also worked to expand his offensive game, adding range on a developing jumpshot to go with his relentless board work. Tshiebwe averaged 17.4 points and shot 60.6% from the floor, a big step forward from his freshman season when he averaged 11.2 points and 9.3 rebounds with the Mountaineers before transferring after 10 games.
Tshiebwe said the rebounding success is a product of studying his opponents closely, playing the odds on where the ball is headed and the determination not to “let anybody move you.”
“First of all, it’s the position,” he said. “You have to place yourself where you don’t need to work too hard for the basketball just to come in your hands. You’ve got to read it. … If somebody’s shooting this angle, probably 75% it’s going that way because the ball’s coming in this way, 25% it’s coming this way. You have to know that.”
Rick Mancino watched Tshiebwe learning those rebounding lessons as his high school coach at Kennedy Catholic in Pennsylvania. First it was Mancino telling Tshiebwe to embrace his “knack for the ball,” only to have to walk it back a touch so that Tshiebwe didn’t get in foul trouble chasing literally every loose ball.
“I just think he realized how big rebounding is in the game, where with a lot of kids, it’s not a glamorous job,” Mancino said. “He loves it because I think he knows he’s good at it. I think the extra incentive is he realizes people love it, and they appreciate it, and his teammates appreciate it.”
Tshiebwe said he shed about 10 pounds to get a little faster and studied to make sure he knew the plays to be ready for an immediate impact this season for the Wildcats, who were coming off a nine-win season that stood as the program’s worst in nearly a century. The Wildcats regrouped by winning 26 games and earning a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament before falling in an upset to Saint Peter’s in the opening round.
Now Tshiebwe — who had 30 points and 16 rebounds in the final loss — is mulling whether to return to Kentucky or jump for his goal of playing in the NBA. If he returns, at least the Wildcats will know they’re set on the glass.
“I knew I was going to help this team, because my dad always used to tell me if you don’t have a vision about what you’re trying to do as this year is coming, then you’re in the wrong business, “he said.
“You’ve got to know a year from today, what are you trying to do? What are you trying to accomplish? You’ve got to write [it] down, you’ve got to have a good vision. You’ve got to know what I’m here for.”