Kentucky Basketball: Big man Oscar Tshiebwe fills in the missing piece

Kentucky basketball finds its missing piece as Oscar Tshiebwe confirms his transfer.

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari is like that poker player always looking for the perfect hand, yet he has to first play the cards he’s dealt

It may be hard for him to keep a stoic poker face after he drew an ace with West Virginia sophomore stud and big man Oscar Tshiebwe heading to Lexington through the transfer portal.

This season the cards didn’t seem to be in Calipari’s favor with Keion Brooks Jr. sidelined with a leg injury and the only player back that had scored a point last year.

Calipari has shuffled the decks several times thus far with an entirely new group of players that have had trouble finding even a pair of complimenting cards through a brutal December six-game losing streak.

He finally played the Dionte Allen card and that matched well and then surprise Brooks was back in the Wildcat hand and court on Saturday at Florida and earning a third straight victory.

Still in search of the missing player card to make his hand complete Calipari finally got the ace-high straight he was looking for in Tshiebwe.

The former McDonalds All-American from the Congo and star at the center spot for West Virginia had hinted at his unhappiness as the season began and on January 1 it was announced he had left the team for “personal reasons” and entered the transfer portal.

WVU coach Bob Huggins said on his coach’s show he had not had any contact with Tshiebwe since the announcement but noted that “outside influences” were at work.

“I think it’s the world we live in,” Huggins said. “It’s better to steal than it is to work and earn things. It’s take the easy way out, and I think there were some people involved who saw where they could benefit, maybe profit, and worked very diligently at trying to get him out.”

On Sunday it was announced the pre-season Big 12 Player of the Year selection had decided to leave Morgantown for the bluegrass of Kentucky.

Ok so he won’t be eligible to play this season, but he is enrolled at Kentucky taking classes and more importantly can practice with the team starting today. He’ll have three years of eligibility remaining.

So what does that mean for the Wildcats?

While he can’t actually step on the floor for the Wildcats on game days he can practice and only makes players like Olivier Sarr, Lance Ware, and Isaiah Jackson that much tougher and better immediately. He can show them what it means to be a post presence and how to grab and secure rebounds – something that still haunts this team at times.

He has a simple grasp of what you have to do to be successful.

“You’ve got to work to be the best. It’s not about being tall (and talented). You’ve got to use your head sometimes to do (well).”

As for the future and this fall, it fulfills a solid class that will have more experience we can assume depending on who returns – you have to believe Ware, Jacob Toppin, and Jackson will be back.

That and another strong recruiting class that ranks fourth in the 24/7Sports 2021 rankings behind Michigan, Florida State, and Villanova and just ahead of Louisville in fifth.

Kentucky has letters of intent from 6-foot-9, 210-pound forward Daimion Collins, forward Bryce Hopkins ( 6-7, 240-pounds), and shooting guard Nolan Hickman (6-2, 185-pounds).

Joel Justice and Calipari went hard for a second time after Tshiebwe who picked WVU over Kentucky in 2018. When his name resurfaced in the transfer portal to start the year the Wildcat coaches pounced.

The transfer portal has been good for Calipari as of late with Reid Travis, Nate Sestina, Olivier Sarr, Davion Mintz, and Toppin to Kentucky. But this may be the steal thus far as Tshiebwe chose the Cats over Illinois, Miami, and NC State.

It seems like a while since we have seen a bruiser in the paint for Calipari of this magnitude.

But don’t be fooled as a force on the court he is a teddy bear off. Just check out the WVU team at the WVU Children’s Hospital for Christmas. Yes, that is Tshiebwe dressed as Santa.

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Tshiebwe appeared in 10 games for WVU during the 2020-21 campaign, averaging 8.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per contest.

Tshiebwe fits what Calipari craves a physical player who stays in the paint but never slows down. He wants the ball and more importantly, can be a dominant rebounder. Calipari won’t have to scream for him to go get the ball.

The Wildcats will benefit from him grabbing rebounds and scoring off teammates’ missed shots.

He should compliment Collins who will also protect the rim but is more finesse than the sheer bulk that Tshiebwe will provide by taking up a lot of space with his 260-pound body and 7-foot-5 wingspan.

Collins will probably be out on the floor more and track players defensively while Tshiebwe can stay home in the block and force players away from the bucket. Offensively Collins can shoot better but any misses Tshiebwe can be there for the putbacks.

Ah but defenders in the paint beware Big O as he calls himself likes to soar as well – especially in transition.

As for Huggins, he took it in stride publically but you know the loss of his big man was eating him up.”

“He’s a good kid. Hopefully, he made the right decision. We could dispute whether it’s the right decision or not, but it’s done.”

Kentucky has the meat of its Southeastern Conference schedule starting with Alabama tomorrow at Rupp Arena. Oh and a little game on January 30 against No. 4 ranked Texas.

Think Tshiebwe can give his team a little inside here against a former Big 12 foe. Last year he had a double-double against them with 13 points and 11 rebounds in a 97-59 blowout of the Longhorns.