Cats need Tshiebwe to find POTY form

Published 4:08 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2023

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A player averaging 15.7 points and 13.3 rebounds per game, shooting 55.3 percent from the field and leading the team in blocked shots would look at that as a career year.

Not Oscar Tshiebwe, though, because he was so dominant last year when he led Kentucky in scoring (17.4), rebounds (15.1), steals (1.8) and blocks (1.6) per game and also led the team in field-goal percentage (60.6). His historic season made him the unanimous national player of the year and his return to Kentucky helped propel UK to a top-five preseason national ranking.

Kentucky’s unexpected struggles — the Cats have lost nine games and are on the verge of not even making the NCAA Tournament — have led to speculation about Tshiebwe’s defense, attitude, conditioning and NIL time demands.

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“I don’t want to make excuses for Oscar. He is the reigning national player of the year,” former UK All-American Jack Givens, now the UK Radio Network analyst, said. “I still think he is hampered by that (preseason) knee injury. His conditioning is not where it was last year.

“Oscar had not been spending as much extra time in the gym and Cal said that all goes to his conditioning. I do not see Oscar exploding to the basket as he used to. I can only assume that it is his knee.”

“The Sporting News” was the first publication to name Tshiebwe its player of the year last season. This year he was not on “The Sporting News” midseason all-American team.

“We had no shortage of respect for him,” Sporting News national basketball columnist Mike DeCourcy said. “If he plays like he can, he will be on our postseason team, but he has not quite played to that same capability this year.

“If Kentucky’s shooters make shots to make teams pay for double-teaming Oscar, that changes everything. He’s really a powerful player who commands double teams if teammates are not making shots.”

Givens has seen opponents even triple team Tshiebwe because UK is not consistently making outside shots.

“Guys have been able to help off inside on Oscar and still recover enough to make UK’s perimeter players miss,” Givens said.

Tshiebwe had 20 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots at Georgia Saturday — only the fourth such stat line in the NCAA this season. Yet Kentucky still lost despite his 14th double-double of the season and his sixth 20-point game. He now has 42 double-doubles in 57 so far this season.

Teams have learned to be extremely physical with Tshiebwe because that bothers him, especially if it is a taller player who also tries to muscle him around. He got 37 points in the first game against Georgia, but the Bulldogs paid more attention to him Saturday and were more physical.

“Oscar does not like players being physical with him, especially if it’s a 7-footer weighing 240 or 250 pounds,” Givens said. “The more physical a team gets against Kentucky, the more they go and hide. That is the way teams are playing Kentucky, and it’s frustrating to see them back off and go hide. As long as they do that, teams can keep doing it to Oscar and defending him like they are.”

Kentucky has six games left and has to win at least four, and maybe five, to put itself in the NCAA Tournament. For Kentucky to do that, Tshiebwe has to be the catalyst like he was last season.

“But think about the teams Kentucky has left to play and one thing they all can do is be physical,” Givens said. “Some of those teams might not shoot as well or defend as well but they will all knock you around.

“Kentucky has to find some toughness, and I just don’t know if they have that or not.”