GREENSBORO, NC — On Friday night, Kansas State fans filed into Greensboro Coliseum to watch their team play vs. Montana State in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament. But before seeing their Purple Wildcats play, they watched a Blue Wildcat from Kentucky record 25 rebounds — the second most in an NCAA Tournament game since 1973 — in No. 6 Kentucky’s victory over Providence.
Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe is the best rebounder in college basketball. This season he averaged 13.5 rebounds a game and last year — when he was the National Player of the Year — he led the country with 15.2 rebounds a game.
“He has a nose for the ball, and it’s important to him that he goes and gets rebounds,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “He understands positioning, where the ball will probably come off to, and then he goes up and now he rebounds with two hands. When he gets both hands on it, it’s hard to get it away from him.”
This season, Tshiebwe became the first National Player of the Year winner to return to college basketball since North Carolina returned Tyler Hansbrough, the 2007-08 winner. Hansbrough returned as a senior and led 2008-09 North Carolina to the national title, and Tshiebwe returned with similar hopes in 2022-23.
But the 2022-23 season started poorly. He underwent a minor knee procedure in the weeks leading up to the season and it led to him missing time early in the season. Then, Kentucky started the year with a disappointing 10-6 overall record despite Tshiebwe returning and the Wiildcats being ranked in the top 5 in the preseason. At one point, Kentucky was viewed as a bubble team in the NCAA Tournament after losing to South Carolina on Jan. 10.
But since Jan. 14, Kentucky has won 12-of-17 games and ranks No. 18 in the country, according to T-Rank. In the 17 games, Tshiebwe is averaging 16.3 points and 13.8 rebounds with more than 5.5 rebounds coming on the offensive glass.
Jerome Tang didn’t sleep much — if at all — following Kansas State’s 77-65 win over Montana State to qualify for the Round of 32. Instead of sleeping, he — and his coaching staff — began scouting the No. 6 seeded Kentucky team that will play against Kansas State on Sunday afternoon.
“I didn’t have to look at Oscar on film,” Tang said. “We recruited him really hard when he was coming out of high school, then watched him play for two years and competed against him at West Virginia. You know, so I’ve seen it up close and personal. He does have that “it.” Oscar — in their wins and losses, Oscar gets double-doubles, and he does that.”
Calipari, a hall-of-fame coach, urges players on this season’s team to embrace their egos, an odd strategy. Most coaches want their players to be humble, but Calipari feels that this team needs to play with swagger in order to “star” in their roles. He feels that is the best way for this Kentucky team to reach the national championship potential many felt they had entering the season. And Tshiebwe did that better than anybody for Kentucky against Providence with his near-record-setting 25 rebounds.
He’s relentless on the glass. It’s something Kentucky players are “accustomed to seeing from Oscar,” as freshman Chris Livingston said. Tshiebwe said he reads the ball as it clashes against the rim like a centerfielder does a sky-high fly ball. But when Tshiebwe elevates off the hardwood is when he becomes his most special on the glass. “I use my body a lot when I’m jumping,” he said. And by using his body, the All-American is able to deflect any opponents also attempt to get their paws on the ball.
“They go try to grab it,” Calipari said, “and he grabs it with two [hands].”
Tshiebwe’s 5.6 offensive rebounds a game are the leading reason that Kentucky is the No. 2 offensive rebounding team in the country this season. As a group, Kentucky gets nearly 39 percent of their misses and Tshiebwe accounts for about half of that on his own.
“You can’t wrestle with Oscar,” Tang said. “You’re going to lose that. We don’t have anybody on our team that can go into a physical wrestling match with him, so we’re going to have to use our speed and our quickness to make it difficult for him, and then we’re going to have to gang rebound.”
In Kentucky’s win over No. 11-seeded Providence on Friday, Kentucky scored 22 second-chance points on 18 total second-chance rebounds. Eleven of those were credited to Tshiebwe. Limiting second-chance, obviously, is important for Kansas State against Kentucky, But not letting 3-point sharp shooters Antonio Reeves and CJ Fredrick from raining in triples for most of the night.
“It’s those dudes out there that are making threes that those are the ones that determine winning or losing,” Tang said. “We have a whole team out there to guard. It’s not just Oscar Tshiebwe.”
This season, Reeves is making 41 percent of his 3-point attempts, and he’s made 10 of his last 23 attempts from deep. Reeves is his most dangerous on catch-and-shoot attempts, ranking in the 76th percentile nationally. he’s also dangerous off the bounce, ranking in the 87th percentile. But he’s not taking as many shots off of the bounce.
Fredrick, who has been limited by injury for much of his Kentucky career since transferring from Iowa is making just 31.7 percent of his triples this season. But as a freshman and sophomore, he made 46 and 47 percent from the perimeter.
Embedded into Tang’s words is the game plan his team has for Sunday’s game against Kentucky. Tang’s team will rely on the length, speed and athleticism that Nae’Qwan Tomlin and David N’Guessan play with in hopes of exposing some of Tshiebwe’s weaknesses, like guarding in space and finishing through contact at the rim, where he’s making 69.3 percent of his attempts this season.
“Nae’Qwan spaces the floor out. He is like a guard,” Kansas State’s senior point guard Markquis Nowell said. “And David and Bebe [Iyiola] give us that inside presence that we need, the rim protection that we need. I feel like tomorrow will be a great challenge for us and the bigs to step up to help out the team win with containing Oscar Tshiebwe. And just we have really good bigs, and tomorrow will be a great challenge for them.”
Tomlin and N’Guessan are both capable ballhandlers that can get the ball to the rim off of the bounce and both are shooting at least 62 percent on shots at the rim with N’Guessan making over 75 percent of his shots. Both could potentially be advantageous matchups for Kansas State if Tshiebwe is asked to guard in space away from the rim.
Kansas State could also use Nowell in heavy pick-and-roll actions, and action that Kentucky is in just the 19th percentile in defending this season. Tshiebwe’s drop coverage is a big reason for that. Though, Kansas State would then be taking a lot of deep 2-pointers — a shot Kentucky is happy to let Kansas State shoot.
Tomlin and N’Guessan are Kansas State’s two tallest players that play at least 19.5 minutes a game. Iyiola only plays 12.3 minutes a game this season. But neither Tomlin or N’Guessan are the team’s leading rebounder. Keyontae Johnson is. He averaged 7.1 rebounds a game for K-State this season, but Johnson is sacrificing a few inches against Tshiebwe, somebody he has been friends with since high school.
“It’s going to be a team effort. We know he gives them a lot of second-chance points, so we just have to limit their offensive rebounds, box him out, find him when they get shots up. He is going to get his no matter what.”