Tshiebwe will be fun to watch next season

By Jamie Vaught

The Big Blue Nation will be hearing a lot about Oscar Tshiebwe next winter.

Not only the 6-foot-9, 260-pounder can play high-level basketball, he will “wow” the rabid Kentucky Wildcat fans with his magnetic personality.

As you may know, Tshiebwe (pronounced SHEE-bway) is a McDonald’s All-American who transferred to UK midseason from West Virginia and began practicing with the team back in February.  A five-star recruit from Class 6A state champion Kennedy Catholic High School in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, he nearly picked Kentucky before finally choosing coach Bob Huggins and West Virginia in recruiting battles.

During his freshman year at WVU, he averaged 11.2 points and 9.3 rebounds in 31 starts, earning the All-Big 12 Conference second team honors. Before transferring this past winter, Tshiebwe appeared in 10 games as a sophomore, averaging 8.5 points and 7.8 rebounds.

Even though Tshiebwe went to WVU first, UK, he says, was “my dream school since my freshman year in high school.”

While his former coach at Kennedy Catholic High, Rick Mancino, said Tshiebwe is a very impressive performer on the hardwood floor, the youngster who comes from a large city of Lubumbashi in Democratic Republic of the Congo also has a super personality.

“(He’s a) great person, will talk to everyone and treat everyone with respect,” Mancino wrote in an email. “His teammates will hate him because he was always the last one on the bus. I can’t tell you how many times we had to drag him out of gyms so we could leave. Also, practices were delayed a lot because if there was anyone in the gym, he would talk to them. Kids will love him, his smile is genuine.

“I know I was Oscar’s coach and have a great relationship with him, but I feel very comfortable saying that Kentucky will love Oscar as much as he loves being there.”

Tshiebwe said he can be two different persons effectively – pleasant off the court and tough on the court.

“When you’re outside (basketball), you enjoy spending time with people. Laughing is the gift God gave me,” he said in a recent Zoom press conference with the media. “But when you get on the court, it’s time for business. It’s time to take care of (business). That’s my job. When I’m out there, there’s no time to joke around. It’s time to get business done, and we’ve got to win. It’s all about winning. From what I understand in this game of basketball, you have to give everything you have to win the game. It doesn’t matter how hard a game it was; it’s how you finish. It’s about winning. When I’m out there, my mind is really concentrated and focused. I try to help win the game.”

Mancino agrees, adding that Tshiebwe will be a hard worker at Kentucky.

“Oscar will work very hard, he will not let anyone outwork him,” said the coach. “He is a winner, a great teammate. I think people will be amazed how he will get a rebound and beat everyone up the floor.  He does not get tired, he never wants a break. He prides himself on being in the best shape.”

Mancino remembers another story about Tshiebwe at Kennedy Catholic High in 2019 when his team captured the state title with a 64-62 victory.

“The night before our state championship game his senior year, he knew I was nervous because I was getting on them at practice,” recalled the coach. “He came to me and said, ‘Coach, don’t worry about anything. Did I ever let you down?’ We end up winning in double overtime and Oscar made three game-saving blocks, the best game block I have ever seen including LeBron James’ block in the (NBA) Finals. I’m serious.”

It helps that Tshiebwe already has a head start for the 2021-22 season after practicing with the Wildcats this past season, gaining experience in coach John Calipari’s system.

“Yeah, that (experience) really helped me a lot,” he said. “I see what I need to work on and to help this team. I know what was missing in this team. We really struggled last year with rebounding. It is something that I really bring to the table, too. I’m a fighter. I go for every rebound. I don’t care who I’m going against. Post moves, we had a lot of skills, but we did not have a lot of muscle in there. I thought there were some people that kind of bullied us a little. I’m going to be ready for them.”

Tshiebwe said he wasn’t happy at WVU so he decided to find another school and he was hoping to play at UK since he already had developed a good relationship with Coach Cal. And he prayed about it, too.

“My relationship with Coach has been great since my high school (days),” he commented. “And even when I decided to choose West Virginia over Kentucky, he called me and was like, ‘I’m proud of you. You’ve got to go where you feel comfortable. One thing I’ll tell you is keep working. There will be nothing easy in life no matter wherever you go.’

“I always wanted to play for Kentucky and Kentucky was my dream school. I feel like I was not happy (at WVU) anymore and everything was not good. I was not laughing. I was not enjoying my time anymore. I prayed because I wanted God to help me with the situation. Most people think I was going to ruin my life. I said no. That’s why I say you cannot listen to what people say. You only listen to what God says in your life.

“After I decided to leave, I had everybody in the country call me and tell me how much they’re going to help me and how much they’re going to give me and how much they can do, but I wanted to hear from Coach Cal because I see that the team is going to be good. I was hoping I could come straight and help this team, but I couldn’t, so I said I can practice. So, be ready for next year. I am so happy to be here.”

Tshiebwe is a true believer in God and he understands that things in life don’t always work out, citing an example that we make our plans, but God is making other plans for us. He says his WVU-UK transfer situation “was driven by God.”

Well, I definitely can say the new Wildcat is going to be fun to watch next season.

I can’t wait and you can bet that Coach Mancino can’t wait, either.

How about you?

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of five books about UK basketball, including recently-published “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey.” He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.