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JAMIE H. VAUGHT: That Oscar is Popular Fellow in Kentucky

Updated: Jan 18


Just about everybody in college basketball is talking about Oscar. That Oscar who plays for UK.


He is the big man in Lexington who operates the well-oiled rebounding machine which rarely breaks down. He also can efficiently operate a scoring machine if his teammates need him.


He is the 6-9, 255-pound monster who terrorizes opponents, helping the Wildcats post a 14-3 mark after Saturday’s 107-79 victory over Tennessee. While grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds and scoring nine points against the Vols, he even had a career-tying three steals.

Oscar Tshiebwe (Photo by Jamie H. Vaught)

Against Vanderbilt last week in Nashville, Oscar was unbeatable, dominating the hardwood floor with game-highs 30 points and 13 rebounds. He became the first Wildcat player with a 30-10 performance since December 2008 when sophomore star Patrick Patterson had 33 points and 11 rebounds against Tennessee State.


In addition, Oscar last month established a Rupp Arena record with 28 rebounds during Kentucky’s 95-60 victory over Western Kentucky.


Unlike famous big men like Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal, Oscar also can hit the free throws, shooting at a 71.8 percent clip (51 out of 71 tries).


Going into this week’s action, Oscar is the nation’s top rebounder with 14.88 caroms and is fourth-leading scorer in the SEC with 16.53 points.


As you know, the Oscar that I’m referring to is Oscar Tshiebwe, a junior who came to UK last year from Coach Bob Huggins’ West Virginia program. And Tshiebwe, who is from Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa, quickly is becoming a huge fan favorite with his magnetic and approachable personality.


At this writing, the popular Tshiebwe is easily my choice for the SEC Player of the Year honors as he is posting impressive numbers overall as well as being a super teammate. He also has been mentioned as a leading candidate for the national player of the year.


If he wins the conference Player of the Year award, Tshiebwe would become the sixth Kentucky player to get the SEC honors under coach John Calipari. The former Calipari stars who won the award (Associated Press or Coaches) include John Wall (2010), Anthony Davis (2012), Tyler Ulis (2016), Malik Monk (2017) and Immanuel Quickley (2020).


By the way, the communication major can speak six different languages. And Tshiebwe wears No. 34 on his Wildcat jersey because of his favorite big man -- Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon who grew up in Nigeria – had the same number. He has lived in the U.S. since he was 16 and didn’t even see his family in person until this past summer.


As you can tell, the Big Blue Nation loves Tshiebwe and he has been spending some time with the fans, signing autographs or posing for pictures, after UK games recently.


“Those fans, we've got to do whatever we've got to do for them because without them we can't do anything,” he explained in a virtual postgame press conference after the Vandy contest last week. “If they sacrificed to follow us wherever we go, then we have to do something for them. We cannot just get up and go when the people need something, especially the little kids. I love spending time with little kids. I can do anything for those kids because they come into the game. We are their examples for what we do because they want to do that one day too. So, we've got to show them good things to follow so when they grow up, they can grow up as good examples." Tshiebwe was asked if he ever thought he would score 30 points in a game.


"No, I never had a dream about scoring 30 points in a game,” he said. “It just happened. The team, they're helping me. They look at me down there and I showed them I can do things. I can score to help the team. I can do a lot of different things. It was good to finish with 30 points, but I have an ability down in the post to finish. That's what helped me and making free throws. That was a good thing."


What about that rebounding record against WKU at Rupp Arena?


“First of all, that's crazy. It is crazy,” Tshiebwe said of the record. “For me, when I go out there, I just go to fight. When I stop fighting is when the time is up. The game is over. That's when I stop fighting. It's about fighting. When I came here, I told everybody and the coach: I don't care about points. I am going to get my points, but I just want to go out and grab every rebound and fight to get the rebound. When I get 20 rebounds, I give more positions. It might seem that it is helping us to win again. That's one thing I did the best today, and we got a victory. For me, it's all about victory. That's what I am there for." Moments after setting an arena record for rebounds, Tshiebwe had a surprise locker room celebration with his teammates. The Wildcat star said he is thankful for that special moment with his team.

"That was amazing. Something like that has never happened in my life,” said a happy Tshiebwe, who played on two state championship teams while at Kennedy Catholic High School in Pennsylvania. “It was amazing to see my teammates celebrate and pour water on me like that. I think you can call me a beast for a little bit. I don't think I qualify as a machine yet. If Coach Cal let me go for those two rebounds, then if I go out with 30, maybe you can call me a machine. Right now, probably call me a beast." Tshiebwe added he works really hard to become a dependable rebounder.


“I’m not the tallest guy, but I have a big heart,” he admitted. “When you need something, it does not matter how big you are. My God said everything is possible. He did not say for certain people, he said to everybody. When you go for it, you're going to get it. If you don't go for it, they're not going to bring it to you. For me, I just go for it and fight for it. That's what I do: Fight. When you go to fight, you are waiting, and you always turn, you're going to come out with something good.


“But when you stop fighting, that's where you cannot get what you're looking for. I never stop fighting. I am always fighting until the time is up. And I am so blessed. God has been so good to me because I run better, and I move better. And I have morals. I give thanks to God for about every single day in my life for everything that God has blessed me with. So, I will keep doing the best I can to glorify His name and to thank Him for everything. And I got to do the things I got to help this team.”


Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury is impressed with Tshiebwe’s rebounding prowess.


“This is what he's always been about. I thought this when I saw him as a high school guy,” said the WKU coach. “Rebounding is about half ability, and that other half is about will, the will, that motor. He did that in high school. One thing to separate him from every other big guy in the country was his motor on the offensive boards. He just has always done that.


“Then naturally now, Cal's got him scoring a little bit. So, when you score a little bit too, that just gives you more energy. He's got a lot better offensively. We played him last year when he was at West Virginia. He's not even close to the player offensively he was, so give their staff a lot of credit. They’ve done a good job developing him.


“But he's got a motor, takes a lot of pride in rebounding. That’s why he's the best in the country at it. Twenty-eight rebounds? I've never had anybody go get 28 rebounds."


Well, we certainly can agree that Oscar is not a mean machine. Instead, we can call him a Gentle Giant who gets things done for the Wildcats.

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.

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