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Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe Is Making Rebounding Cool Again

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Oscar Tshiebwe may be the national player of the year in men’s college basketball this season, but a year ago his team couldn’t find a place for him. After averaging fewer than 20 minutes per game with West Virginia in the first 10 games of 2020-21, Tshiebwe was in a rough place. He stepped away from the team on New Year’s Day, entered the transfer portal and committed to Kentucky less than a week later. 

Off the court, Tshiebwe was struggling at West Virginia, saying he “did not want to put that jersey on. God heard my cry for help.” The headlines surrounding his transfer painted an ugly picture. On the court, Tshiebwe and the Mountaineers were struggling to solve a modern basketball problem: They had two big men in Tshiebwe and Derek Culver) — listed at 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-10, respectively — who had taken a grand total of zero 3-pointers. “The system (West Virginia) that we were playing, it was really clogged up,” Tshiebwe said last spring at Kentucky. “… The way we play here is way different than how West Virginia played.”

And the way Tshiebwe plays is different from other college stars, too. In this era of basketball, so much attention goes to taking — and making — the best shots possible. Tshiebwe, meanwhile, has mastered the lost art of rebounding — gobbling up those missed shots, as often as possible, for as long as possible, at both ends of the floor. Through Wednesday’s games, Tshiebwe leads the country in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing 35.2 percent of opponents’ misses when he’s on the court, and also ranks second in offensive rebound percentage, pulling back 20.1 percent of the Wildcats’ misses. He could become the first player since Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried in 2010-11 to lead the country in both categories. But unlike Faried, Tshiebwe is also dominating the defensive glass against high-major competition that’s elite on the offensive boards; seven of the SEC’s 13 other teams rank in the nation’s top 40 in offensive rebounding percentage.

Across the sport, offensive rebounding has fallen out of favor. In 2020 and 2021, the offensive rebound rate in men’s college basketball reached a nadir of 28.0 percent, down from a peak of 35.6 percent in 2005-06, in Ken Pomeroy’s database (since 1996-97). The same was true in the NBA, where teams rebounded an all-time low of 22.2 percent of their own misses. On the whole, teams have sacrificed on the offensive glass in order to get a head start on their transition defense.

And yet Tshiebwe, in his first season at Kentucky, is tied for the highest single-season total rebound percentage since 2009-10, at 27.8 percent. He’s also playing a career-high 31.3 minutes per game, pushing his rebounding average to a spectacular 15.3 per game, the highest in a season since 1979. In a 95-60 rout of Western Kentucky on Dec. 22, Tshiebwe outrebounded the Hilltoppers by himself, 28-27.

Tshiebwe said in December, “I don’t care about scoring. I want to bring something special.” That he has — but he happens to be an effective scorer, too. He’s pouring in 16.9 points per game, leading a Kentucky team with five double-digit scorers. It doesn’t hurt that he’s such a force on the glass: He has racked up 92 put-back chances, most in the country, and scored 3.5 points per game on those second chances, according to Synergy Sports.

In sum, Tshiebwe is a better scorer than the college game’s best rebounders, and a better rebounder than the country’s top scoring big men — and in his new destination at Kentucky, he often plays more than both. Kansas’s David McCormack, who passed Tshiebwe in offensive rebounding rate on Tuesday night, is playing just 21.1 minutes per game and scoring just 9.7 points. And of the college players scoring more than 17 points per game, only four are pulling down double-digit rebounds, led by Utah Valley’s Fardaws Aimaq.

With his high-volume scoring, tenacious rebounding and a lack of an outside shot, Tshiebwe is the kind of big man that doesn’t come around often anymore. Of the top 100 scorers in college basketball this season, only five have made fewer than 10 3-pointers. And none of those five is averaging more than 12 rebounds per game. Even looking back to 2009-10, when Sports-Reference.com began tracking rebounding rates, Tshiebwe is a unicorn. The only player to match his total rebound percentage was Aimaq in 2020-21. Aimaq’s offensive rating that year was 99.4, a far cry from Tshiebwe’s 128.4.

As basketball spreads out and speeds up, Tshiebwe’s game is even more endangered in the NBA, which has weeded out most of its low-post bangers. Since 2014-15, no player other than DeMarcus Cousins has averaged 20 or more points in 40 or more games in a single season without at least attempting 10 total 3-pointers. In the 1980s, there were an average of 8.5 such players per season. Relatedly, Tshiebwe is only 43rd in ESPN’s latest NBA mock draft.

But for now, Kentucky has done what West Virginia couldn’t — build a championship contender around Tshiebwe. The Wildcats rank second in the country in offensive rebounding rate, and they’re defying modern norms along with their star player. They take only 28.1 percent of their shots from 3-point range, which ranks 347th nationally. Only three top-four seeds in the NCAA Tournament have finished below 30 percent since 2016: North Carolina and Virginia in 2016, and Kentucky in 2019. Those kinds of teams are going out of style these days — but, at least, Tshiebwe gives this one a good chance to play deep into March and early April.

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