Huggins says West Virginia improved when Tshiebwe left, but should Kentucky fans be worried?

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — A new roster brings new hope for Kentucky basketball each offseason, but one NCAA Tournament coach may have thrown some cold water on the hype for one of the Wildcats’ newcomers already.

“I think in a lot of ways it was a help,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said before his team’s opening NCAA Tournament game last week when asked about the effect former second-team All-Big 12 forward Oscar Tshiebwe leaving his team in the middle of the season to transfer to Kentucky had on the Mountaineers’ season.

Tshiebwe starred for West Virginia as a freshman, averaging 11.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game last season. He was a unanimous Big 12 All-Freshman Team selection and tabbed second-team all-conference.

After his freshman season, Tshiebwe entered the NBA draft but eventually decided to return to college. His production dipped in the first semester of his sophomore season, down to 8.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, and he decided to transfer after 10 games.

Tshiebwe enrolled at Kentucky for the spring semester. He was unable to play in games per NCAA transfer rules but began practicing with the Wildcats in February.

“When I see him and his body and his toughness and his – I’m like, ‘Is there any way? Is that transfer rule immediately?’” Kentucky coach John Calipari joked in February. “‘Can we do that now? Can he come and play now?’”

Known for his physical play around the rim, Tshiebwe would have likely helped a struggling Kentucky team that often was limited by foul trouble among its big men.

Huggins’ assessment of the issues at West Virginia do add some pause about Tshiebwe’s possible role at UK next season, though.

“I think the reality is when Oscar left, we became a much better offensive team because we could spread people,” Huggins said. “I think the challenge was when we had Derek (Culver) and Oscar both, we kind of it seemed like at times ran out of room. … (Jalen Bridges) came in, did a great job of making shots and giving us somebody else who they couldn’t sag off of, who they couldn’t double-team Derek with or whoever our post guy was at that time.”

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The 6-foot-9, 260-pound Tshiebwe and 6-foot-10, 255-pound Culver started together in each of West Virginia’s first 10 games. West Virginia went 2-2 against high-major opponents in those games and averaged 74.6 points per game while Tshiebwe was on the team.

In the 19 games following Tshiebwe’s departure, West Virginia’s offensive output increased to 78.8 points per game.

“When we had those two post guys, neither one of them could make a shot from the perimeter,” Huggins said. “… Those guys are not our best passers. Obviously, Derek was a little bit better passer. It changed the way we play, but I think it changed the way we play for a positive. That’s a positive. That’s not certainly a knock on anybody. I just think we’re a better basketball team now.”

Kentucky fans already concerned about Calipari’s preference of playing two traditional big men next to each other will likely take pause at Huggins’ words.

The crown jewel of Kentucky’s 2021 recruiting class is five-star signee Damion Collins. The lanky 6-foot-9 forward with a 7-foot-4 wingspan is considered an elite defender already, but still an evolving prospect on the offensive end.

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A lineup with Collins and Tshiebwe playing together in the frontcourt — or with Isaiah Jackson alongside Tshiebwe should he make a surprise decision to return to school — could present many of the same spacing issues described by Huggins.

Kentucky’s offense could thrive in a lineup with Tshiebwe at the five alongside stretch forwards Keion Brooks, if he returns to school, or Jacob Toppin. Or Collins’ jump shot could continue its upward trajectory to where he becomes more of a threat to score away from the basket.

How Kentucky uses Tshiebwe will likely depend on what decision Calipari comes to after evaluating any changes needed to his offense in the coming weeks.

Regardless of how the Wildcats play next season, at least one of Tshiebwe’s former teammates is betting on him succeeding at Kentucky.

“Oscar, he’s a force,” West Virginia guard and former Cooper High School star Sean McNeil told The Courier Journal last week. “He’s probably one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen in my life. The majority of the time I saw him, he was in the gym.

“He’s a relentless player, he plays extremely hard, grabs as many rebounds as he possibly can, runs the floor extremely hard, and he’s gonna do everything and anything he can to win ball games for John Calipari and that program. I’m happy for him, I’m excited for him, and I wish him all the best.”

Courier Journal reporter Hayes Gardner contributed to this story.

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ