Oscar Tshiebwe makes Kentucky basketball history; now, could he return to school?

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — The historic nature of Oscar Tshiebwe's 2021-22 season was well established before Tuesday, but now the junior forward can stake a claim to an honor no other Kentucky basketball player had previously earned.

Tshiebwe took home the Wooden Award Tuesday, becoming the first player in UK history to sweep the six NCAA-recognized National Player of the Year awards. Tshiebwe was previously announced as the winner of The Sporting News Player of the Year, Associated Press Player of the Year, National Association of Basketball Coaches Player of the Year, Oscar Robertson Trophy and Naismith Trophy.

Five former Wildcats have won at least one National Player of the Year award.

Forest Sale (1933), LeRoy Edwards (1935) and Jack Givens (1978) were named Helms National Player of the Year. John Wall (2010) won the Adolph Rupp trophy. Anthony Davis (2012) won 5 of 6 NCAA-recognized Player of the Year awards, losing only the coaches' award. Sale's and Edwards' honors were awarded retroactively in 1944.

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Already a consensus first-team All-American, Tshiebwe broke UK’s record for double-doubles in a single season (27). He ranks third on UK’s single-season rebounds list (515). Tshiebwe led the country in rebounds per game (15.1) and offensive rebounds per game (5.26). He ranks second in defensive rebounds per game (9.88).

No Kentucky player had recorded 20 rebounds in a game since 1994 before Tshiebwe reached the plateau in his Wildcat debut. He waited all of one game to grab 20 rebounds again. Tshiebwe topped 20 rebounds five times in 33 games and broke Shaquille O’Neal’s Rupp Arena rebound record with 28 boards in a win over Western Kentucky in December.

The 6-foot-9, 255-pound forward also led Kentucky in scoring (17.4 points per game), blocked shots (55) and steals (60). The SEC coaches named him to the league's All-Defensive Team.

Will Oscar Tshiebwe return to Kentucky basketball?

Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe slams down two of his 21 points to go with his 22 rebounds as the Wildcats hold off Mississippi State 82-74 at Rupp Arena Tuesday night. January 25, 2022

Since the John Wooden Award was first handed out in 1976, 27 players have won all six of the current NCAA-recognized National Player of the Year awards before Tshiebwe. Of that group, only two players returned to school the next season.

After sweeping the six Player of the Year awards in 1982, Ralph Sampson returned to Virginia for the 1982-83 season. He won 5 of 6 of the awards as a senior, losing only The Sporting News award to Michael Jordan.

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North Carolina junior Tyler Hansbrough swept the awards in 2008 then returned for the 2008-09 season. While he lost each of the Player of the Year awards to Blake Griffin as a senior, Hansbrough and the Tar Heels did win the 2009 national championship.

Since Hansbrough's 2008 win, only one player who won any of the six National Player of the Year awards returned to school (Luka Garza; Sporting News, 2020). The last Associated Press National Player of the Year to return to school before Hansbrough was O'Neal in 1991. 

It may be difficult to draw many comparisons between Tshiebwe and the other Player of the Year winners, though.

Of the 12 underclassmen who swept the six awards and left for the NBA, 11 were selected within the first six picks of the ensuing draft. Only Jalen Brunson in 2018 was a second-round pick, the range where Tshiebwe is projected to be selected if he starts his professional career this spring. 

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Tshiebwe is also the first Player of the Year who could return to school and profit off his name, image and likeness, but as an international student, the Democratic Republic of the Congo native still needs issues with his visa resolved to cash in on endorsement deals at UK next year. 

"I’ve been praying about it and I know I have a big decision to make," Tshiebwe told CBS Sports Network Sunday. “It would be great to be in the blue again because I love the place, I love the fans, I love everything about Kentucky. But whatever decision God tells me to do, that is what I’m going to do."

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