Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe was the first National Player of the Year to return to college basketball since Tyler Hansbrough did it with North Carolina back in 2008. The decision by both was met with some skepticism at the time, but the results paid off quickly. Tshiebwe has raked in millions of dollars thanks to name, image, and likeness (NIL) while Hansbrough went on to lead UNC to a national title in 2009.
But not since Virginia’s Ralph Sampson in 1982 has a National Player of the Year returned for a third season in college basketball after winning the award. With NIL in full flux and the diminishing number of “traditional” centers in the NBA, there is a growing possibility someone does what Sampson did 40 years ago. That someone could be Tshiebwe, and his head coach is already trying to make it happen.
During the 2022 SEC Media Day in Birmingham, AL on Wednesday, John Calipari fielded questions from reporters ahead of the season-opener against Howard on Nov. 7. Naturally, it didn’t take long for Tshiebwe’s decision to return to come up, but before Calipari could even let the reporter get the entire question out, he had to make a quip.
“I’m trying to get him to come back next year, too,” Calipari said of Tshiebwe with a big smile on his face.
Tshiebwe hasn’t even officially begun his senior season yet, but the buzz surrounding another A potential return has been alive since he first announced he was coming back in April. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he’ll have one more year of eligibility left after this coming season.
All that being said, it almost sounds like Tshiebwe would only return if he doesn’t improve his overall game — that’s what his head coach believes, at least.
“The issue became where he was projected to be drafted,” Calipari said. “And that’s part of the reason (why Tshiebwe returned to UK) — and NIL. Which I’ve said to all you guys, the NIL will keep kids in school that would have left. That’s what happened in men’s basketball. So with him, if that didn’t happen, he would have gone. If he would have been drafted or projected in a better position, he would have been gone.
“Now it’s our chance for him to say, all right you came back, you got to be better as a basketball player. We know you rebound. You gotta be able to guard multiple positions, you gotta be able to pass and dribble, you gotta be a better basketball player. We had Pro Day and everyone left saying he’s way better than he was. Like he’s way better as a player than he was. And that’s why you come back. If you’re coming back for a re-do you shouldn’t come back.”
By all accounts though, Tshiebwe has improved plenty over the summer, although he is currently being sidelined with a minor injury. After all, he was still named the SEC Preseason Player of the Year on Wednesday, too.
“He’s a better passer.” He’s a better dribbler. He has a better feel. He talks. Offensively he knows the plays better,” Calipari added. “I don’t think that Sahvir (Wheeler) picking up full court will get smashed now because he knows to go up there and yell and do stuff. And he’s authentic, fellas. He is who he is. Like I’m a sinner. I know I’m a sinner. But when I’m around him, I really feel like a sinner because this kid is who he is, every day, like it or don’t like it, this is him authentically.”
Five years ago, the prospect of a player with Tshiebwe’s talent coming back to college — especially after winning NPOY — was a rare concept. Now, in the world of NIL along with the evolving game of basketball, another year out of Tshiebwe in a Kentucky uniform is not out of the question by any means.