On Jan. 6, 2018, I published a column detailing what I said were 10 all-time Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball records that would never be broken.
In Oscar Tshiebwe’s stellar start to his first UK season, the big man has put himself at least within shouting distance of threatening some of those “unbreakable” Kentucky records.
Wednesday night, Tshiebwe broke a Rupp Arena mark for a men’s college game when he grabbed 28 rebounds in UK’s 95-60 demolition of Western Kentucky.
Tshiebwe’s output on the boards vs. WKU easily shattered LSU star Shaquille O’Neal’s previous Rupp record of 21 rebounds recorded in the Tigers’ 100-95 loss to “Pitino’s Bombinos” on Feb. 15, 1990.
The 28 rebounds Tshiebwe corralled were the most by a Kentucky player in a game since Mike Phillips went for 28 (and 26 points) in a 90-88 overtime loss to Tennessee in Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 10, 1976.
Western Kentucky’s entire team had 27 rebounds.
“(Injured UK guard) CJ (Fredrick) and I were sitting on the bench towards the end of the game and we were just both like, ‘I’ve just never seen anything like this,’” Kentucky’s Kellan Grady said afterward. “(Tshiebwe) outrebounded Western, just himself.”
Already leading the nation in rebounding (14.2 per game) entering the WKU contest, Tshiebwe, a transfer from West Virginia, came out of the matchup with the Hilltoppers averaging 15.5 boards.
“When I came here, I told everybody, I told 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,” Tshiebwe explained. “I just go to fight.”
For all the acclaim the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Tshiebwe has gotten so far in his first season playing for John Calipari and UK, I am not sure there is a full grasp of just how exceptional what he is doing is.
On my 2018 list of unbreakable UK basketball marks, No. 8 was Kentucky’s single-game rebounding record. It is 34, and was achieved by Bill Spivey against Xavier on Feb. 13, 1951, and then matched by Bob Burrow vs. Temple on Dec. 10, 1955.
At 28 rebounds vs. WKU, Tshiebwe was far closer to that mark than I ever anticipated seeing.
To grasp the full magnitude of a 28-rebound game, consider:
▪ Rick Robey led UK in rebounding three different seasons in the 1970s. The 6-10 Robey never had more than 16 boards (vs. Mississippi State in 1976-77) in one game.
▪ Sam Bowie led UK in rebounding three different seasons in the early 1980s. The 7-1 Bowie never had more than 18 boards (vs. Houston in 1983-84) in one game.
▪ Chuck Hayes led UK in rebounding three different seasons in the first decade of the 21st century. The 6-5 Hayes never had more than 16 rebounds (twice, vs. Notre Dame in 2002-03 and again vs. Tennessee in 2003-04) in one game.
At No. 5 on my 2018 list of UK basketball marks likely never to be broken was Cliff Hagan’s career-rebounding average record of 13.4.
Presently, Tshiebwe’s rebounding average at Kentucky stands two boards a game (15.5) above that.
Alas, to qualify as the Wildcats’ career rebound average leader, Tshiebwe will have to defy conventional expectation and return to UK to play a second season in 2022-23. Kentucky has a 60-game minimum to qualify for its career rebounding rankings.
Still, to grasp how shocking a 15.5 rebounding average for a UK player is, consider:
Between the 1972-73 season and this year’s college hoops campaign, only three Kentucky players have averaged double-digit rebounds for a season:
▪ Kenny Walker at 10.2 per game in 1984-85;
▪ Anthony Davis at 10.4 in 2011-12;
▪ Julius Randle at 10.4 in 2013-14.
Moving forward, it figures to be challenging for even so ferocious a rebounder as Tshiebwe to maintain a 15.5 average as the Kentucky schedule toughens with the start of SEC play plus a non-league road trip to Kansas still remaining.
However, if Tshiebwe could stay at 15.5 rebounds per outing and play in every Cats game the rest of the season;
And if Kentucky could reach a minimum of 37 games played in 2021-22 by making the finals of the the SEC Tournament and at least the round of 16 in the NCAA tourney;
Then if Tshiebwe plays in 26 more games while averaging 15.5 boards, he would record 403 more rebounds this season to add to the 170 he has already claimed.
At 573 rebounds for 2021-22, Tshiebwe would break by six Bill Spivey’s current UK record for boards in one season of 567.
Spivey’s single-season Kentucky rebounding mark was not on my 2018 list of unbreakable Wildcats basketball records.
But I would have considered it so.
The fact that Tshiebwe is rebounding at such a pace that we’re even entertaining the possibility of his threatening “unbreakable” UK records is a fairly remarkable feat in its own right.