Oscar Tshiebwe's decision to come back to UK was a monumental moment for UK hoops. Hell, it was a monumental moment for college basketball in general, considering that the face of college basketball decided to play another season in a time where playing another season is usually not the thing to do.
I, along with the rest of BBN, was ecstatic upon hearing the news. It also got me thinking, where would Oscar rank amongst all the great big men we have had since Coach Cal took the reins in 2009? Would he be #1? He did after all just have a record-shattering season and became the only consensus player of the year in the history of the program.
I decided to take a look back at all the great bigs and decide who I think was the best of the best (considering only what they did in a UK uniform).
To make my decision, I looked back at each player's production from a statistics standpoint, mainly focusing on their best (and usually only) season at UK. I also took into account their accolades and awards while at UK, and how far they carried their respective teams through the season.
Finally, I tried my best to remember back to each player's time at UK to consider just how impactful they were when they were on the court -- things that don't show up on the stat sheet, like defensive intimidation, leadership, etc. I cut down the list to my top 5 big guys, then compared those 5 to decide who was the best of the best:
Julius Randle (probably the hardest guy to keep out of the top-5), Bam Adebayo, Terrence Jones, Nick Richards, PJ Washington, Nerlens Noel (for the record, it is my opinion that Nerlens was the best defensive big man we've had under Cal. Had he not blown out his knee, he certainly would have made my top-5. However, I couldn't justify it here considering he did not even play one full season).
The 5 (listed in the order that they played for UK):
DeMarcus Cousins: 15.1 PPG, 9.8 RBG, 1.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.8 BPG, 56% FG, Win Shares 6.5. All-American, All-Conference, SEC Rookie of the Year. Team results: won the conference regular season and tournament. 1 seed in the NCAA, Elite 8 appearance.
Case for Boogie: he was not a slouch on defense, but Boogie shined as one of the best offensive big men Cal has had. Great footwork, good fundamentals, and nearly unstoppable if he got the ball within 10 feet of the basket.
Anthony Davis: 14.2 PPG, 10.4 RBG, 1.3 APG, 4.7 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 65% FG, Box Plus-Minus 17.2, Win Shares 9.9. Wooden Award, Naismith Award, AP Player of the year, All-American, All-SEC, Defensive Player of the year, NCAA tournament MOP. Team Results: most wins in a single season in history, SEC regular season champs, #1 overall seed in NCAA, National Title #8.
Case for AD: Plain and simple -- he was transcendent. Arguably the most impactful "non-scoring" player ever -- even though he did lead the team in scoring by season's end. Record setter for blocked shots. Very efficient on the offensive end, yet his biggest impact was undoubtedly on defense. Team leader, consistent, and a once in a generation talent.
Willie Cauley-Stein: (stats from junior season) 8.9 PPG, 6.4 RBG, 0.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.7 BPG, 57% FG, Box Plus-Minus 10.7 (total for 3 seasons), Win Shares 12.8 (total for 3 seasons). NCAA Defensive player of the year, SEC defensive player of the year, All-American, All-conference, SEC tournament MVP. Team Results: 2x final four appearances and one national championship appearance. 2014-15 season won SEC regular season and tournament, #1 overall seed, tied record for most wins in a single season.
Case for WCS: The only player on the list who played multiple season under Cal (so far). Looking at his stats alone, WCS does not seem like he should have made the cut, but WCS's impact on the floor was immense, even if that impact didn't translate to the stat sheet (though it reflects in his advanced statistics and his awards list). His stats were also undoubtedly impacted by the people he played with -- prime example, he averaged 3 BPG as a sophomore, but only 1.7 as a junior, when he shared time with the likes of KAT 3 other really good bigs.
Yet, he was still voted the defensive player of the year that year. WCS was arguably the most dynamic defensive player we've had under Cal. A 7 footer who ran the floor like a deer and had the quickness and agility of a guard. He could truly guard anyone, and often did. A one of a kind athlete that took the time to develop and eventually became one of the best players in the country. He was also the heart and soul of one of the best college teams ever assembled. As good/stacked as the 2014-2015 team as, it would not have been nearly as good without WCS on the court.
Also worth noting, WCS gave us some of the most impressive and savage dunks from a UK player. I mean, who can forget the posters he made against UF in Gainesville, or against Cincy in the NCAA tournament?
Or better yet, when he ran Montrezl Harrell into the ground and slammed it home (did you know he used to play WR in football in HS?!?).
Karl Anthony-Towns: 10.3 PPG, 6.7 RBG, 1.1 APG, 0.3 SPG, 2.3 BPG, 57% FG, Box Plus-Minus 14.3, Win Shares 6.4. All-American, All-Conference, SEC Rookie of the Year. Team Results: Won SEC regular season and tournament, #1 overall seed in NCAA, final four appearance, tied record for most wins in a single season.
Case for KAT: Like WCS, KAT's stats were largely affected by the fact that he played on such a loaded team (sharing the floor with WCS, and several other very good bigs). However, as evidenced by his awards and advanced stats, and the fact that he became the #1 NBA Draft pick, he was arguably the best player on the team. He was the anchor down low, on both offense and defense, which allowed the incredibly athletic WCS to be unleashed to run rampant around the rest of the floor.
Moreover, for everything WCS was on defense, KAT was on offense. That's why the pairing of those two bigs worked so beautifully. Even in college, when Towns got hot there was no stopping him. And that was when his offensive game was relegated to just playing on the block.
Oscar Tshiebwe: 17.4 PPG, 15.2 RBG, 1.1 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 60% FG, Box Plus-Minus 13.3, Win Shares 8.0. Consensus player of the year. SEC player of the year. All defensive team. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award Team results: good record, looked like a true contender for much of the season, did not win the conference, 2 seed in the NCAA, flamed out in the first round.
The case for Oscar: he truly shattered records. Hard worker, incredibly consistent (to me this was arguably his best trait). Completely changes the game on both ends when he was on the floor. Also a fantastic team leader and undoubtedly the heart and soul of the team.
Biases aside (WCS is my favorite Kentucky big man under Cal, followed closely by Oscar), my opinion for the best big men we've had under Cal are, in order:
- Anthony Davis
- Oscar Tshiebwe
- Willie Cauley-Stein
- Demarcus Cousins
- Karl Anthony-Towns (for the record, it's a toss up between KAT and Boogie. I could easily go either way. I ultimately chose Boogie over KAT because he had a slight edge in advanced stats and showed he could carry the team at times in a way that KAT never had to because of how dominant that 14-15 team was.)