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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Shreyas Laddha

KU basketball may face biggest challenge of the season in Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe was determined to end up with the ball.

Surrounded by three Kansas players, the Kentucky big man fought for and emerged with the rebound.

Tshiebwe pump-faked, sent two KU players flying in the air and finally shot the ball from under the basket. The shot didn’t hit the rim, and Kansas forward KJ Adams appeared to have the rebound ...

Until he didn’t.

Tshiebwe ripped the ball out of Adams’ hands and finally connected on the layup.

The 2022 Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year dropped a double-double (17 points and 14 rebounds) in the Wildcats’ 80-62 win over KU in the 2021-22 season at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas looks for redemption on Saturday at Rupp Arena.

The No. 9 Jayhawks (16-4, 5-3 Big 12) and Kentucky (14-6, 5-3 SEC) will face off in a Big 12/SEC Challenge game at 7 p.m.

Kansas comes to Lexington desperate as it looks to avoid its first four-game losing streak since the 1988-89 season. The undersized Jayhawks will be in for a battle with Tshiebwe, who is averaging 16.6 points and 13.9 rebounds this season.

“They got a really good player in Oscar,” KU forward Jalen Wilson said Thursday. “He gave us problems last year. So (we’re) just figuring out what it’s going to take to slow him down as much as we can.”

As for what Kansas learned from playing Tshiebwe last season?

“We’ve got to bring the physicality to him,” Wilson said. “He’s a beast in there. I think last year we weren’t as locked in what he was capable of doing, as far as taking over a game in the paint. He’s doing it all again this year.

“We’ll just have to really put guys on him and box him out. Make someone else on the team get a rebound. I think we do that, that’ll limit a lot of second-chance points and opportunities.”

The Jayhawks have struggled on the glass all season, but it’s been a big problem the last two games. In KU’s 75-69 loss to Baylor on Monday, the Bears outrebounded Kansas 17 to eight on the offensive glass. Baylor had 16 second-chance points compared to KU’s four.

In the game before that, the Jayhawks were outrebounded 36-30 against TCU and gave up offensive rebounds on more than one-third of the Horned Frogs’ misses (9 of 26).

After the Baylor game, Wilson spoke about his tendency to jump for the ball instead of boxing out.

Kansas coach Bill Self believes it’s a team-wide issue.

“KJ has been so good, (but he) is so little compared to some guys that his focus has been: ‘Don’t let my guy get the rebound a lot,’ which is okay,” Self said. “That means Jalen, Gradey (Dick), Kevin (McCullar) need to get all of them.”

That’s been the task for Adams, listed at 6-foot-7, and KU all season, to varying degrees of success.

Earlier in the season, Kansas held returning Indiana All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis (averaging 19.7 points and 10.8 rebounds) in check.

Jackson-Davis is averaging 30.3 points and 15 rebounds over his last three games. The Jayhawks sent smart double-teams, denied him the ball and made him uncomfortable all game, holding him to 13 points on 4-for-8 shooting. He grabbed nine rebounds in IU’s 84-62 loss to Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse.

Still, Tshiebwe presents a different challenge for KU. Self believes the UK forward is the best big man and rebounder in the country.

“We approach it differently than we did with Trayce,” Self said. “Trayce got the ball at 12 feet and wanted to play facing (the basket). It’s a different guard than what Oscar is.”

Self explained: “It’s a situation where you want to slow him, but you also don’t want to give him so much attention and let other guys have some freedom that maybe allows them to have really big games, too. They are capable at all spots.”

Sure enough, if Kansas pays too much attention to the inside, Kentucky could make the team pay from three. The Wildcats are shooting 36.9% from three as a team with five rotation players who shoot over 35%: Antonio Reeves, Cason Wallace, CJ Fredrick, Sahvir Wheeler and Chris Livingston.

“We’ve got to do a good job and limit his good touches,” Self said. “How we go about that we’re working on right now — and hopefully (we’ll) have a pretty good game plan on how we do that by Saturday.”

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