When one plays for a traditionally regal college hoops program like the Kentucky Wildcats, it is no easy task to make history.
Yet from beginning to end, Oscar Tshiebwe spent his first season in UK blue doing little else.
In his very first game as a Wildcat, Tshiebwe set a school record for rebounds in a UK debut by grabbing 17 against Duke.
At the end of the year, after leading the nation in rebounding (15.2) and setting a UK single-season record for double-doubles (28), Tshiebwe made his biggest historical mark: He became the first Wildcats player to sweep all six major national player of the year honors.
As a result, Oscar Tshiebwe has been voted the 2022 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year by media members, current and retired, from across the commonwealth.
“On the court, Oscar Tshiebwe is college basketball’s top player,” Keith Taylor of KentuckyToday.com wrote. “Off the court, he’s the most likable. This should be a unanimous choice for Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year.”
Added Mike Marsee of The Advocate-Messenger in Danville: “Sweeping every player of the year award would endear any UK player to the fan base, but Oscar Tshiebwe’s exemplary level of grace and humility have made him a true fan favorite.”
In becoming the 42nd Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year, Tshiebwe led a 1-2-3 sweep by Kentucky Wildcats athletes, a first in the history of an award that dates to 1981.
Track and field star Abby Steiner finished second in the voting by 143 members of the commonwealth’s sports media. The sprinter garnered almost as many first-place votes (41) as Tshiebwe accumulated (49).
In a record-shattering year that crossed levels of her sport, Steiner won three NCAA championships, blazed to a first place in the U.S. Championships in her specialty, the 200 meters, and claimed two relay gold medals for Team USA at the World Athletics Championships.
In addition to becoming the first UK athlete to win the Bowerman Award — essentially, the “Heisman Trophy” of track and field — Steiner also excelled in the classroom, earning SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year honors for both indoor and outdoor track and field.
“A tough call,” wrote Rick Bozich of Louisville’s WDRB.com. “It’s rare to vote against a consensus men’s college basketball player of the year but Steiner had a phenomenal year and her academic achievements took her to the next level.”
Adds Keith Farmer of WLEX-TV: “We got to experience the start of (Steiner’s) story, and we’ll continue to hear her name for years to come — likely with chants of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A!’ following her.”
In finishing third, UK women’s basketball star Rhyne Howard completed the Wildcats’ top-three sweep. Howard concluded an iconic Kentucky career by leading the Cats to the SEC Tournament championship — the school’s first in 40 years — and earning first-team All-America honors from the Associated Press for a third time.
Howard then went on to be named WNBA Rookie of the Year after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft by the Atlanta Dream.
“Rhyne was spectacular in college basketball and the WNBA,” Larry Vaught of Vaughtsviews.com wrote. “We may never see another superstar — a three-time first-team All-American — like her in Kentucky.”
In addition to the most first-place votes, Tshiebwe was named on the most ballots — 133 of the 143 cast. He scored narrow wins over Steiner in voting among media members in Lexington (19 points) and Eastern Kentucky (39 points), but he won more decisively among those voting from Louisville (92 points) and Western Kentucky (105 points).
With averages of 17.4 points and 15.2 rebounds, Tshiebwe became the first NCAA Division I men’s college hoops player to go above 15 and 15 since the 1979-80 season. His national player of the year honors came from The Associated Press, the Sporting News, the United States Basketball Writers Association, the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the Naismith Trophy and the Wooden Award.
Tshiebwe’s zeal for tracking down missed shots seemed limitless, which turned watching him rebound into high-quality entertainment.
“Oscar rebounds basketballs like he’s a 7-footer in the 1950s,” wrote KentuckySportsRadio.com’s Nick Roush, “except he’s actually an undersized forward in 2022.”
There was more to Tshiebwe’s appeal than his production on the court. In one sense, the product of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, expanded the state of Kentucky’s horizons.
Through Tshiebwe, Kentuckians learned about the Congolese dish Fufu — a puree of boiled white yams, sweet potatoes and plantains. They also watched via a video distributed on social media as a smiling Tshiebwe ate from what appeared to be a plate of insects.
Yet in the hard-hat approach Tshiebwe brought to the basketball court and the sincerity with which he shared his Christian faith, he was a congenial fit with the sensibilities of many Kentuckians.
“Didn’t matter if he was eating chocolate ants, or dominating college basketball, Oscar’s smile won over the hearts of UK fans all over the world,” wrote Alan Cutler of Lexington’s WLXG-AM 1300 and FM-96.1.
Added Jamie Vaught of KySportsStyle.com: “Oscar was magnificent in 2022. He was definitely the King of Kentucky.”
Oscar Tshiebwe is the 2022 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year.