Oscar Tshiebwe was the consensus men’s college basketball player of the year last season, an accomplishment usually followed by a jump to the NBA.
Kentucky‘s big man decided to take a different route. He is coming back, and he might be even better this season.
“He’s a better passer. He’s a better dribbler. He has a better feel. He talks,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Offensively he knows the plays better. And he’s authentic.”
Tshiebwe was a unanimous selection along with Gonzaga big man Drew Timme in The Associated Press’ preseason All-America team released Monday. They were joined by North Carolina forward Armando Bacot, Houston guard Marcus Sasser and Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis on the team selected by a 59-person media panel that votes on the AP Top 25.
Tshiebwe is the ninth AP national player of the year — Bill Walton and Ralph Sampson did it twice — to return for another season, according to Sportradar research, and the first since Tyler Hansbrough came back to lead North Carolina to a national title in 2009.
The fourth-ranked Wildcats are hoping Tshiebwe can do the same for them.
The 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward from the Congo led the nation in rebounding last season at 15.1 per game while averaging 17.4 points. He shot 60.6% from the field, had 60 steals and 55 blocks, and finished the season with 16 consecutive double-doubles on the way to a school-record 28.
Instead of taking his game to the NBA, Tshiebwe opted to return when projections had him going in the second round of the 2022 draft.
“They [NBA scouts] want my game to expand a little bit,” said Tshiebwe, who started his career at West Virginia. “They want me to be able to make one or two 3-pointers. They want me to catch the ball, drive and finish, and get better in dribbling.”
Timme made a similar decision two years in a row. The 6-10 senior was one of the nation’s best big men each of the past two seasons, leading the Zags on deep NCAA runs, including a trip to the national title game in 2021. He was a second-team All-American for the second straight season a year ago after averaging 18.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
He still had areas of his game he wanted to work on before heading to the NBA and hoped for one more shot at winning a national title with the second-ranked Zags. The NCAA’s name, image and likeness rules made it an easier decision.
“We have a chance to do something special. I wanted to get my degree, there’s things I want to work on, I want to build on,” Timme said. “It was a culmination of a lot of things, but I really enjoy being a college kid.”
Bacot also has a chance to do something special with the Tar Heels.
The 6-11 forward tied the NCAA record with 31 double-doubles last season and became the first to have six in one NCAA tournament while leading North Carolina to the national title game. The Tar Heels lost to Kansas but are No. 1 in the preseason AP Top 25 and among the favorites to win it all with Bacot back.
“I don’t go a day where we’re not, like, saying, man, we can’t wait to get to that,” Bacot said of winning a national title. “Maybe that’s not the best approach, but I mean, we’re human.”
Sasser’s performance was a key cog two years ago during the Cougars’ first Final Four run since the Phi Slama Jama days; he averaged 13.7 points and played menacing defense.
The dynamic 6-2 guard got off to a strong start last season but broke a bone in his left foot and was limited to 12 games. He was named the American Athletic Conference preseason player of the year and is a big reason the Cougars are ranked No. 3 in the AP preseason poll.
“It puts a target on your back every night, but it also gives me motivation every day in practice to go out there and work harder,” Sasser said.
Jackson-Davis was a preseason All-American last season and led the Hoosiers in scoring (18.3) and rebounding (8.1). The 6-9 forward also helped Indiana reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years, but the postseason run ended with a first-round loss to Saint Mary’s.
With Jackson-Davis back, the No. 13 Hoosiers are the favorites to win the Big Ten and, they hope, make a deep March run.
“I think I have kind of set the stone of my individual legacy, being an All-American and doing all of those things, but those don’t really matter if you don’t win something here,” he said. “Winning is a big thing here, so winning a national championship and also winning a Big Ten title, those are my two main goals this year.”