For more than a year now, James Wiseman, Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt have been at the top of John Calipari’s wishlist of frontcourt recruits in the class of 2019.
A new name has been steadily rising to that top tier over the past several weeks.
Oscar Tshiebwe — a 6-foot-8, 230-pound prospect from Congo — told the Herald-Leader on Wednesday that UK has scheduled an in-home visit with him for Monday of next week. Earlier this week, two national analysts with Rivals.com logged predictions in favor of the Wildcats for Tshiebwe, who has also been rocketing up the recruiting rankings this summer.
UK is clearly emerging as a major player for one of the hottest prospects in the country.
Tshiebwe, who now plays his high school ball for Kennedy Catholic (Pa.), met with coaches from West Virginia and Baylor on Sunday and Monday, the first two days of the fall recruiting period, and he was scheduled to meet with Illinois’ coaches Wednesday.
He’s already narrowed his list to those three programs and Kentucky.
“I know Illinois and Baylor are in there as well, but, personally, I can’t see this as anything but West Virginia and Kentucky,” Rivals.com’s Eric Bossi told the Herald-Leader on Wednesday. “I think West Virginia was seen as a pretty big early leader. And if you watch him, he looks like he came out of Bob Huggins central casting. If Bob Huggins could engineer an ideal player it would probably be Oscar.
“But Kentucky is coming strong on him, he’s scheduled a visit, and I really feel like if they make a push for him that they can get that thing done.”
Calipari has quietly been making that push.
Tshiebwe does not yet have a confirmed UK scholarship offer, but that’s a matter of recruiting semantics at this point. The Herald-Leader has been told that Tshiebwe has a spot in the Wildcats’ 2019 class if he wants it, and Calipari will continue to sell him on the UK program over the next several weeks.
Kentucky is scheduled to host Tshiebwe for an official visit during the weekend of Sept. 28. He also has official visits set for this month to Baylor and Illinois, and he’ll be on West Virginia’s campus during the first weekend of October.
A college decision ahead of the early signing period (Nov. 14-21) is widely expected.
Rivals.com’s Corey Evans also predicted Tshiebwe to UK earlier this week. He acknowledged that West Virginia might still be the leader, but that could change once Calipari puts on the full-court recruiting press.
“Let’s face it, man. Kentucky isn’t missing all their guys,” Evans told the Herald-Leader. “And I think when push comes to shove and if they decide to ramp things up for Oscar, I feel like a Kentucky offer and this official visit coming up for him can do wonders for the Wildcats.”
Bossi agrees that the 48-hour trip to Lexington later this month should make an impression on Tshiebwe, who will likely get to watch multiple UK practices, where Reid Travis, PJ Washington, Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery will be battling in the frontcourt.
“He’s a guy who prides himself on testing himself against the best of the best and not running from competition,” Bossi said. “And that’s the sale that Kentucky tries to make with the guys they recruit: ‘You’re going to come here and be pushed against the best.’ I think when he visits they have a chance to make that resonate with him.
“And, for that reason, I lean toward Kentucky with him.”
Bossi also said that — while Tshiebwe has built his reputation as a terrific rebounder with a non-stop motor on the court — that’s not all he’s capable of. The five-star center has developed some offensive touch around the basket, and Bossi pointed out that he’s such a good rebounder not only because he plays hard, but because he knows how to use his body and time his play correctly. In short, Tshiebwe doesn’t just hustle, but he’s a smart player, too.
“I think he deserves some recognition for that,” Bossi said.
Rivals.com bumped him up 24 spots to the No. 21 overall ranking in the class of 2019 earlier this week. Tshiebwe made a splash this summer, averaging double-digit rebounds on the Adidas circuit and outplaying Wiseman in a marquee matchup during one of the July evaluation periods.
Wiseman, Carey and Hurt are still major UK targets. The Cats also recently extended a scholarship offer to 6-10 forward Zeke Nnaji, and they’re still showing some interest in four-star center Aidan Igiehon.
But Calipari will need a few frontcourt players in his 2019 class, and Tshiebwe should fit well with just about anyone else the UK coach can bring in.
“He’s actually the ideal complement for a guy like Zeke, Vernon or James Wiseman. Because he’s going to do all the dirty work,” Evans said. “Those other guys are best facing the basket, where Oscar is — pound for pound — one of the best rebounders I’ve evaluated in 10 years. He averaged 15, 16 rebounds per game on the Adidas circuit, and he was sometimes forced to play the entire game because they didn’t have a bench.
“Imagine when he can quarantine all of that energy into shorter spurts of dominance. I can only imagine how good he could be. I think he’s the perfect piece, really, for what they need.”