By Justin Jackson and Allan Taylor
Decision Day is nearing for five-star center Oscar Tshiebwe, whose final four consists of West Virginia, Kentucky, Baylor and Illinois. He plans to reveal his decision Saturday via social media, with WVU and Kentucky believed to be at the forefront. While John Calipari is accustomed to elite signings, Tshiebwe would be the second-highest prospect to join the Mountaineers since the advent of recruiting services.
Bob Huggins waded through the present and the future of the NBA, nodding some hellos and shaking a few hands when he happened to cross paths with then-Memphis men’s basketball coach John Calipari.
The setting: The 2008 NBA Draft inside Madison Square Garden.
Huggins was making his way over to Joe Alexander’s table. Calipari was there to support Derrick Rose.
A month earlier, Calipari had put on a full-court recruiting press for New York high school standout Devin Ebanks, who decided instead to sign with the Mountaineers and become a vital part of West Virginia’s 2010 Final Four run.
“Man, you got one from me,” Calipari told Huggins.
In a matter of days, we’ll find out if Huggins will get another one from his pal Calipari, as five-star big man Oscar Tshiebwe is set to announce Saturday his college intentions.
It is expected to either be Huggins and West Virginia or Kentucky and Calipari.
Tshiebwe is a 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward from Congo, who played for Mountain Mission School (Grundy, Va.), when he first came to the United States. That’s where West Virginia assistant Ron Everhart saw him while recruiting former WVU player Maciej Bender.
Tshiebwe transferred to Kennedy Catholic in Hermitage, Pa. — the same school that produced West Virginia standout Sagaba Konate — as a junior and shot up the national recruiting rankings this summer.
According to Rivals.com’s national rankings, Tshiebwe went from an unranked recruit during March to No. 21 in the country last month. That jump followed his dominating a head-to-head matchup with Jame Wiseman, the Rivals No. 2-rated prospect who’s deciding between Kentucky and Memphis.
Tshiebwe’s play during the summer AAU circuit certainly caught Calipari’s eye, but West Virginia was the first to offer Tshiebwe a Division I scholarship in July 2016.
Here are the reasons why Tshiebwe should choose the Mountaineers, and the counter-argument supporting the case for Kentucky:
Pick WVU: Familiarity
The story goes that while putting the finishing touches on Bender’s recruitment, Everhart first laid eyes on Tshiebwe while he was stepping off the team’s bus.
The relationship began there and the Mountaineers offered Tshiebwe a scholarship the summer after his freshman year of high school, before most colleges had even scouted him.
Now, there is no written rule in college athletics that the first school to offer the scholarship is the winner, but there has to be something said for having created a stronger relationship.
In life in general, who are your better friends: The ones you grew up with or the ones you met last year?
And while college basketball teams at all levels have opened their doors to foreign-born players, West Virginia under Huggins is certainly no stranger to helping foreign players adapt to life in the United States and to the way the game is played in the United States.
Konate is the latest example. A native of Mali, Konate was still struggling with the English language when he first arrived on the Mountaineers’ campus.
He has since developed into one of the team’s top players and was invited to the 2018 NBA Combine.
Pick Kentucky: Next-level opportunities
Tshiebwe told Rivals this week he had not made up his mind, the kind of indecision that could turn his recruitment into a last-minute jumpball.
“This is really hard for me,” he said.
Long anticipated to be a West Virginia lean, Tshiebwe is contemplating one question: “What can Big Blue do for you?”
Since 2010, Kentucky has seen 10 low-post players drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. There were 22 Wildcats first-rounders overall in that span, but 10 who specifically played power forward or center. From Anthony Davis to Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein to Karl-Anthony Towns, these blue-chip recruits turned their abbreviated college careers into lottery bucks.
If Tshiebwe wants a track record of job placement, no program can match Calipari.
PicK WVU: Huggs develops NBA guys, too
Unless your name is Mike Krzyzewski, there is no comparing resumes with Calipari when it comes to producing NBA draft picks.
Huggins has taken undervalued high school players and developed them. His record of coaching future NBA guys — Kenyon Martin was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2000 draft — while at Cincinnati speaks for itself.
Since becoming West Virginia’s coach, Huggins has signed one top-25 national recruit, Ebanks, who went on to become a second-round pick of the Los Angeles Lakers and played three seasons in the NBA after leaving following his sophomore season.
It can be said Huggins has built NBA-level guys with players who began their college careers off the NBA’a radar.
That includes Alexander — the No. 8 pick of the 2008 draft — who first came to West Virginia as a three-star recruit.
Da’Sean Butler was another three-star guy who chose the Mountaineers over DePaul, yet he developed into a fringe first-round pick before the knee injury in the 2010 Final Four dropped him into the second round of the 2010 draft.
Jevon Carter came to West Virginia as a three-star recruit who had no other offers from power conference schools. He became the 32nd pick of the 2018 draft.
Pick Kentucky: Practice competition
When he visited Lexington two weekends ago, Tshiebwe counted six NBA scouts at a practice. We’re taking about practice!
That’s rarified exposure for a notorious effort guy like Tshiebwe. But that constant presence of NBA eyeballs elevates the motors of even the more coddled five-star recruits who sign with the Wildcats.
While Kentucky typically plays one of the premiere nonconference schedules in the nation, the stiffest competition may come from in-house. What better way for Tshiebwe to develop his skills than by competing across three-hour practices against the length and athleticism of UK’s other elite big men?
Pick Kentucky: Winning matters
Remember what a “down year” the Wildcats just endured? Well, they still reached the Sweet 16 and won 26 games — one of those in Morgantown.
Calipari has steered Kentucky to four Final Fours and three Elite Eights in nine seasons. Sure, he’d like to own more than the single national title, but the curse-in-disguise of his top-shelf recruiting is unmatched turnover. He typically gets these one-and-done players to play with chemistry and effort, and Tshiebwe — whose skills probably equate to a multi-year stay in college —would be relished.
It certainly matters to the 23,000-plus fans who make Rupp Arena a singular experience in college basketball.