How Alabama did the seemingly impossible: expose Kentucky basketball star Oscar Tshiebwe

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When Kentucky's men's basketball team takes the floor for a game, there's an unspoken understanding it already owns an advantage over its opponent in the form of Oscar Tshiebwe.

It's Oscar Tshiebwe. It’s the reigning unanimous national player of the year.

Why wouldn't that work in the Wildcats’ favor?

Someone forgot to tell Alabama coach Nate Oats. The Crimson Tide, which hosted the Wildcats Saturday, viewed Tshiebwe as a liability — one they could exploit. Repeatedly.

“We've seen him mess up a lot of ball-screen coverages in scouting them,” Oats said after his team’s 78-52 win at Coleman Coliseum, Alabama’s largest-ever margin of victory over UK, “so we wanted to attack him in that.”

3 takeaways:Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky basketball outclassed by No. 7 Alabama for second SEC loss

And they did. Tshiebwe messed up so often on those defensive assignments Saturday that Kentucky coach John Calipari subbed out his superstar forward not once, but twice, in the first half.

“What happened to start the game? It wasn't how we were playing these pick-and-rolls,” said Calipari, referring to the game’s opening possession, in which Alabama center Charles Bediako got behind Tshiebwe for an easy basket off an alley-oop from guard Jaden Bradley. “And then later I'm trying to do it on the board and explain it again, and they got another lob. And I said (to Tshiebwe), 'You can't be in.'”

Tshiebwe wasn’t much in the first half, playing just 10 minutes. He took the floor for only 13 more after intermission.

"When we did attack him, they pulled him out of the game," Oats said, "It made it a lot easier to guard him when he's on the bench."

But it wasn’t really the playing time that mattered Saturday. It was what Tshiebwe did — or more crucially, didn’t do. The Wildcats never would expect Tshiebwe to post the worst plus-minus rating (minus-25) in any game in which he’s healthy. Yet that’s exactly what happened against the Crimson Tide, as the Wildcats were outscored by 25 points when he was on the floor.

Best of the best: Who are Kentucky men's basketball's all-time coaching wins leaders?

Up next:South Carolina on deck Tuesday, plus the rest of UK's 2022-23 schedule

Jan 7, 2023; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA;  Alabama center Charles Bediako (14) dunks the ball over Kentucky forward Chris Livingston (24) at Coleman Coliseum.

Ncaa Basketball Alabama Crimson Tide Vs Kentucky Wildcats
Jan 7, 2023; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama center Charles Bediako (14) dunks the ball over Kentucky forward Chris Livingston (24) at Coleman Coliseum. Ncaa Basketball Alabama Crimson Tide Vs Kentucky Wildcats

To be clear, every Wildcat ended with a negative plus-minus rating. (Freshman guard Adou Thiero, who didn’t score a point in 18 minutes, finished with the best number: negative-1.) But Kentucky doesn’t ask as much of other players as it does of Tshiebwe. He entered Saturday as their leading scorer (16.8 points per game). And their leading rebounder (13.8).

He’s never struggled like he did Saturday, though. He went 1-for-7 from the field for four points. He grabbed only six rebounds.

It was the first time, in 45 starts at Kentucky the past two seasons, he recorded single digits in both those categories in the same game.

While it was a team-wide effort from the Crimson Tide to fluster Tshiebwe, much of the credit goes to Bediako, Alabama’s 7-foot sophomore.

"His length (caused) Tshiebwe some problems,” Oats said. “Tshiebwe is tough, physical, but he's not nearly as tall as Charles is, so Charles was able to fight his catch enough, push it out. When he did get it, Charles was smart, moved his feet, blocked some shots. If you look at it, Tshiebwe was 1 for 7, so obviously (Bediako) was effective in challenging his shots at the rim. He doesn't shoot outside of at-the-rim shots."

Kentucky basketball recruiting:These players have signed to the Wildcats' 2023 class

For subscribers:Analyzing Kentucky basketball signee Justin Edwards' game after a live look in Louisville

Calipari said on a handful of the shots Tshiebwe made Bediako's job easier, fading away from the basket instead of trying to power through a defender he outweighed by 35 pounds.

"I thought (Alabama) collapsed on him, and he needed to kick out," Calipari said. "But he got rattled."

Even teammate Sahvir Wheeler noticed Tshiebwe’s normally focused demeanor abandoned him.

“I think he missed some easy ones and then kind of got a little discouraged. It was uncharacteristic of him,” said Wheeler, who had 15 points on 7-of-16 shooting. “I'm sure he's going to bounce back. He's going to watch (film of this loss) with a couple of the coaches and see what he could have done better."

Calipari didn't even have to watch the tape to identify one area where Tshiebwe erred Saturday: rebounding, his bread and butter.

"There were rebounds that he got last year he didn't get (today)," Calipari said. "Many of them, he was rebounding with one hand. Well, these guys are too big. And they're active."

K.T. Turner:This new assistant could be vital to Kentucky basketball recruiting in the transfer portal

Where are they now?: The 2012 University of Kentucky men's championship basketball team

Jan 7, 2023; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA;  Kentucky head coach John Calipari  reacts to a call during the game against Alabama at Coleman Coliseum.

Ncaa Basketball Alabama Crimson Tide Vs Kentucky Wildcats
Jan 7, 2023; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Kentucky head coach John Calipari reacts to a call during the game against Alabama at Coleman Coliseum. Ncaa Basketball Alabama Crimson Tide Vs Kentucky Wildcats

As frustrated as Tshiebwe was, Calipari isn't worried, confident Saturday was more a blip on the radar and not a sign opposing teams have figured out how to neutralize the big man.

"We have Oscar; how do we utilize him? He's still player the year — reigning player of the year," Calipari said. "Didn't play that way tonight, but none of us did. And I didn't coach that way. We all got beat."

While Calipari and the coaching staff will try to devise ways to get Tshiebwe back on track, Wheeler said teammates must do their part, too. Tshiebwe, the team's heart, is unfailingly optimistic. He routinely goes out of his way to encourage teammates going through rough patches.

Now, he's the one in need of a pick-me-up.

"At the end of the day, he's still Oscar. What he does is second to none. It's historical. We've never seen it before," Wheeler said. "So (we need to) let him know, 'Man, here's where you can improve, but hey, you're one of one. Don't let your joy get taken from you. Don't let this (bother) you too bad. But understand what went wrong, how we can fix it and let's continue to move on.'"

Reach Kentucky men’s basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at rblack@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @RyanABlack.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky basketball: How Alabama exposed star forward Oscar Tshiebwe