Friday, June 2, 2023

Court Report: Oscar Tshiebwe, Fardaws Aimaq reaching and racing for modern rebound record

Men’s college basketball hasn’t had a player average more than 15.0 rebounds in more than four decades. Might we see two players do it this season?

Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe and Utah Valley’s Fardaws Aimaq each have a shot to become the first since Alcorn’s Larry Smith (18.1 rpg) in 1979-80 to snag more than 15.0 boards per game. Aimaq, in fact, averaged exactly 15.0 rebounds last season, albeit in only 20 games against D-I teams. (Doing it vs. a full schedule would qualify as a smidge more proper.)

While there have been superb carom-snaggers this century, the era of the dominant, game-changing rebounder has been gone so long from the college game it may as well be extinct. Tshiebwe and Aimaq are here to revive the role out of the amber. Tshiebwe leads the nation in rebound average (15.4); he’s No. 1 in offensive-rebound rate (27.6%) and No. 2 in defensive (34.4%). He also has seven double-doubles — tied with Aimaq (14.8 rpg) for most in the sport. 

In the preseason, Tshiebwe said his goal was to average 20 rebounds. CBS Sports caught up with him Tuesday night after Kentucky’s 76-64 win over Southern. He was happy with the W, of course, but let down because he fell short of his every-game objective: Tshiebwe finished with 11 boards. Oh, he had a game-high 23 points, too. But we talked about the rebounds and that preseason proclamation. 

“I’m guaranteeing again I can do it,” he said. “My goal is to go for 20 every time. I fight all the time for 20. When I don’t get it, it’s good we won, but I feel like I didn’t [fulfill] my purpose.”

Tshiebwe runs instant calculations in his head every time a shot goes up.

“If someone shoots from the right, it’s a 75% chance it’s going to go left, 25% it might go back on the same side,” he said. “I always position myself in the place where there’s a high chance it might go.”

The man has more than a nose for the ball — it’s a magnetic pull. And if he’s reaching for a rebound with two hands, no one else has a chance. His strength is rare and his stamina is elite. This was evident when Tshiebwe began his career at West Virginia, where he led the country in offensive rebound percentage as a freshman in 2019-20.  Coaches say Tshiebwe is the same player three minutes into a game as he is with three minutes remaining.  

“The energy I have is a gift from God,” Tshiebwe said. “I don’t care about scoring. I want to bring something special. I want my name one day to be remembered like Anthony Davis.”

Tshiebwe is a mortal lock to become the third John Calipari-coached Kentucky player to average better than 10.0 rebounds, joining a couple of pretty good pros right now in Davis and Julius Randle. Tshiebwe had 56 snags in Kentucky’s first three games, the most in program history. Kentucky’s program record for rebounds is 17.7 in 1954-55 by Bob Burrow. If Tshiebwe has his way, he will hold the record come March.

“The problem with me, I have a high motor,” he said. “I can go for a long time. Those other people, they get tired. When they start getting tired, that’s when I turn up my motor.”

If he avoids foul trouble, he has a chance. Tshiebwe had four on Tuesday night, which limited him to 25 minutes.

Tshiebwe told me he’s excited for Kentucky’s schedule to pick back up. Notre Dame, Ohio State, Louisville and Missouri are next. He says he’s more likely to dominate against better competition. He cited his season-opening 20-rebound performance against Duke and future NBAer Mark Williams as evidence. It seems inevitable that Tshiebwe will break the Rupp Arena record for rebounds in one game. He’s already tied the UK mark (20) and is one shy of the record set by Shaquille O’Neal in 1990. 

The NCAA record book tracks rebounds dating back to 1950-51. This game was so different then. From 1951-77, every person who led the nation in rebounding averaged more than 15.3 per game, most of those players well above 18 boards a night. Sure, shooting was worse, but there were also fewer possessions per game 50, 60, 70 years ago. It was a very different style of basketball. 

“Rebounding, to me, honestly it’s kind of a lost art that people don’t get excited for it like the way people make a 3 or the big dunk,” Utah Valley’s Fardaws Aimaq told me. “Growing up, I wasn’t always the most skilled kid but the way I was able to get minutes growing up was rebounding the ball and playing my butt off.”


Tshiebwe and Aimaq are on a historic rebounding pace this season.  Getty Images

What makes a truly great rebounder? Mark Madsen knows. The Utah Valley coach is a former All-American who made the Final Four, was a first-round pick and spent nine years in the NBA

“Kevin Love came to the Timberwolves, I was a five-or six-year NBA veteran,” Madsen told me. “So Kevin and I are the same height and weight — he might have me by five pounds — but he could get rebounds I couldn’t even come close to. It was like, why, and I think it was a combination. The teammates, we’d talk. Timing is a huge thing. Having great hands. The ability not just to jump up but jump out. Calvin Booth, who was on the team at the time, said Kevin, not only can he jump vertically but he can broad jump and rebound out of his area.”

Aimaq is a freak rebounder. The 6-11 center has become so domineering he’s turned into an NBA prospect. His seven double-doubles are tied with Tshiebwe for most in the sport. His 10.5 defensive-rebound average ranks first nationally. The reigning WAC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, Aimaq’s 15.0 rebound average last season marked the first time someone hit that threshold in 40 years. 

“With Daws, you can never underestimate heart,” Madsen said. “When you’re a rebounder, you’re going to get hit and you’re going to hit people. He loves physicality, can rebound out of his area and his timing impeccable.”

Utah Valley’s 7-1 start is its best since the school transitioned to D-I in 2004. The Wolverines are soaring after winning at home over BYU on Dec. 1. It was the program’s first victory over a ranked opponent ever. UVU sits only 4 miles from BYU; the game was a madhouse and Aimaq was a beast, scoring 24, grabbing 22, stealing five and assisting four. There were multiple instances where he stole BYU’s hope right out of the air, those huge paws of his giving extra chances for Utah Valley to come back and ultimately pull the upset.

“To me, that’s as important as having a poster dunk on somebody,” Aimaq said. “It’s equally as demeaning to a team. You look over at the bench and you’re looking at the other team’s coach throwing his hands up because you got a tip-in, a dunk or an extra possession.”  

The Vancouver native began his career at Mercer, left after the coach who recruited him, Bob Hoffman, was fired, and redshirted two seasons ago at Utah Valley. 

Madsen saw a player averaging more than five rebounds in less than 15 minutes.

“I thought: If we could get him on the floor for 25 minutes, he’ll average 10 rebounds,” Madsen said. “It’s so rare in college or the NBA. I played college for four years. I had one 20-rebound game in my career. Daws has done it four times in 13 months.”

He’s also dramatically changed his body. Aimaq has dropped 25 pounds (268 to 243), gone pescatarian with his diet and dropped from 17% to 8% body fat. 

“He played closed to 45 minutes in the overtime game vs. BYU,” Madsen said. “Daws never looked tired. Playing 45 minutes is really hard to do. Playing 35 is really hard to do and Daws makes it look easy.”

It takes endless dedication, training and mental fortitude. Being a special rebounder requires as much mental endurances as it does physical. At UVU, there’s a rebounding drill called “Georgia Tech” where Madsen or assistant Todd Phillips will grab a pad and wail away on Aimaq, who has to grab three rebounds in a row and not let the ball hit the ground. If it does, the drill restarts.  

“I’ve told Coach since I’ve been here, my No. 1 goal is to leave UVU in a better position than it was before I got there,” Aimaq said.

That’s guaranteed. Kentucky is a top-10 team and Utah Valley could win the WAC. A major reason for both is how unstoppable their best bigs are. At Kentucky and UVU, there are fans that bring big rebound trackers, akin to what you’ll see at a baseball game with strikeout counters. Tim Duncan never averaged 15 rebounds in a season. Neither did Shaq or any other great college player in the past 40 years. But one, or both, of these could be generationally different. 

Bill Self sees a little Klay Thompson in Ochai Agbaji 

Barring an unexpected result, the eighth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks will glide off the national radar for a few weeks here. KU (7-1) easily won 78-52 against UTEP on Tuesday. Bill Self’s team doesn’t play a top-40 KenPom foe again for a month (Jan. 8 at Texas Tech). So let’s talk Jayhawks for a minute.

I drove to Long Island on Friday to see KU for the second time this season. It knocked off a mercurial St. John’s team by 20 (95-75) at UBS Arena — the new home of the New York Islanders — in the first basketball game played in that building. Despite St. John’s looking more NIT-worthy than NCAA-good, I came away thinking similar thoughts to what I believed on the opening night of the season when Kansas defeated Michigan State by 13 points in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden: the Jayhawks are the best value pick right now to win the national title

The biggest reason for this is potential First Team All-American Ochai Agbaji. It’s unusual to see such a high-level athlete in major college basketball methodically but slowly unlock his game the way Agbaji has over the past four seasons. He’s started 85 straight games for Kansas and is on the precipice of becoming one of the stars this season in college hoops. A slow come-up that’s paying off. Kansas wouldn’t be a top-10 team without him.

“He’s a great athlete that hasn’t ever played to his athletic ability,” Self said. “Now he’s starting to more. What he’s done is little things like this: How many times has he dribbled the ball off the left hand and made an off-balance shot in the lane? I mean he did that twice in the first half. He’s just becoming more complete. Doesn’t turn it over … so efficient. To me he’s a prototypical two-guard that doesn’t need a lot of dribbles to play. Pretty damn good. Not Klay (Thompson). He doesn’t move like Klay, but pretty efficient like that.”

Agbaji said he most closely studies Damian Lillard’s game. You can see shades in that in how he’s grown this season. Agbaji, who scored 23 vs. UTEP, is averaging 22.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, shooting 45.8% from 3 and 64.9% from 2 — absurdly efficient numbers for a shooting guard. 

It was Remy Martin, not Agbaji, who was voted Big 12 player of the year in the preseason. Martin, who’s averaging 10.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists, didn’t score vs. UTEP. One of the keys to Kansas’ success this season, per Self, is how Martin has managed to bring some good friction into the equation and not be overbearing. 

“I love him,” Self said after the St. John’s game. “To me, he’s a personality. He’s a handful. He doesn’t see the game the same way I see it a good portion of the time. But I don’t think that’s all bad either. I think he brings some things out in me that maybe I could adjust a little bit to — because I’m not going to control him. I can maybe corral him a little bit. … I love coaching him. But he is different than guys that I’ve usually had for four years.”

Kansas still has work to do defensively, but with Agbaji and Martin, plus Christian Braun (who had a career-high 31 vs. St. John’s) and the ball moving through David McCormack in the post more, it makes this team one of the toughest to scheme and guard in the country. 

“When David’s playing well and you can play through a big we’re so much better,” Self said.  

Kansas ranks third in offensive efficiency and has gotten better at moving the ball with purpose in its half-court offense. Maybe Baylor or Texas are better — maybe — but would you want to pick against Self?

By no means is KU an overlooked contender; that’s not possible when you’re that program. But it was Gonzaga that was preseason No. 1. It was Michigan and Purdue and Illinois, out of the Big Ten, that received more preseason accolades (and Purdue, the new No. 1, rightfully receiving more now). Baylor is the reigning national champion, is still undefeated, and deservedly ranked No. 2 behind Purdue. Duke is Duke and UCLA returned nearly everyone from a Final Four team. Even Texas, in Kansas’ league, was much more discussed, hyped and promoted (and maybe still is).


Ochai Agbaji is averaging 22.6 points per game for the Jayhawks.  USATSI

Kansas was just kind of there amid the crowd. And it might continue to inconspicuously occupy its spot in the top 10 for a good while. I think I understand why. In 2019, KU received a No. 4 seed, its worst ever under Self, and was dumped out of the tourney by Auburn. In 2020, Kansas was the best team in the country … but we had no tournament. Last season the Jayhawks finished 27th at KenPom, which equated to the worst team Self’s ever had in Lawrence. KU didn’t make it to the second weekend, falling by 19 to USC in the second round. 

Big-picture, there hasn’t been reason to rally behind KU. And without a huge name on the roster (and with that IARP case still looming, though sources say that’s not getting resolved until next offseason), it’s understandable to see how this team hasn’t been puffed up. Circle back around Valentine’s Day, though. My guess is this team will still be on the short list of championship contenders, only by then a lot more people will be noticing how dangerous they are and how great Agbaji is.

@ me

The Court Report’s reader mailbag. Find me on Twitter, toss a question and I’ll answer some each week.

Should be a ranked team. I slotted Providence on my hot list last week and will be doing the same tomorrow. PC got past Vermont on Wednesday. It’s 9-1 with wins over Wisconsin and Texas Tech. How the Friars didn’t receive a single vote this past week is an indictment on the media at large that votes in the AP Top 25. 

Fardaws Aimaq is the first who comes to mind, but there’s plenty on him above. Colorado State’s Isaiah Stevens pops to mind. He’s lessened the stress on David Roddy, and in the process helped the Rams be undefeated to date and have the look of a team with a second-weekend NCAA Tournament ceiling. Roddy is one of the best small-ball 5s in the sport, and Stevens is a top-10 point. 

Butler would need to be nowhere near contending for the NCAA Tournament this season and next season for this to be on the table. The man just got a quality road win at Oklahoma — without three key players — on Wednesday!

I have done some diligence on this since Mark Turgeon left (and from what I’ve been told, it was Turgeon who sprung this on his AD last Thursday and insisted he had to be done). Manning has a shot, but it’s a long one. Maryland would need to be near the top of the Big Ten and win in the NCAA Tournament for it to be on the table. My unscientific guesstimate is 7% that this job is still his by mid-April.  

I like this one. The football team will take more home Ls than hoops. Mark me down for only one Purdue home defeat this season: vs. Illinois on Feb. 10. 

Andre Curbelo is recovering from a concussion. When he’s cleared to be back, I anticipate his role will largely be the same. He’ll start. He’ll run the offense. It’s pivotal he doesn’t stir the spoon too quickly, though. Curbelo has mainstream appeal with his passing ability and keeps teams astir, but if Illinois is going to be top-tier, his decision-making will be paramount. He was predicted to be a top-25 player this season. I still believe that’s possible.

Final shots

• The NET rankings debuted Monday. Here’s the link. Some eye-grabbers: LSU (2), Wyoming (11), Chattanooga (27), UCLA (30), Monmouth (42), Michigan (46), Rutgers (216), Missouri (253), Oregon State (267). The KPI (the last of the six major metrics on team sheets yet to debut publicly) will come out Tuesday. 

• We are down to 12 unbeatens: Arizona, Arkansas, Baylor, Colorado State, Iowa State, LSU, Minnesota, Purdue, San Francisco, USC, Weber State, Wyoming. Guaranteed to be at 11 come Thursday morning; Arizona vs. Wyoming going down tonight. 

• The winless teams still out there: Fairleigh Dickinson, Mississippi Valley State, Prairie View A&M, Robert Morris, Saint Francis Brooklyn. 

• One day I’ll get around to ranking the most hate-drenched rivalries in men’s college hoops. New Mexico-New Mexico State will easily qualify for the top five. NMSU won a squeezer Monday night, then the Aggies gloated over the Lobo logo. 

• Richmond super-senior Jacob Gilyard is now the NCAA leader, all time, in steals. He swiped his 386th theft late in Richmond’s win over UNI Saturday. Former Providence guard John Linehan (1997-2002) now sits second. Just as impressive: UNI stud guard A.J. Green had only six points vs. UR. It will surely be his worst game this season.

• It took Purdue 380 weeks in the AP poll to finally get to No. 1. Here are the five programs with the most poll appearances without getting to the top: Maryland (433), Utah (239), Minnesota (236), LSU (216), Vanderbilt (204). All have been No. 2.

• The only teams to hit the over in every game they’ve played this season: Incarnate Word, Louisiana Tech and St. Francis (PA). 

• Encouraging news: graduation rates across the NCAA, and in men’s college basketball, continue to ascend, according to the newest data released. From 2018-21, men’s basketball saw an 84% graduation rate, No. 2 in all men’s sports (behind baseball). In 2002, the rate was just 56%. 


Grad rates in men’s basketball have encouragingly continued to rise across 20 years. NCAA

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