They’ve undeniably made college basketball a better product and the intertwining paths of Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe have contrived a long-distance friendship between the sport’s most popular big men.
It’s what happens when you constantly share national headlines and occasionally bump into each other at national award shows – occurrences that could become more regular this spring.
Timme and Tshiebwe have coexisted under college basketball’s glaring spotlight. For at least a few hours last April, Kentucky fans indulged themselves in a fantasy that involved the All-Americans coexisting in the same frontcourt.
On April 15, with Timme three hours behind on the West Coast, the Gonzaga star woke up to a text notification from his mother, Megan, alerting him to a surprise social media blitz from Kentucky’s fan base attempting to lure Timme to Lexington at a point when he was still testing NBA draft waters.
It was nothing short of a Twitter ambush, courtesy of “Big Blue Nation,” completely out of the blue.
“My phone was blowing up and I was getting tagged in stuff and I knew he was still sleeping,” Megan Timme said. “So I sent him a text and said, ‘Before you open Twitter, you call me.’ I’m like, let me help you here.”
The daylong campaign included a direct Instagram message from Kentucky quarterback and projected NFL draft pick Will Levis, Timme later confirmed on his “Gimme Timme” podcast. Tshiebwe tossed a can of lighter fluid on the rumors when he tweeted at his Gonzaga counterpart, “You look good in blue brother.”
Other Kentucky hoopers began following Timme on social media platforms. One zealous fan edited the GU standout’s Wikipedia page to indicate he’d swapped the Zags for the Wildcats.
Timme, like he’s done with most things throughout his rise to college basketball stardom, took it all in stride.
“Never felt love from another team’s fanbase like that before,” he said on the podcast. “That was pretty special, not going to lie. Shout out, Kentucky fans. But excited for that matchup. It’s obviously going to be a primetime matchup …”
Sunday’s game between No. 2 Gonzaga and No. 4 Kentucky (4:30 p.m., ESPN) at the Arena features a marquee individual matchup between the players spearheading college basketball’s big man renaissance.
Timme and Tshiebwe are considered co-favorites to win every major national player of the year award – Tshiebwe cleaned up on those last season – and both were selected to the five-man preseason Associated Press All-American first team. Their company on that list are two other veteran bigs, North Carolina’s Armando Bacot and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, and a single guard, Houston’s Marcus Sasser.
Other forward/center types, including Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and Purdue’s Zach Edey, have returned to college to chase more success on the court while taking advantage of a shifting NCAA landscape that allows athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. The big men are taking big advantage and most are in agreement the college basketball world is better for it.
“You listen to people complain about college basketball, to the extent they have a complaint. They’ll say, ‘Well, the players are different every year and the players leave early and all that stuff,’ ” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas recently told The Spokesman-Review. “Well, they’re coming back now and one of the reasons they’re coming back – and it’s not just big guys – is because they can get paid now.”
As the NBA continues to evolve, undersized centers who are unable to play above the rim and struggle to space the floor with perimeter shooting have found it challenging to stake down roles at the next level. That reality, coupled with NIL opportunities that weren’t available two to three years ago when they signed letters of intent, has made the idea of returning to school more palatable to some of the country’s top big men.
“Unless you can stretch a defense with a 3-point shot and you have length and athleticism to guard multiple positions – it doesn’t mean you can’t play in the league, those are two different things,” Bilas said. “But as far as being a high draft pick and being coveted, they’re looking for stars in that league that are difference makers.”
In turn, college basketball consumers get riveting matchups like the one in Spokane on Sunday, and close to a dozen others between the players mentioned above.
“I joke around, college basketball’s bigger and better than ever,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said. “Sure it is and we’re having these matchups. … The bigs are obviously the focal point. The thing is, those bigs that came back, they’re actually earning real NIL. The guys that are coming through the transfer portal, that’s pure pay for play.”
Timme will face Tshiebwe and could square off with Edey next week if the Zags draw Purdue in the second round of the Phil Knight Legacy in Portland. Tshiebwe will go toe-to-toe with Dickinson when the Wildcats face Michigan on Dec. 4 in London; Dickinson is scheduled to play Bacot on Dec. 21 as part of the Jumpman Invitational; and Bacot will see Jackson-Davis when North Carolina visits Indiana for the Nov. 30 Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Jackson-Davis, Edey and Dickinson guarantee to see plenty of each other during Big Ten play.
“They’re very different players,” Bilas said. “Drew’s the best offensive player, Tshiebwe’s by far the best rebounder and best offensive rebounder. Well, he and Bacot are the best offensive rebounders, but they’re both in that realm. Hunter Dickinson is a really good mix of a good perimeter and interior big. He can step away and shoot it. Jamarion Sharp from Western Kentucky is the best shot blocker, interior defender. So they all bring different things to the table and they’re all substantially different players.”
Jackson-Davis, the stepson of former Washington State cornerback Ray Jackson, is “more of a power forward,” Bilas said, “but he’d be in that realm, too.”
Nobody will be able to speak to the caliber of that grouping better than Michigan State center Mady Sissoko. He’s keeping an impressive passport that already includes stamps from Timme, who scored 22 points while fouling out Sissoko in a 64-63 win over the Spartans on the USS Abraham Lincoln, and Tshiebwe, who had 22 points and 18 rebounds before fouling out of Michigan State’s 86-77 double-overtime victory. Not including the conference tournament, Sissoko will have six meetings with Jackson-Davis, Edey and Dickinson in the Big Ten.
“It just gives me confidence,” Sissoko said of playing high-level bigs. “Drew Timme’s a helluva player. It wasn’t easy, but guarding him is going to give me a lot of confidence going into the next game.”
Michigan State had a variety of defensive coverages planned for Timme, but the 6-foot-10 forward combated most of them by baiting the Spartans into foul trouble or passing to open shooters out of double teams. Timme shrugged off MSU’s best attempts at containing him and scored 14 points in the second half to help Gonzaga rally back from 12 down.
“The scouting report we had, we had three options in covering him. I thought we did all of them,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “… They’ve got a go-to guy and down the stretch, that guy, he just rose up. That’s what he’s supposed to do.”
Tshiebwe’s early season availability has dominated headlines in Lexington since Kentucky coach John Calipari announced last month the reigning national player of the year was dealing with a minor knee injury. Tshiebwe returned to the court two weeks ahead of schedule and logged 34 productive minutes in the Michigan State loss before playing 14 minutes in Wednesday’s 43-point win over South Carolina State.
“We were going to give him (the game) off and I said, ‘Why don’t you play 5, 8 minutes a half?’ ” Calipari said. “Now, what about that makes him really unselfish? Stats. Yeah OK, you’re going to play 12 minutes and you want to be the leading rebounder in the country and you accept doing that? That means you’re unselfish, you’re about your team.”
Kentucky’s All-American doesn’t appear to be on a minutes restriction now, meaning the college basketball world can expect – and enjoy – a full-fledged, uninterrupted version of Timme vs. Tshiebwe .
Timme’s averaging 20.7 points for the Zags and Tshiebwe’s totaled 25 rebounds in 48 minutes of action for Kentucky. In their only other encounter as college players, Timme scored 17 points to help No. 1 Gonzaga outlast Tshiebwe and No. 11 West Virginia at the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 2, 2020. Tshiebwe had 14 points and nine rebounds before fouling out.
On the court, Timme and Tshiebwe tend to get it done in different ways, but both are known for having bright, outsized personalities and neither seem to take their dwindling days as college rock stars for granted.
“No one enjoys – (Timme) and Oscar Tshiebwe enjoy who they are and what they’re doing probably more than anyone in college basketball and they’ve become obviously a focal point of college basketball,” Greenberg said.
Calipari could recall just one other frontcourt clash in his career that arrived with as much anticipation . In 1995-96, while Marcus Camby was a headliner for the Kentucky coach at UMass, the Minutemen hosted Wake Forest and its 6-11 All-American center, Tim Duncan. Camby, a future NBA Defensive Player of the Year, scored 15 points while limiting Duncan, a future 15-time All-Star and five-time NBA champion, to nine points.
“You would’ve thought no one else is in the game and there were no coaches,” Calipari said. “It was 1-on-1, I’m telling you. … But that, it ended up not being that. They played OK, but the hype of that was ridiculous. So I’ve been through it.”
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