Maybe Oscar Tshiebwe’s advice helped both John Calipari and Jacob Toppin

Published 9:55 am Thursday, January 5, 2023

Not every player would have the confidence and/or courage to let a coach know that he might need to ease off the criticism of his players.

Kentucky senior Oscar Tshiebwe is not just any player. He’s not only UK’s leading scorer and rebounder, but he was also the unanimous national player of the year last season. Tshiebwe is also guided by his faith and has a contagious personality.

So maybe that’s why when he made a suggestion to Kentucky coach John Calipari it actually hit home.

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“I tell Coach, ‘You want to be so hard on them (players), sometimes you really mess up their minds. You are making it worse.’ Coach, he came out and he started motivating them, boys. Players are stepping up because they hear more positive stuff,” Tshiebwe said after UK’s win over Louisville.

No one needed a more loving Calipari than senior Jacob Toppin. He came into the season being touted as one of the nation’s “breakout” players and a huge difference-maker for Kentucky. Calipari predicted he would be a first-round NBA Draft pick.

Instead, he struggled so much that Calipari took him out of the starting lineup, and in a loss at Missouri last week, he not only did not score, but he played a season-low 12 minutes. Rather than keep him on the bench, Calipari put him back in the starting lineup against Louisville, and Toppin responded with a career-high 24 points, seven rebounds, and two assists in 35 minutes ((he had just 13 points in the previous four games before erupting against Louisville).

“He played like we know he is capable of playing and got out of his head,” Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua said.

Maybe Tshiebwe’s advice helped Toppin, too. He even suggested Toppin might sleep in the gym so he could work out even more if he really wanted to be better. He also urged him to start reading the Bible more.

“I just re-motivated him. I said you are better than what you’re doing,” Tshiebwe said he told Toppin. “Don’t let that noise affect your mindset. Get off social media, don’t pay any attention to it.

“Social media is just something — I don’t know, it’s not a good time for social media. Take it off of your phone like I already did. Keep your mind locked in, and you’re gonna get there. That’s the Jacob everybody knows.”

Toppin, a senior, was remarkably honest after the game about his mental state. Tshiebwe said every time Toppin hears something negative, it impacts him, whether it was social media criticism or a coach screaming at him.

“I’ve been in a rough patch that I needed to get out of. I’ve had a lot of support from my teammates and my coaching staff, and it just feels good to be back to my old self,” Toppin said after the game.

“I feel good mentally and physically. I had a good talk with coach Cal, I had a good talk with my teammates, and then I called a few other people just to try and get back right mentally, and it helped a lot.”

Calipari suggested Toppin was one of the Kentucky players “feeling the weight of the world” and it had impacted the way he played. Against Louisville, he was again his energetic self on both ends of the court and also played with more poise and discipline on offense.

He was 3-for-21 from 3-point range in UK’s first 12 games and wisely just took one against a Louisville defense that let him get loose inside the paint most of the game.

Louisville coach Kenny Payne was not surprised that Toppin, who averages 10.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, is a “high-level player” who can dominate a game. Payne called him an “elite athlete with the way he moves” on both ends of the court.

“He’s quick, he can handle the ball well enough to get to spots the floor, he can shoot decent enough, he is relentless and on top of his stuff, and he can get offensive rebounds,” Payne said.

Now Toppin has to show he can get over the “rough patch” in games like the ones at Alabama Saturday or Tennessee Jan. 14.

“We’ve done a lot of work, and it hasn’t been on the court. Are you fragile, or do you keep playing? He kept playing, and now he’s going to do it against better teams, you watch,” Calipari said after the Louisville game.