Don’t forget Oscar Tshiebwe. He’s still key to Kentucky basketball’s NCAA chances.

Conventional wisdom says centers don’t matter as much in the modern game of basketball. Guards are the be-all/end-all. If you want to survive and advance in the NCAA Tournament, the guys on the perimeter are more valuable than the big guys under the basket.

Tell that to Kansas. It was David McCormack, the Jayhawks’ 6-foot-10 hulk of a center, who scored 25 points in KU’s Final Four win over Villanova last year, then 15 points, with 10 rebounds in the championship game win over North Carolina that gave Bill Self his second national title.

Tell that to the Tar Heels. It was Armando Bacot, UNC’s 6-foot-11 center, who went absolutely nuts in last year’s tournament to drag Hubert Davis’ team into the title game. Bacot’s numbers: Six double-doubles in six games, including 20 points and 22 rebounds in the Elite Eight win over Saint Peters and 21 rebounds in the Final Four victory over Duke.

Now tell that to Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, everybody’s national player of the year last season who dropped all the way off — wink, wink — to 16.5 points and 13.1 rebounds and second-team All-American this campaign.

“I have to play well for us to play well,” Tshiebwe said Thursday. “When I play well that gives my team confidence.”

The 6-9 rebounding machine said this while sitting inside UK’s locker room at the Greensboro Coliseum where the No. 6 seeded Wildcats will face No. 11 seed Providence in the first round of the NCAA Tournament’s East Region on Friday at 7:10 p.m. on CBS.

Consider that Tshiebwe scored just eight points in UK’s 63-53 loss to UCLA; four points in the 78-52 drubbing the Cats took at Alabama; seven points and seven rebounds in a home loss to Arkansas.

So all the chatter about Kentucky’s ongoing trips to the training room — “I just wish we were fully healthy,” head coach John Calipari said Thursday. “We’ll see who can play Friday.” — its un-Calipari-like defensive breakdowns and its seesaw play overall have overshadowed UK’s Big O, who will no doubt be key to UK’s tournament fortunes.

Opponents must think so. They’ve gone MMA on the Kentucky center lately in hopes Tshiebwe might retaliate. Arkansas implemented that strategy in the regular season finale. Vanderbilt copied the blueprint in the SEC Tournament.

It nearly worked. In both games, Tshiebwe worked the gray areas between common foul/flagrant foul/ejection. Luckily for Kentucky, its center wasn’t tossed in either game, but that wasn’t from a lack of trading elbows with the aggressors from the opposition.

“I cannot react the way I reacted,” Tshiebwe said Thursday. “I’ve got to keep my elbows down a little bit.”

Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe signs a T-shirt for a fan after the Wildcats’ practice at Greensboro Coliseum on Thursday.
Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe signs a T-shirt for a fan after the Wildcats’ practice at Greensboro Coliseum on Thursday.

Providence is no shrinking violet. Head coach Ed Cooley’s mantra since taking over the Friars has been play tough, play physical, play good defense. This year’s edition hasn’t quite lived up to its predecessors on defense, but the Friars are better on offense. And they can rebound. Providence is 16th nationally in offensive rebound percentage. UK is No. 2.

Ed Croswell, Providence’s 6-9 senior, will have the primary responsibility of tangling with Tshiebwe. The Philadelphia native, who transferred from LaSalle to Providence before last season, is averaging 13.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Croswell managed just six points and four rebounds in the Friars’ loss to UConn in the Big East Tournament. Before that, he produced three double-doubles in Providence’s last five games.

“Oscar is an elite rebounder,” Cooley said Friday. “(But) he knows we’re going to go at him as much as he comes at us.”

Oscar says he’s ready.

“I’m going with the mentality that you got to go and (dominate),” he said. “They say the beast doesn’t care who he’s going against. I know what I’m going to get (Friday). They’re not just going to say, ‘Let’s play Oscar.’ No, they’re going to be on me. I just got to make sure I calm down and stay focused to help my team.”

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