The difference between last year and now? Oscar Tshiebwe: “Our freshmen look ready.”

Kentucky basketball’s 2022 recruiting class isn’t like most we’ve seen under John Calipari. With just four total signees — two five-stars, one four-star and one three-star — the Wildcats finished outside the top five in the final On3 Consensus Team Rankings at No. 6 overall.

It’s the first time UK has finished outside of the top two since Calipari arrived back in 2009.

Cason Wallace closed as the No. 8 prospect and No. 1 combo guard in the On3 Consensus, followed by Chris Livingston at No. 16 overall and No. 6 among small forwards, Ugonna Onyenso at No. 27 overall and No. 4 among centers and Adou Thiero at No. 261 overall and no. 32 among combo guards.

No generational talents or can’t-miss superstars. Just a nice, solid class with immediate impact and depth pieces — on paper, at least.

Tshiebwe says the newcomers are ready

So why is it that college basketball’s reigning National Player of the Year feels Kentucky’s rookies are the difference-makers the program needs to make a run? They’re physically ready and consistent, perfect complementary pieces to the returning veterans running it back after a disappointing finish last season.

“The difference between this year’s team and last year’s team, our freshmen look ready,” Tshiebwe said at UK Media Day on Tuesday. “They are so excited for the season, more than last year. Last year, things were a little bit up and down, but we still had a good team. I’m more excited about this team than last year’s team.”

Photo by Aaron Perkins Kentucky Sports Radio

Calipari understands it’s early – “the freshmen have got a long way to go” – but he agrees the ingredients are there. The combination of talented newcomers and experienced veterans has been the recipe for success in recent years, and this group’s got that.

“Any time I’ve had veterans and freshmen that really contribute, we’ve had really good teams,” he said. “So that’s what I’m hoping this becomes.”

Not your average freshmen

It starts with the physical attributes. Wallace looks like he’d start at free safety in the NFL today — his first love was football, after all — coming in at 6-4, 193 pounds. The Akron-born Livingston models his game after LeBron James, and he’s built a bit like him too at 6-6, 220 pounds. Thiero is currently listed at 6-6, 200 pounds, but doctors believe he could still hit the 6-10 mark before he’s done growing — “I still have three to five inches left in me,” he told KSR. And then you’ve got Onyenso, the tallest (and youngest) player on the team at 6-11, 225 pounds.

This isn’t a group needing to add weight or build strength in order to compete. The quartet of newcomers is ready now.

“I expect them to be like everybody else. I expect them to come to practice every day ready to work, willing to work, wanting to compete and ultimately contribute,” senior guard Sahvir Wheeler said of the freshmen. “Those guys are good players, they’re learning and they’re eager to learn. They come to practice every day with great energy and I know those guys are going to do some great things for us.”

“You can tell looking at all of them, they’re all really strong,” sophomore forward Daimion Collins added. “The way they came in and have been playing is pretty good. They’re just physically ready. … All of them pretty much (have been early surprises). The way they came in and played was a pretty big deal because it just shows how much they can help the team.”

Cason Wallace is “probably a little more advanced”

Wallace came in as the gritty, tough-minded, do-it-all freshman with a dog mentality. He’s wanted to lead by example and prove he’s there to contribute however the team needs him. Offense, defense, different positions, wherever, the Dallas native is ready.

“We’re going at it every day. That’s why you see everybody in here nicked up a little bit,” Wallace said. “That shows how hard we’re going at each other. We’re just trying to get each other better, that’s all. … I want to show that I’m a great teammate, I can play all around, on both ends of the court. There’s not one thing that I focus on, not just one aspect of my game.

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Calipari says Wallace is “probably a little more advanced” than most freshmen at this stage, something the standout guard credits to the team’s veteran leaders. They’ve given the rookies the blueprint to success, he’s simply following along.

“It feels good knowing we have guys there for us, they look at us in a positive light,” Wallace told KSR. “Knowing we can’t do much wrong without them helping us, it’s really good for us. … (We’re further along) because they’re helping us out so much. If we have a question, they’ll answer it. If we’re messing up in something, they’ll tell us, ‘Hey, this is how you should go about it.’ They help us out so much.”

Chris Livingston shows off his versatility

Livingston feels the newcomers are ready to compete now, but they’re not perfect. They’re where they need to be physically, but the mental side of things is still coming along — preparation and mindset going into practices and games. That comes with time and experience.

“I just feel that as freshmen, we have a really good group,” Livingston told KSR. “It’s a lot of big guards – me, Cason and Adou – who are physically prepared for college basketball. We just have to get better with the mental aspect of the college game, learning. Obviously we’re not perfect, we still have to learn at this level. Physically, I feel like we’re ready, we just have to keep building on the mental side.

“… It’s just the will. The coaching staff is doing a great job of teaching us things, but also our teammates, the veterans. We’ve got a lot of vets on this team that are helping us find the way, putting us under their wings. They’re just helping us learn.”

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As far as his role is concerned, Livingston appreciates the freedom the Kentucky coaches are allowing him to play with, letting him use his entire toolbox to maximize his production. The versatile forward isn’t restricted to one position or style of play. He’s allowed to be himself, something he looked for in a college during the recruiting process.

“(My role) is pretty well defined. The coaches let it be known what they want to see, what they want me doing, things like that. You can be yourself though,” Livingston said. “I’m just being myself, being who I’ve always been. I’m not going to settle myself or take away parts of my game that I’ve previously done, I feel like I’m going to be myself and be ready to play.”

Wallace agrees.

“Just stay calm and no matter how much Coach Cal yells or how much you think you’re messing up, just stay true to yourself and play your game,” he said of the advice he’s received since arriving on campus. “… (I’m working on) playing with pace, pushing the ball up the court, slowing down, just making sure everyone is involved and learning the terminology.”

Adou Thiero carving out his role

It’s not just the five-stars standing out, either. Thiero put the Blue squad on his back in the program’s Blue-White Game in Pikeville, finishing with 21 points on 8-16 shooting and 4-7 from the line to go with 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three turnovers. That was after a strong week in the Bahamas, averaging 6.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.75 assists and 1.75 steals in 14.3 minutes per contest over four exhibition games.

“He’s a good player with a lot of high offensive skillset,” Livingston said of Thiero. “He’s going to really contribute to this team. That’s what helps this team, our depth. We’re really deep, a lot of guys who can put it on the floor and get our own bucket, but also look for their teammates. That’s really going to help us.”

“I’m just showing that I can help this team and be a factor,” Thiero told KSR.

Has he carved out a role for himself?

“It’s hard to say right now, but I’m going to put my head down and keep working,” the freshman guard added. “That’s all I can do. There’s never a max (on your abilities), you can always keep getting better. That’s what I’m going to keep doing.”

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John Calipari said after the intrasquad scrimmage that Thiero might be forcing his hand.

“Adou, c’mon now,” he said on the broadcast. “He’s saying, ‘Look, who played better than me?’ Play me.’”

The Kentucky head coach then compared Thiero to former Wildcat star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at Media Day. Like SGA to start his time in Lexington, there may be players ahead of Thiero in the rotation to start the year, but that could change as the season creeps forward. The potential is there.

“Offensively, he was really good,” Calipari said of the Blue-White freshman’s performance. “He’s behind some of the other guys, but so was Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander). So you can take it like Shai or Immanuel Quickley. And every time you perform you prove you should be playing, or you don’t.”

The shots weren’t falling when he first arrived on campus. Now they are. He’s also playing a physical brand of basketball, learning to use his recent growth to his advantage.

“With Adou, it’s all the other stuff,” Calipari added. “The biggest thing he did is he made jump shots, which he hasn’t made. But he made ’em in that (scrimmage). And I told him I was proud of him. He went in with an attitude that, I’m going to dudes. And he did. He’s physically able to do it. He’s still growing.”

Ugonna Onyenso wants to be the best shot blocker in college basketball

And don’t forget about Onyenso, who impressed in his unofficial debut as a Wildcat, putting up 14 points, five rebounds and four blocks in the Blue-White Game. Coming in as a high-level shot blocker with elite defensive instincts out of high school, the 6-foot-11 freshman was as good as advertised on that end of the floor, while also showing off some offensive growth as an interior scorer.

Like Thiero, he’s giving Calipari something to think about when it comes to minutes and his rotation.

“I mean, how about Ugonna? You look at Ugonna. He’s a 7-footer. He can run, he’s skilled,” Calipari said. “… Who does what he does? No one. And that’s why you just, you’re going to get your minutes, you force me to play you more. He’s good. And a great kid.”

Photo by Aaron Perkins Kentucky Sports Radio

Like most reclassified freshmen, though, Onyenso is raw and still building confidence as a high-level DI athlete. He’s learning how to fight and work like a college basketball player at Kentucky.

Thinking and working like a high schooler won’t cut it anymore.

“He’s overwhelmed with how hard this is,” Calipari added. “We always tell ’em, ‘You’re going to see.’ … Trying to get him to understand that self-talk. You can either say, ‘I can’t do this. This is so hard.’ Or you say, ‘I love this. I’m uncomfortable, but that’s what I want to be. I’m loving this. I didn’t think I could ever do this and I’m doing it.'”

Onyenso first realized his defensive potential when he racked up 40 blocks in five games in a stretch in high school — a smooth eight swats per contest. There’s been a learning curve, though, in his first few months of college. The size, speed and athleticism have made things much more difficult.

“Coming to college, it’s been different for me because it’s not as easy as it used to be in high school,” he told KSR. “I’m finding it a little more difficult to block shots in college because the guys are faster, quicker with their release. I’m just trying to catch up with that pace and start blocking those shots and also start getting the timing right for blocking shots here.”

He may be overwhelmed now, but his long-term confidence remains. The reputation he earned as a dominant defensive presence in high school will soon translate to the college ranks.

“I was the best shot blocker in high school,” Onyenso told KSR. “Now I believe I’m going to be the best shot blocker in college.”

Iron sharpens iron

At the end of the day, iron sharpens iron. Kentucky’s newcomers are learning from the veterans just as the veterans are learning from the newcomers. That’s how both groups improve and contribute, Calipari’s key to having “really good teams” during his time as a head coach.

“That’s the story about coming to Kentucky,” Wheeler said. “You always have to show up and compete against the best players and with the best players. With that, you’re going to get better yourself. It’s been great.”

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