College Basketball's Top 20 Defensive Stoppers in the Country for 2012-13

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJune 29, 2012

College Basketball's Top 20 Defensive Stoppers in the Country for 2012-13

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    With Anthony Davis having earned the No. 1 overall selection in last night’s NBA draft, it’s hard to dispute the value of a great defensive player in college basketball these days. Even with Davis and his devastating shot-blocking skills off to the NBA, though, there will still be plenty of superlative defenders left in the college ranks for 2012-13.

    One of the best of that group will be the player Davis faced in last season’s national championship game, Kansas center Jeff Withey. The 7’0” Jayhawk will look to improve, somehow, on a junior season that saw him block 3.6 shots a game while anchoring the defense for the national runners-up.

    Read on for more on Withey and the rest of the best shot-swatters and ball hawks in college hoops for next season.

20. Zeke Marshall, Akron

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    Seven-footers in the MAC are few and far between, so Zeke Marshall was always going to stand out for Akron. In the last couple of years, he’s been turning heads with his performance as well as his size.

    Marshall, who blocked 2.6 shots a game as a sophomore, raised that figure to 2.8 a season ago.

    His Zips won the regular-season conference title before falling to Ohio, and it will be a surprise if the same two teams aren’t battling it out for an NCAA tournament bid again next season.

19. Sheldon Cooley, East Tennessee State

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    Sheldon Cooley had plenty of problems in his first season as a starter, even aside from his brush with the law. The 6’3” SG didn’t score or shoot especially well, but he made up for it by playing magnificent defense on the perimeter.

    Cooley racked up 2.5 steals per contest for East Tennessee State, the 10th-best figure in the nation last year.

    With star point guard Adam Sollazzo gone from a 17-14 team, it’s hard to see the Buccaneers having much success in the standings next season, but rising senior Cooley should give the fans some highlight-reel moments in 2012-13.

18. Daniel Miller, Georgia Tech

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    Much of Daniel Miller’s game is still a work in progress after two collegiate seasons. The 6’11”, 258-lb center is an up-and-coming scorer and rebounder (8.1 points and 6.5 boards a night last year), but as a shot-blocker, he’s already arrived.

    Miller averaged 2.4 rejections per game a year ago to rank second in the ACC (behind newly-minted Milwaukee Buck John Henson of North Carolina).

    With star forward Glen Rice Jr. leaving the program via transfer, it’s going to be another long year for the Yellow Jackets, but at least they can count on an intimidating defensive presence to deter opponents from driving to the hoop.

17. Jamelle Hagins, Delaware

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    It’s tough to make a mark as a defender in the CAA, where elite defensive teams have been par for the course lately. Even so, Jamelle Hagins has carved out a place among the country’s best at controlling the low post.

    The 6’8” PF swatted 2.9 shots per game, placing second in his own conference but 11th in the nation last season. With high-scoring Devon Saddler also returning on the perimeter, expect Delaware to make a push for an NCAA tournament berth next season.

16. Chaz Williams, UMass

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    One of the more pleasant surprises in the nation last year, Hofstra transfer Chaz Williams went from a solid freshman year with the Pride to a star turn in his first season with UMass.

    The 5’9” guard led the Minutemen in points, assists and steals, racking up enough takeaways (2.2 a night) to place 18th nationally.

    Williams has plenty of help in the backcourt—teammates Jesse Morgan and Sampson Carter return with a combined 2.7 steals per game—so his totals are only likely to rise in 2012-13.

    Even in an Atlantic 10 that could be the toughest defensive conference in the nation, Williams will make his presence felt.

15. Alec Brown, Green Bay

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    A very big fish in what’s typically a small Horizon League pond, 7’1” Alec Brown put in about the season you’d expect from a towering center in a lackluster conference.

    The sophomore led Green Bay with 13.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and three blocks per game, with that last figure ranking ninth in the country.

    Of course, for all Brown’s considerable efforts, the Phoenix finished just 15-15 a year ago, 10-8 in conference play.

    Even with Butler gone from the Horizon and four starters back for Green Bay, it’s hard to see this team becoming a serious contender in Brown’s junior season.

14. Tim Frazier, Penn State

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    The Big Ten saw plenty of breakout seasons in 2011-12, so Tim Frazier’s effort for lowly Penn State was easy to overlook.

    Still, the Nittany Lion junior earned second-team All-Conference honors with team-leading averages of 18.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game.

    After finishing 15th nationally in steals last year (and 14th in assists), Frazier could easily improve on his extraordinary numbers as a senior.

    Of course, few outside of State College will notice, as PSU is likely to be thoroughly mired in last place again in 2012-13.

13. Pierria Henry, Charlotte

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    One of the best freshmen nobody talked about last season, Pierria Henry was thrown into the starting point guard job at Charlotte and held his own in a tough Atlantic 10.

    In addition to leading his team with 3.4 assists per game, the 6’3” Henry placed seventh in the country with 2.6 steals a night.

    As Henry heads into his sophomore season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him turn in a breakout year on offense without losing his defensive edge.

    That may not be enough to turn 13-17 Charlotte into a contender in a loaded A-10, but it could well help the 49ers get back to the NIT next year.

12. D.J. Cooper, Ohio

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    In three seasons at Ohio, D.J. Cooper has been nothing short of excellent.

    Last year he posted some of his worst individual numbers and still averaged 14.7 points, 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game (all team highs, with the last number ranking 14th nationally).

    Of course, he spent most of his college career toiling in obscurity before exploding onto the national scene with last March’s NCAA tournament upset of fourth-seeded Michigan.

    Don’t expect Ohio to be nearly as low as a No. 13 seed this season, because with Cooper and all four other starters returning, the Bobcats will finish a great deal better than last year’s 11-5 mark in MAC competition.

11. Will Cherry, Montana

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    Combo guard Will Cherry led Big Sky champion Montana with 15.8 points a game and also chipped in 3.3 assists a night, so it’s little wonder that his defense didn’t get a ton of attention.

    He certainly deserved to open some eyes on that end of the floor, though, after ranking sixth in the country with 2.6 steals per game.

    With two Grizzly starters graduating from last year’s roster, rising senior Cherry will be under enormous pressure to help his team return to the NCAA tournament. If he can do it, though, it will make for a fitting end to a brilliant college career.

10. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh

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    2011-12 turned out to be the biggest season in Lehigh basketball history, and everything started with the performance of junior guard C.J. McCollum.

    The 6’3” McCollum led the team in scoring, rebounding and steals for the season, and his 30-point, six-rebound, six-assist effort paced the 15th-seeded Mountain Hawks in their win over No. 2 seed Duke in the Big Dance.

    McCollum, whose 2.6 steals per game were good for fifth place nationally, returns to lead what should be an even tougher team in 2012-13.

    Only one starter departs, and last year’s postseason experience should help Lehigh finish even better than its 27-8 mark from a season ago.

9. Damian Eargle, Youngstown State

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    Youngstown State isn’t exactly the class of the Horizon League—it took a major improvement for them to finish 16-15 last year—but the Penguins have some striking individual talents.

    One of the best of those overlooked players is rising senior Damian Eargle down low.

    The 6’7” Eargle is the nation’s returning leader with 3.7 blocks per game, having posted a second straight year with at least three rejections a night.

    With Butler’s departure leaving the conference even weaker next year, don’t expect Eargle’s numbers to fall off any in his final collegiate season.

8. Russ Smith, Louisville

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    One of the nation’s best bench players in 2011-12, Russ Smith is likely to step into the starting lineup next year thanks to the graduation of SG Chris Smith.

    Although Russ Smith’s shot needs a great deal of work (.356 from the field last season), there’s no arguing with the defensive dynamism he brought to Rick Pitino’s Final Four squad.

    Smith averaged 2.2 steals off the Cardinals bench, converting many of them into fast-break opportunities.

    He’s undersized for his position at 6’0”, but with his exceptional quickness, he should rank well above last year’s No. 17 national finish in steals now that he’s joining the starting five.

7. C.J. Aiken, St. Joseph’s

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    He’s not exactly a bruiser at 6’9” and 200 lbs, but C.J. Aiken can control the lane like few other college players. The St. Joseph’s sophomore just finished his second straight season of placing in the nation’s top four in blocks.

    If Aiken keeps rejecting 3.6 shots a night, St. Joe’s will likely see more benefit from it in the win column.

    Aiken’s defense, combined with the high-scoring backcourt of Carl Jones and Langston Galloway, gives the Hawks a chance to be a factor, even in the tough Atlantic 10 next season.

6. Briante Weber, Virginia Commonwealth

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    The most impressive thing about freshman Briante Weber wasn’t that he led Virginia Commonwealth with 2.1 steals per game. The most impressive thing was that he did it while playing just 18.7 minutes a night.

    After spending his freshman year as a star reserve for steal-happy coach Shaka Smart, Weber has earned a shot at Bradford Burgess’ vacant starting spot for 2012-13.

    Regardless of when he enters the game, though, the 6’3” Weber will be one of the most intimidating perimeter defenders on any team next season.

5. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky

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    Obviously, Nerlens Noel has yet to prove anything at all at the collegiate level.

    Still, the Kentucky freshman (and No. 1 recruit in the nation according to ESPNU) enters the college ranks with a real chance to become the second straight Wildcat to lead the nation in blocks.

    The 6’10” Noel has been drawing comparisons to everyone from Dwight Howard to Bill Russell as NBA scouts salivate over his potential.

    He’d have to lead Kentucky to a national title to match Anthony Davis’ performance—and even with another amazing recruiting class around him, that would be a tall order—but as defenders go, he has a chance to be every bit as dominant as the NBA’s No. 1 overall pick.

4. Fuquan Edwin, Seton Hall

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    Despite that he was only the third-best player on Seton Hall last year, Fuquan Edwin was one of the best defenders anywhere. The sophomore swingman averaged 2.9 steals per game to lead all returning players in the country.

    The 6’6” Edwin will be the main man for the Pirates next season, now that Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore are gone.

    He’s a safe bet to add to his 12.5 points and 6.3 boards per contest from 2011-12, and if he doesn’t quite match last year’s phenomenal defensive numbers, he’ll definitely be among the country’s best once again.

3. Gorgui Dieng, Louisville

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    Rick Pitino’s teams haven’t traditionally played a lot of matchup zone, but last year’s Cardinals rode the scheme all the way to the Final Four. A big part of the defense’s success was having shot-swatting Gorgui Dieng at the heart of it.

    The 6’11” Senegalese import ranked eighth in the country with 3.2 blocks per contest. Heading into his junior year in the middle of a stacked lineup, Dieng could be in for a monster season in 2012-13.

2. Jeff Withey, Kansas

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    After two seasons at the very end of Kansas’ bench, Jeff Withey made his chance in the starting lineup count. The Jayhawks junior blocked 3.3 shots a game, the seventh-best mark in the nation a season ago.

    With Thomas Robinson gone, the 7’0” Withey will have to concentrate more on scoring points of his own in 2012-13. Still, don’t expect him to stop being one of the nation’s top game-changers in the middle of the KU defense.

1. Aaron Craft, Ohio State

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    Ohio State tied for 18th in the nation in points allowed last season despite the absence of any kind of shot-blocking presence inside. Instead, the biggest reason for OSU’s defensive success was its smallest starter, 6’2” Aaron Craft.

    Craft’s 2.4 steals a night were the 12th-best mark in the nation, but even they only tell part of the story of how much pressure he put on opposing ball-handlers.

    With Craft at the point, the Buckeyes forced a Big Ten-best 14.8 turnovers a game on their way to the Final Four. The rising junior is only going to get better with another year of experience behind him.