Ranking College Basketball's 10 Best Returning Big Men in 2013-14 Season
In college basketball, any team can win on any night when a talented big man is on his game.
A well-delivered post move and dunk, a streak of total domination on the glass or a thunderous block can demoralize the opposition and send the fans into fits of ecstasy or rage, depending on home court.
The college game currently has plenty of solid size, some playing for power programs and some flying under the national radar. The best bigs in the country vary in build and approach, but all have one overriding characteristic—they get up for battle, no matter the opponent.
To qualify for our list, a player must measure 6'8" in height and/or weigh at least 230 pounds according to his university's official profile. Also, please note the word "returning" in the headline before spamming the comment thread asking about freshmen like Julius Randle or Joel Embiid. All of these guys have completed at least one season of college games.
These players are surely massive land-based mammals, but more importantly, they play big.
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Here are the "next 10," presented alphabetically:
Jerrelle Benimon, Towson—Benimon finished third in the nation at 11.2 rebounds per game last season.
Cleanthony Early, Wichita State—Early showed no fear of big competition. He went for 25 points and nine boards against Iowa in December, then finished strong with 24 and 10 against Louisville in the Final Four.
Alex Kirk, New Mexico—Kirk earned Mountain West All-Defensive honors, the first Lobo to do so since Kenny Thomas won a similar honor in the WAC in 1999.
Dwight Powell, Stanford—Powell upped his free throw shooting to nearly 80 percent as a junior, an 11-point improvement from his freshman year.
TaShawn Thomas, Houston—Only 11 players in America had more made baskets than Thomas' 234. He also ranked 21st in the country at 9.8 rebounds per game.
Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa—Tuttle's .623 true shooting percentage (TS%) ranked in the top 60 nationwide.
Aaron White, Iowa—White took 258 free throws to 299 field goal attempts last season. The resultant .862 free throw rate ranked fifth in America according to StatSheet.com.
Shayne Whittington, Western Michigan—Buffalo's Javon McCrea (more on him in a bit) was the only player to top Whittington on the MAC's rebounding charts. Whittington may have slightly outplayed McCrea in early February, outscoring the bruising Bull 24-22 and out-rebounding him 14-10—and WMU got the win.
Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara—Williams is one of the nation's best all-around rebounders, ranking in the top seven in rebounds per game (10.7), offensive rebounding percentage (17.0) and defensive rebounding percentage (27.4).
Patric Young, Florida—Young pulled down 96 offensive rebounds last season, good for a top-70 national ranking.
10. Augustine Rubit, South Alabama
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Rubit barely gets in under our size wire, weighing in at 230 pounds on a 6'7" frame. While he's not as visually intimidating as some of the behemoths on these rankings, he produces like few seven-footers can.
Entering his senior season of eligibility, Rubit has yet to be beaten on the Sun Belt Conference's rebounding charts. The Belt's three-time glass-eating champion has set low water marks of 13.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, twice averaging double-doubles on the season.
As Rubit's become the focal point of South Alabama's offense, his field-goal percentage has suffered. A partial cause has been his increasing willingness to take contact (.622 FTA per FGA) and his improvement in making the resultant foul shots (79.5 percent as a junior).
No opposition was too big for Rubit to make an impact last season. He only scored eight points against New Mexico State and its 7'5" giant Sim Bhullar, but still ripped down 10 boards, seven of them offensive. Rubit was held to single-digit scoring only twice, and also had as many games of 15-plus rebounds as he had of five or fewer (four times each).
Last season's success was rewarded with Rubit's first Sun Belt Player of the Year award. With only Louisiana-Lafayette's duo of Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long returning from the first and second teams, Rubit begins the 2013-14 campaign as the prohibitive favorite to repeat.
9. Jameel Warney, Stony Brook
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When comparing an America East player to members of power-conference programs, it's usually helpful to note how that player performed against such big-time opposition. By that rationale, reviews were mixed on Stony Brook freshman Jameel Warney last season.
In only his sixth collegiate game, Warney carded a solid eight points and 11 rebounds against UConn. In his next run-in with the Big East, he struggled to five points and three boards against Seton Hall, although he did contribute three steals.
Given some seasoning through conference play, Warney came back stronger in the NIT. He put up 16 points in a win over UMass, then hung 17 points and seven rebounds on Iowa in SBU's season-ending second-round loss.
Overall, though, Warney's freshman year was a resounding success. He finished in the conferences' top 10 in scoring, rebounds and blocks, while his .618 field-goal shooting stood 14th nationally.
The Seawolves return a solid group of guards, but their interior depth is unproven behind Warney. He'll likely be the focal point from day one, and how he adapts to that scrutiny will determine whether Stony Brook can win another conference title and make its first-ever NCAA trip.
8. Mitch McGary, Michigan
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Three words follow Michigan center Mitch McGary into his sophomore season—burden of proof.
McGary's mission is to prove that he can sustain his dominant NCAA tournament form (14 points, 11 rebounds and two steals per game) over the course of a full season.
He and all of his Wolverine teammates need to prove they can be a top-10 team without the creative abilities of Trey Burke.
Finally, McGary needs to show improvement at the free throw line, where another 44-percent season would make him a major late-game liability.
To be fair, signs of life began appearing at the beginning of February. McGary played 30 minutes per game in a three-game run against Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin. He averaged 12 points, seven rebounds and three steals in that span.
That's the good news. The bad news? UM defeated only Ohio State.
McGary's a dangerous rebounder who averaged nearly 13 caroms per 40 minutes. He also finished a sneaky sixth in the Big Ten in steal percentage per StatSheet.com. Those strong, quick hands will serve him well once he stops getting the freshman treatment from officials, who tagged him for five fouls per 40 minutes.
7. Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee
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To his credit, Jarnell Stokes did not take a step back as a sophomore. He would have had an alibi for struggling, since Tennessee teammate Jeronne Maymon never suited up to relieve the pressure on Stokes last season.
This season, it's not unreasonable to expect a big step forward. Maymon's impending return will curtail the double-teams that Stokes had to fight through. In turn, shooters like Jordan McRae and Antonio Barton should see better looks and spread the floor even further.
Even without Maymon, the 6'8", 270-pound Stokes was a complete manchild. He ranked second in the SEC and 25th nationally at 9.6 rebounds per game. His .222 defensive rebounding percentage (DR%) ranked in the top 100 nationwide, and his .173 offensive rebounding percentage (OR%) placed him fifth in the country.
Stokes' shooting percentages stayed virtually even with his freshman figures, despite being the Volunteers' only true low-post scoring option.
The ability is there for Stokes to have an All-American season. After a year without his wingman, the experience and the confidence should be there as well. Now, it's a question of opportunity. If Stokes is the focal point of the UT offense and plays with the proper aggressiveness, he could be the best player in the SEC bar none.
6. Adreian Payne, Michigan State
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Michigan State's Adreian Payne has evolved from a shaky, unsure freshman to a potentially unstoppable senior. Like Jarnell Stokes, he has the ability to play at an All-American level if he's willing to assert himself as the Spartans' primary offensive weapon.
In 2010-11, Payne was a 48-percent true shooter, making less than half of his field goals and his free throws. Fast forward two years, and the 6'10", 240-pound forward produced a .629 TS%, ranking among the top 50 in the nation. The figure was buoyed by Payne splashing 16 of his 42 three-point attempts and making a Big Ten-leading 84.8 percent of his foul shots.
Finally able to play full-time starter's minutes (25.6 per game) after learning to work around congenitally reduced lung capacity, Payne blossomed into a dangerous double-double threat. He recorded six such games in MSU's last 11, starting with a 15-point, 14-rebound night against Nebraska.
For the season, Payne's 7.6 rebounds per game stood third in the conference, and he led the Big Ten with 198 defensive boards.
The rapid improvement in Payne's perimeter skills, along with his continuing development as a two-way post presence, could have made him a lottery pick this season. Next June, in a much stronger NBA draft, Payne can still attain that lofty status if his senior season goes according to plan.
5. Javon McCrea, Buffalo
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Not to be cruel or anything, but with Zeke Marshall gone from Akron and D.J. Cooper leaving Ohio, we're running out of great reasons to watch MAC basketball. The focus now must shift to Western Michigan center Shayne Whittington (see "Honorable Mentions" about six slides back) and 250-pound Buffalo forward Javon McCrea.
McCrea has finished in the MAC's top 10 in rebounding and top five in blocks in all three of his seasons, despite not starting a single game as a freshman. In that first season, he averaged "only" 11.8 points per game, which still ranked 19th in the league. (Again, no starts.)
Last season's 18 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game all ranked no lower than fourth in the MAC. A 53-percent foul shooter entering last season, McCrea boosted his scoring by improving to almost 71 percent from the charity stripe as a junior.
Strangely, opponents appeared hesitant to foul a man who struggled so much at the line and took two-thirds of his shots at the rim (see Hoop-Math.com). McCrea's .429 FTA/FGA rate ranked a mere 13th in his conference.
If McCrea takes the ball straight at his opposition this season, he could be a candidate for the rare 20/10 points-and-rebounds season. MAC Player of the Year honors are easily within his grasp.
Now, about getting the Bulls to the NCAA tournament...
4. Davante Gardner, Marquette
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Ask Davante Gardner if it's more important to start the game or to finish it. Marquette's 290-pound mountain in the middle was one of America's most efficient producers last season, despite not starting a single game.
Gardner's eFG% and TS% both led last season's incarnation of the Big East. The latter figure placed him 10th in America, according to StatSheet.
Gardner's basic counting numbers (11.5 points and 4.8 rebounds) don't explode off the page, primarily due to his 21.4 minutes a night. He averaged 18 points and six rebounds on those occasions when he managed to play 30 minutes, but unfortunately, that only happened three times.
In the Golden Eagles' Elite Eight loss to Syracuse, Gardner was the only Marquette player to bother getting off the bus. He made six of his nine shots for 14 points while the rest of his team went a hideous 6-of-44 for 25 points.
Last season's guard-oriented offense will miss Vander Blue, Junior Cadougan and Trent Lockett. Their largely inexperienced replacements will need to lean on Gardner for his interior presence while roles are being defined in the backcourt. Look for Gardner to approach 15 points and eight rebounds a night if he can play starter's minutes.
3. Juvonte Reddic, VCU
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In his junior season, VCU's 6'9" forward Juvonte Reddic took a big step, um, forward.
Although his minutes didn't substantially rise and he took only two more shots per game, Reddic's scoring increased by more than four points and his rebounding average jumped from 6.6 to 8.1.
As Reddic prepares for his senior season, coach Shaka Smart told the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch that NBA scouts wanted to see the star forward improve his mid-range shooting and his rebounding. He already made some progress from 2011-12 to 2012-13, and a similar jump this season could see him slip into the draft's first round.
More than half of Reddic's shots as a sophomore were jumpers, according to Hoop-Math. He converted only 33 percent of those attempts. Compare that to his junior year, in which he got a majority of his shots near the rim and made 41 percent of his jump shots.
Similarly, Reddic's offensive and defensive rebounding figures all improved as a junior. His 112 offensive rebounds ranked 11th in the entire nation.
The million-dollar question for Reddic and the rest of the VCU offense is whether point guard Briante Weber can be the kind of playmaker on offense that he is on defense. If Weber can create for his teammates as well as the departed Darius Theus, Reddic and the Rams should at least be respectable in a half-court offense.
2. Akil Mitchell, Virginia
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A solid option when pressed into the starting lineup as a sophomore, Virginia forward Akil Mitchell spent his junior season proving that he could become one of the ACC's top big men.
The 6'8", 233-pound forward jumped from four PPG to 13 as a junior. All-ACC forward Mike Scott's graduation meant that Mitchell was the primary post option from day one last year, and he proved up to the challenge.
Five double-doubles in non-conference play made for a strong start, but his finish may have been even better. Over UVA's last nine games, Mitchell averaged 15.4 points and 9.4 rebounds, putting up four double-doubles, including ones against Duke's Mason Plumlee and Maryland's Alex Len.
Defensively, Mitchell made his biggest statement when he helped hold Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes to five points on only five shots in an ugly 46-38 Virginia win in December. Even in the Cavaliers' NIT third-round loss to Iowa, Mitchell helped hold Aaron White to six points and five boards.
With Plumlee, Len and many of the ACC's other top big men graduated or otherwise departed, Mitchell could easily lead the league in rebounding and possibly join teammate Joe Harris as a top-10 scorer. Their biggest obstacles may be coach Tony Bennett's deliberate system and the presence of capable post support in South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill and sophomore forward Mike Tobey.
1. Cory Jefferson, Baylor
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Baylor forward Cory Jefferson was riding high during the first half of the 2012-13 season. He'd hung 20 points and 14 rebounds on St. John's, then 25 and 14 on Texas, among other stellar performances.
Then he went to Lawrence, Kansas.
Jefferson looked lost in the Phog, pulling five rebounds and being shut out of the points in an ugly Bears loss. Over the next 14 games, he scored in double figures only six times. His averages over that span were 9.7 points and 8.4 rebounds, solid but not up to the standards he'd been setting.
Then the Jayhawks came to Waco.
In the rematch, Jefferson crushed KU to the tune of 25 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, making 11 of 13 shots from the floor. While the Bears were disappointed to be shut out of the NCAA tournament, Jefferson took it out on Baylor's NIT opponents. He averaged 21.2 points and six rebounds—shooting 72 percent from the floor, to boot—en route to the NIT championship.
Jefferson's summer was spent averaging nearly a double-double at the World University Games (10.5 points, nine rebounds), continuing the string of highly motivated performances.
While teammate Isaiah Austin is more hyped, Jefferson has demonstrated that he's an even better post presence. The NBA may now be taking more notice of the elder Bear, if ESPN draftnik Chad Ford's reports are on the money (h/t Dallas Morning News).
A fired-up Jefferson could put Baylor on his back and carry it right back to the Big Dance this March.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. This week: ranking all 47 college coaching changes.