College Basketball

Predicting the Best Big Men for the 2014-15 College Basketball Season

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2014

Predicting the Best Big Men for the 2014-15 College Basketball Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The flash and flair on the outside draw most of the attention and praise. But without the beef and brawn inside, most college basketball teams will fail to make it big in the absence of bigs.

    The college big man continues to be a necessary commodity in today's game, with power forwards and centers remaining as important to a balanced lineup as any other position. Their ability to take up space, cover the boards, alter shots and provide key scoring inside is essential to success, as the results from nearly every NCAA tournament will show you.

    The 2014 Final Four saw four teams (Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin) who each had at least one major player working down on the blocks. While the Huskies' national championship was credited mostly to the backcourt play of Shabazz Napier, that might not have happened without DeAndre Daniels. And Kentucky's late push to the title game was as much due to the Wildcats' stable of interior threats as to their clutch outside shooting.

    Looking ahead to the 2014-15 season, big men will once again play significant roles in their teams' game plans. Here's our prediction of which ones will be the best of the beasts.

20. Mamadou Ndiaye, UC-Irvine

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Year: Sophomore

    Height, weight: 7'6", 290 lbs

    What better way to start out a ranking of the best big men in college basketball with the biggest (or, at least, tallest) of them all? That would be Mamadou Ndiaye, who as a freshman in 2013-14 literally towered over every opponent he faced.

    Ndiaye only averaged 21 minutes in his first year of college ball, and during that time he averaged 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Although those are limited numbers, he made the most of his opportunities by sinking almost 71 percent of his shots.

    But where Ndiaye was most impactful, and where he will continue to have the most value, was as a shot-blocker. He had 106 blocks last season—essentially getting one every seven minutes of action—which gives you an idea of what he could do with more time on the court.

19. Josh Scott, Colorado

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    Year: Junior

    Height, weight: 6'10", 245 lbs

    From an overall standpoint, Josh Scott's sophomore year was a very good one, as he led Colorado in scoring (14.1 points per game) and rebounding (8.1) while shooting a team-high 51.1 percent and pacing the Buffaloes back into the NCAA tournament. Looking closer, though, his biggest contribution was the ability to step in for the loss of his team's most talented player and minimize that absence.

    Guard Spencer Dinwiddie tore a knee ligament in early January, which ended his season. From that point on Scott led the charge, averaging 14.5 points and registering five double-doubles. His 20-point, 10-rebound effort in an overtime win over Utah in early February helped keep the season from going downhill.

    Dinwiddie went pro, so it will again be Scott's team to lead in 2014-15. Look for him to become even more aggressive offensively while ramping up the defensive effort that saw him block 40 shots last season.

18. Amida Brimah, Connecticut

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    Year: Sophomore

    Height, weight: 7'0", 217 lbs

    Connecticut's NCAA championship run was fueled by the tireless work on the perimeter from senior Shabazz Napier, as well as the rising play of inside force DeAndre Daniels. Both are gone now, leaving the job of defending that title to some of the role players from that team, most notably promising young center Amida Brimah.

    One of the rawest offensive talents in the game, Brimah held his own as a defensive specialist as a freshman. He only averaged 2.8 points and 2.3 rebounds in the NCAA tournament (down from 4.1 and 3.0, respectively, for the season) but remained a nuisance in the shot-blocking and shot-altering department all season. For the year he swatted 92 shots.

    Brimah will likely start full time for UConn this season, and he'll need to be more involved on offense. But his defensive skills will also continue to be important, so look for Brimah to again be one of the best interior defenders in the country.

17. A.J. Hammons, Purdue

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Height, weight: 7'0", 261 lbs

    Purdue has gone 31-35 over the past two seasons, which is a far cry from the days when it was among the top teams in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers have a chance to end that sub-.500 trend this season with big man A.J. Hammons back for another season holding court under the basket, and the veteran deserves to play for a winning team, given all he's done.

    In 2014-15, Hammons was by far Purdue's best player, despite not having overwhelming stats. He tied for second on the team at 10.8 points per game and led all Boilermakers with 7.4 rebounds per contest while shooting 51.1 percent and blocking 96 shots. He was the team's leading scorer in three of its five Big Ten wins and led all players in the conference with six double-doubles in league games.

    Hammons can take over a game in the right situation. In a loss to Ohio State last December, he had 18 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks and four assists. According to his school bio, that made him the only player in the country last season with a 15-15-5-4 performance.

16. Cameron Ridley, Texas

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Year: Junior

    Height, weight: 6'9", 285 lbs

    With all of its starters coming back from last year's NCAA tournament team, as well as the addition of a high-profile recruit in Myles Turner, Texas faces big expectations in 2014-15. And the biggest of those Longhorns, Cameron Ridley, is set to have a huge year in the spotlight.

    Last season Ridley scored 11.2 points per game and led the team with 8.2 rebounds, banging around against the Big 12's overabundance of frontcourt stars quite effectively. In addition to shooting 54.5 percent from the field, he blocked 76 shots and kept teams from devoting too much attention to fellow frontcourt standout and leading scorer Jonathan Holmes.

    Ridley's presence inside should also help Turner have a great freshman season, as the big man won't be allowed to roam free in the paint. Just ask Arizona State, which didn't block out Ridley in the final moments of an NCAA tournament game last March in which he scored on a game-winning putback as time expired.

15. Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette

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    Year: Junior

    Height, weight: 6'9", 245 lbs

    Shawn Long is a double-double machine, and he does it the old-fashioned way by getting a great deal of his points on putbacks from his many offensive rebounds. Last season he had 18 double-doubles, and at 18.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, he was one of just 13 players in the country to average double digits in both categories.

    The duo of point guard Elfrid Payton and Long was one of the best mid-major combos in the country and the driving force behind Louisiana-Lafayette's return to the NCAA tournament out of the Sun Belt Conference. Payton left for the NBA in the offseason, which means Long's play inside will be even more important.

    A former Mississippi State signee who transferred after one semester in 2011-12, Long is also a defensive force with 156 blocked shots in two seasons of college ball.

14. Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga

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    Denis Poroy/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Height, weight: 7'1", 296 lbs

    The modern-day European big man is more a hybrid of a center and a wing player, one who posts up but can also shoot from outside. In that respect, Przemek Karnowski is a throwback to the old school of 7-footers, as he's in there to bang around and get in the way.

    Last season Karnowski did that quite effectively, averaging 10.3 points and 7.0 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. He shot 59.3 percent, attempted (and missed) just one three-pointer and hoisted his nearly 300-pound frame into the air frequently enough to swat away 60 shots.

    Gonzaga's veteran backcourt will be the main focus in 2014-15, but Karnowski's play inside will be just as important to the team's success. He only led the Bulldogs in scoring in two games last season, but that could change this year if he gets more touches down low.

13. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Height, weight: 7'0", 240 lbs

    It's been awhile since an upperclassman at Kentucky was as well-regarded as Willie Cauley-Stein is, mostly because the Wildcats' best players tend to bolt after one season. But as the grizzled veteran of the country's most-followed team (even when it takes a summer vacation in the Bahamas), Cauley-Stein is expected to be one of Kentucky's most important players this season.

    The key will be whether he can stay healthy. Cauley-Stein missed the Wildcats' final three games during the NCAA tournament with an ankle injury and has since had surgery that inserted screws and a metal plate in there. He isn't part of the Bahamas team, and his status for the start of the 2014-15 will depend on his rehab.

    Although his offense won't be missed with so many other talented frontcourt players, Cauley-Stein is critical to Kentucky's success on defense. He had 106 blocks last season, second-most in school history.

12. Jordan Mickey, LSU

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Year: Sophomore

    Height, weight: 6'8", 235 lbs

    With a roster that features five players taller than him (including two 7-footers) and plenty of guys on the heftier side led by 301-pound freshman Elbert Robinson, LSU's Jordan Mickey isn't officially his team's "big man." He just plays like it and should do so again this season after a stellar freshman campaign.

    Last year Mickey had nine double-doubles, averaging 12.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and an astounding 3.1 blocks per game. His 106 blocked shots were tied for sixth-most in Division I in 2013-14 and marked the first time an LSU player had triple digits in that category since some guy named Shaquille O'Neal.

    And as aggressive as Mickey has been as an undersized big man, he has very good body control and has avoided foul trouble. In his 34 games last year, he never fouled out and only recorded 74 fouls for the season.

11. Bobby Portis, Arkansas

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    Year: Sophomore

    Height, weight: 6'11", 242 lbs

    Bobby Portis had one of the best seasons of any freshman big man in the country last season, but with Arkansas failing to make the NCAA tournament and the Razorbacks playing in the shadow of SEC powers Florida and Kentucky, his performance went mostly unnoticed. Well, at least from a national standpoint, because Arkansas' 2013-14 opponents couldn't help but see what he was capable of.

    Last year Portis scored 12.3 points per game and led his team with 6.8 rebounds, and his 230 boards set a school record for a freshman. He was on draft boards for 2014 but chose to return for at least one more season. He could find his way into the NBA's lottery next June with continued improvement.

    This should be the best Arkansas team to come around since the Nolan Richardson era in the 1990s, and a lot of that will have to do with how Portis handles himself inside. The Razorbacks have a solid nonconference schedule, featuring trips to Iowa State and SMU and a visit from Dayton—all games where Portis should be a major factor.

10. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky

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    Year: Freshman

    Height, weight: 6'11", 250 lbs

    Karl-Anthony Towns has already made the rounds on the awards circuit, collecting a national player of the year award from Gatorade that was presented to him during the ESPY Awards this summer. He's also stood out internationally, averaging 13 points and 7.7 assists during Kentucky's first three games of its high-profile exhibition trip to the Bahamas.

    Now all that's left is to see what he can do with the Wildcats during the regular season, when he joins one of the most loaded frontcourts in the country and fights with a slew of other former McDonald's All-Americans for playing time.

    Towns may not start as a freshman because of Kentucky's depth up front, but he'll be involved in each and every game if what he's done in the Bahamas is any indication. With a great blend of athleticism and strength, as well as a nice shooting touch, he'll also be one of the biggest matchup nightmares in the country in 2014-15.

9. Chris Walker, Florida

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    Year: Sophomore

    Height, weight: 6'10", 220 lbs

    Chris Walker's signing with Florida in November 2012 was as heralded as any other, as the 5-star power forward was expected to be the Gators' next great big man. But it would be another 15 months before we got to see whether that promise could come to fruition, as academic and NCAA clearinghouse issues kept Walker from suiting up until this past February.

    Because of the delay to his college start, Walker was very limited in his involvement with Florida last season. He only played in 18 games and logged just 87 minutes of action while hardly seeing the floor during the postseason as the Gators reached the Final Four. He averaged 1.9 points and 1.3 rebounds per game while shooting 59.3 percent from the field.

    But entering his sophomore year, Walker is expected to make a huge leap forward. Patric Young has graduated, opening up a big hole for Walker to fill. While he's not the same kind of physical presence inside, he'll be one of the most athletic players of his height or taller in the country.

8. Myles Turner, Texas

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    Year: Freshman

    Height, weight: 6'11", 240 lbs

    Myles Turner was the last of the big-named recruits in the 2014 class to commit and sign to a college. He's expected to be well worth the wait, as Texas is now primed to have the nation's most formidable lineup, with the No. 6 overall prospect joining a frontcourt that already had Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley.

    Since signing with the Longhorns, Turner has earned himself a gold medal with the U.S. national team's under-18 squad that won the FIBA Americas Championship in June. And while his offensive and rebounding numbers were on the low end, partly due to a stacked roster of scorers, what can't be ignored are the 18 blocks he registered in five games. That's a record for the tournament—five more than the previous mark set 20 years ago.

    Turner isn't listed on NBADraft.net's early 2015 mock draft, but that might be more due to the website not wanting to list too many freshmen before they've ever played a college game. With Texas in position to give Kansas a serious challenge for the Big 12 title, Turner's play this season should help him rise up big boards leading to a possible early NBA departure.

7. Alan Williams, UC-Santa Barbara

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    Year: Senior

    Height, weight: 6'7", 265 lbs

    The idea that a 6'7" player would be considered a "big man" isn't fathomable at major college basketball programs, but for smaller schools and off-the-radar teams, that's often the best they can hope for. Thankfully, Alan Williams plays far bigger than his dimensions, as shown by his Division I-leading 11.5 rebounds last season.

    Williams also averaged 21.3 points per game, which tied for No. 11 nationally, making him the only 20-10 guy in the country in 2013-14. We didn't get to see Williams on a national stage because UC-Santa Barbara was upset early in the Big West conference tournament, but foes like California (24 points, 12 rebounds) and UNLV (21 points, nine rebounds) can attest to his ability to dominate inside.

    A defensive force as well—he averaged 2.3 blocks per game last season, notching five or more in five different games—Williams will get another high-profile stage in his senior year when UCSB opens the 2014-15 season at Kansas.

6. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Year: Sophomore

    Height, weight: 6'9", 280 lbs

    Of all the players on this list, Kennedy Meeks' production from last year pales in comparison to most of those who played college ball in 2013-14. But this isn't about past performance as much as what's to come, and that's why Meeks is rated so high.

    As an oversize (literally) freshman, Meeks impressed in short bursts, because that's all his 300-plus body could handle. He averaged 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season, but that came in just over 16 minutes per game, which gives you an idea of what he'd be capable of if he could stay on the court.

    Meeks has already shed a bunch of weight, clocking in nearly 50 pounds lighter than when he arrived at Carolina. That sleeker body will get shown off Friday and Saturday when UNC plays a pair of games in the Bahamas, but it's also been glimpsed in practice footage and on highlight-reel dunks.

5. Cliff Alexander, Kansas

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Year: Freshman

    Height, weight: 6'9", 240 lbs

    For most teams, watching two frontcourt players leave after one season and go in the top three of the NBA draft might be too much to overcome. But Kansas isn't in that boat, not with the promise that incoming center Cliff Alexander brings.

    Ranked as the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2014 recruiting class, Alexander will be asked to replace the interior play that Joel Embiid was responsible for last season with the Jayhawks while also contributing to the loss of production from Andrew Wiggins' departure. He gave Kansas fans an idea of how he'll handle such expectations during the Jordan Brand Classic high school All-Star game in April, when he scored 23 points and matched up well against touted Duke prospect Jahlil Okafor.

    Alexander won't have to do it all alone, as Kansas also brings in talented wing Kelly Oubre and has strong players returning from 2013-14. But plenty of attention will be on Alexander to dominate on the inside, and he'll get plenty of chances to bang against other strong bigs on the Jayhawks' tough schedule.

4. Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Height, weight: 7'0", 235 lbs

    Kaleb Tarczewski remains a work in progress on the offensive end, but there's no doubt he's one of the best defensive big men in the country. And with the offense improving on an annual basis, he's primed to have his best season yet in 2014-15.

    Last year Tarczewski averaged 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 58.4 percent from the field. In Pac-12 games, his 58.1 shooting percentage was tops in the league—a product of his improved hands and an effective mid-range shot that make him harder to guard with every attempt he makes from 12 to 15 feet.

    On the defensive end, Tarczewski's impact is seen much more in Arizona's team stats than on an individual basis. Last year the Wildcats allowed just 58.6 points per game, sixth-best in Division I, while opponents' 38 percent field-goal shooting was No. 4 nationally.

3. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

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    Year: Senior

    Height, weight: 7'0", 234 lbs

    Put this list together a few months before the 2013-14 season, and there's no way Frank Kaminsky even gets considered. But after the biggest one-year jump of maybe any player in Division I, Kaminsky is not only worthy of being considered among the top big men, but he's one of the best around.

    Kaminsky has a style and approach more befitting of European big men or of the rising crop of American players between 6'8" and 6'10" who have developed perimeter games. Though he does his fair share of scoring on the inside, Kaminsky's ability to score from all over the court—and thus drag big defenders away from the paint—makes him so successful.

    Last season he exploded in his first year as a starter, leading Wisconsin to its first Final Four since 2000 with a team-best 13.9 points per game along with 6.3 rebounds. He shot 52.8 percent from the field, which isn't extraordinary for a 7-footer in general terms but is much better when you consider nearly one-fifth of his shots were three-pointers, and he made 39.8 percent of them.

2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke

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    Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

    Year: Freshman

    Height, weight: 6'11", 270 lbs

    The top-rated recruit from the 2014 class comes to Duke with a lot riding on his sizable shoulders, but so far nothing has indicated that Jahlil Okafor won't be able to live up to the expectations. Through high school, AAU and international competition, so far Okafor has done nothing but impress as one of the best centers to come into college in years.

    Okafor has three gold medals from the past three years on Team USA's under-19, under-17 and under-16 teams—the first two won world championships. This spring he was on the USA team that beat a group of international All-Stars at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, scoring 14 points and adding 10 rebounds in the process.

    Already projected as a top-three pick in the 2015 NBA draft, Okafor isn't expected to be in college for long, so enjoy him while you can.

1. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Year: Junior

    Height, weight: 6'8", 235 lbs

    The best big man in college basketball for 2014-15 won't be the tallest or heaviest player on the court in most games, and he frequently won't be the biggest player in his team's lineup. But Montrezl Harrell will stand above them all thanks to his ferociousness and intensity—the kind of stuff that will be fawned over when he gets into the NBA.

    Scouts were already high on Harrell after his breakout sophomore year last season, when he averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 60.9 percent from the field. He showed raw aggression and fire in every play he made, both offensively and defensively, as he led Louisville with 49 blocks. Harrell's decision to return for another year was somewhat surprising but also wildly welcomed by the Cardinals. They were already having to replace guard Russ Smith but now can look to reload instead of rebuild.

    Expect this big man to play much larger than his 6'8" frame, as he'll intimidate plenty of taller and heavier defenders with his aggressive play inside and will force many a drive or short jumper to go off the mark.

     

    All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.com.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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