College Basketball Predictions: The Top 10 Defensive Players in the Country
As usual, most of the preseason buzz in college basketball has focused on high-scoring stars like Harrison Barnes and Perry Jones.
As important as those players will be, though, offense alone does not make for a championship team (see Fredette, Jimmer).
It’s time to give some love to the other side of the ball. Defensive skills turned Kawhi Leonard and Chris Singleton into first-round picks this spring, and there are plenty of standout defenders waiting to step into their shoes in the college ranks.
Read on for a look at the 10 toughest defenders in the country entering 2011-12.
10. Mouphtaou Yarou, Villanova
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In his first year as a starter, Mouphtaou Yarou gave the undersized Wildcats a much-needed shot in the arm.
The 6’10” Yarou averaged 7.1 rebounds a game while anchoring the interior of Villanova’s defense.
Yarou’s shot-blocking hasn’t yet caught up to his size—just 1.0 blocks a game last year—but what the Wildcats really need from him is his physical presence inside.
In the punishing Big East, Yarou’s toughness will keep his team competitive in 2011-12.
9. Phil Pressey, Missouri
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Missouri lived on its defense in 2010-11, and no one contributed more than freshman point guard Phil Pressey.
The 5’10” Flip led the Tigers with 2.0 steals per game last year.
Even if new coach Frank Haith dials back Mike Anderson’s hyper-aggressive press, it's a good bet that Pressey will force his share of turnovers next season.
After all, defense runs in his family—his dad, Paul, made three NBA All-Defensive teams with the Bucks.
8. Robbie Hummel, Purdue
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Though the ACL injury that cost him all of last season has dropped him off the national radar, Robbie Hummel is going to be a force as a senior.
A physical PF at 6’8”, 226 lbs, Hummel has the muscle to bang with even the Big Ten’s impressive collection of post players.
Hummel doesn’t have outstanding length, so he doesn’t put up the raw stats of many elite defenders.
Nevertheless, opponents who expect Purdue to crumble defensively with the loss of JaJuan Johnson are in for an unpleasant surprise.
7. Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt
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After two indifferent seasons as a reserve, Festus Ezeli blew up in his first season as a starter in 2010-11.
The 6’11” center averaged a solid 13 points and 6.3 boards a game, but it was his defense that made the biggest impact.
While John Jenkins took care of the offense, Ezeli anchored the Commodores’ D with 2.6 blocks a game.
In an SEC loaded with post scorers, Vanderbilt will need another big year out of Ezeli if they’re going to live up to their high preseason expectations.
6. T.J. McConnell, Duquesne
T.J. McConnell normally gets more credit for his offense after helping Duquesne lead the nation in assists (and finish 17th in scoring) last season.
Even so, the 6’0” freshman put in quite a season on the other side of the ball, too.
McConnell finished fourth in the nation with 2.9 steals a game in 2010-11, and should be even more dangerous with a year of experience under his belt.
With star defender Damian Saunders (2.3 steals, 2.7 blocks per game) lost to graduation, Duquesne will need all the playmaking it can get from McConnell on the defensive end.
5. Alex Oriakhi, UConn
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One of the revelations of UConn’s national championship run, Alex Oriakhi led the shot-blocking charge that locked down Butler in the title game.
A bruising 6’9” power forward, Oriakhi has averaged 1.6 blocks a game in each of his first two seasons in Storrs.
With prized new recruit Andre Drummond likely to take over at center, Oriakhi will presumably move to power forward in 2011-12.
With those two big bodies in the middle, the Huskies will have one of the nation’s best interior defenses next season.
4. Bernard James, Florida State
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With Chris Singleton gone to the NBA, Bernard James takes over as the leader of a Florida State team that led the nation in field goal defense a year ago.
The 6’10” James, a former Air Force M.P., established himself last year as a top-tier shot blocker.
After posting 2.4 blocks per game in his first collegiate season, James will only be better for a year of experience. Even with all the size in the ACC, he has a good shot to be the top center in the conference.
3. Jared Cunningham, Oregon State
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Oregon State basketball fans haven’t had a lot to cheer about in recent years, but sophomore SG Jared Cunningham gave them one major bright spot last year.
The Beavers’ leading scorer, Cunningham also looks to be the best defender the team has had since Gary Payton graduated two decades ago.
The 6’4” Cunningham averaged 2.8 steals a game (fifth-best in the country) last year, his first as a starter. Expect him to feast on the many Pac-12 offenses that will be run by freshman point guards next season.
2. C.J. Aiken, St. Joseph's
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C.J. Aiken had plenty of rough edges as a St. Joseph’s freshman, but there were few complaints about his defensive instincts.
Even coming off the bench, Aiken finished third in the nation in 2010-11 with a staggering 3.5 blocks (in 27.5 minutes) per game.
With Idris Hilliard gone, Aiken is likely to be thrust into a starting job (ready or not) in 2011-12. The Hawks’ offense may get even worse, but they should be just fine defensively with Aiken in the lineup.
1. Khris Middleton, Texas A&M
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Texas A&M played some of the best man-to-man defense of any team in the country last season, and no Aggie did it better than Khris Middleton.
The 6’7” forward led A&M to the NCAA tournament as a sophomore as both their leading scorer and toughest defender.
Middleton doesn’t force a lot of turnovers—1.2 steals a game last season—but he’s as tough to score on as any perimeter defender in the country.
With the Aggies now one of the Big 12’s most experienced squads, expect even tougher defense, and an even better finish, in 2011-12.