Early College Basketball 2012-13 Preview: The Nation's Top 10 Centers

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistMay 14, 2012

Early College Basketball 2012-13 Preview: The Nation's Top 10 Centers

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    A great big man can capture the imagination of college basketball fans like few other players. Lew Alcindor, Elvin Hayes, Patrick Ewing and the artist then known as Akeem Olajuwon are only a few of the great giants whose matchups made for must-watch basketball.

    While there don't appear to be any true Hall of Fame pivots in college basketball this season, there are several very good blends of size and talent. Only one looks like a can't-miss NBA prospect, but height may buy the others multiple chances.

10. Jake Cohen, Davidson

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    Jake Cohen has been nothing if not consistent over his first three years at Davidson.

    His minutes have ranged from 22.7 per game as a freshman to 24.8 as a junior. He's scored between 12 and 15 points per game each season, shooting between 46 and 49 percent from the floor.

    Cohen is not a classic beast defensively, but he did swat 55 shots last season. His 6.1 rebounds per game weren't all that impressive, ranking 11th in the Southern Conference.

    What Cohen does is pose a matchup nightmare for opponents. He'll step out for two to three shots per game from behind the arc, and he's a 34-percent shooter from that range.

    Try to muscle him around, and he'll make you pay from the line. His free-throw shooting has taken staggering leaps forward, from 71 percent as a freshman to a whopping 87.6 percent last season.

    Five Wildcats averaged more than 10 points per game last season, and they all return. As a result of that balance, Cohen had as many single-digit games (11) as 20-point nights (10). Foul trouble also plagues him, as he was disqualified from seven games and racked up four fouls in eight others.

    Still, he has the ability to take over any game, as he proved in a five-game January stretch averaging 25 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.

    Louisville saw Cohen's ability firsthand when he hit them for 24 points and 10 rebounds in the NCAA tournament. He also scored 25 against Wichita State, 18 against Vanderbilt and 22 against Richmond, so he certainly has no fear against quality opposition.

    SoCon beat writers voted Cohen the conference's player of the year this season, and a repeat is not out of the question, especially if coach Bob McKillop can leave him on the court for 30 minutes a night.

9. Patric Young, Florida

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    For Florida's Patric Young, this season may be a case of addition by subtraction.

    Young's 10.2 points per game in 2011-12 don't leap off the page and might seem disappointing for a former McDonald's All-American in his sophomore season. His conference output of nine points a game was even shakier, but consider the talent around him.

    Young was fifth on his team in scoring and field-goal attempts, ranking behind not only All-SEC guards Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal, but point guard Erving Walker and forward Erik Murphy. Young was the only one of the bunch who didn't fancy himself an unstoppable gunner from three-point range, and it showed in the percentages.

    Young shot 61 percent from the floor, the only Gator to break 50 last season. The Gators' offense is one that lives and dies with the three-point shot and likely always will as long as Billy Donovan is in charge.

    What the Gators, and Young in particular, could use is a point guard who's more interested in setting up others than finding his own shot, and that certainly was not Erving Walker. Incoming freshman Braxton Ogbueze might not be that guy, either, but he should learn to lean on his veterans quickly.

    Against teams like Arizona, which lacked a serious post presence, Young dominated. He lit the Wildcats for 25 points and 10 rebounds in December.

    When he was allowed the opportunity, Young also proved able to score on the most dangerous post defender in recent memory, Kentucky's Anthony Davis. He dropped 21 and nine on Kentucky, shooting 10-of-15 from the floor.

    All Patric Young needs is more opportunities, and he could be a consistent 15-and-8 producer, even on a perimeter team like Florida.

8. Mason Plumlee, Duke

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    Mason Plumlee is the pick of the litter among the basketball-playing brothers, and he's also the best post option available for the Duke Blue Devils. His junior season, however, could have been even better.

    At 11 points, nine rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, his stat line was solid. He was a key cog in a Duke offense that was the ACC's most efficient, according to Ken Pomeroy. Just imagine if that team had had a true point guard.

    Plumlee was fifth on the team at 1.6 assists per game, which doesn't sound like much until we consider that Seth Curry led at 2.4.

    This season may be more of the same unless Quinn Cook or Tyler Thornton can truly take control of the position on both ends. Plumlee could benefit from more direct feeds to the post rather than having to react off of Austin Rivers drives or Seth Curry jumpshots.

    Plumlee desperately needs to improve his free-throw shooting to capitalize on any increase in scoring chances. His 52.8-percent success rate was actually an improvement over the dismal 44 percent he shot as a sophomore.

7. Gregory Echenique, Creighton

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    It might look to the casual observer that Gregory Echenique trailed along in Doug McDermott's wake last season as Creighton made the third round of the NCAA tournament.

    Echenique's numbers weren't dominant, as he averaged less than 10 points per game for the first time since his freshman year at Rutgers. His rebounding and shot-blocking figures, while still solid, likewise have yet to rebound to his Rutgers-era levels.

    Still, with Creighton losing guard Antoine Young, Echenique becomes the second option behind McDermott. If a sizable amount of Young's 326 shot attempts come Echenique's way, his 60-percent accuracy could boost his scoring average close to 15 per game.

    With the extra defensive attention, Echenique might also see more frequent trips to the line. In 2010-11, his free-throw rate (free-throw attempts divided by field-goal attempts) was 85.0, meaning that he took 85 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts.

    Last season, that rate dipped to 56.5. This illustrates that Echenique was not seeing the ball nearly as much in shooting positions.

    Either that, or most defenders weren't as gutsy as John Henson up there and simply got out of the way.

    If Creighton plans to build on last season's success, Doug McDermott will need another scoring threat to keep him from being triple-teamed a la Stephen Curry's senior year at Davidson. Echenique should get first dibs on being that guy.

6. Reggie Johnson, Miami (FL)

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    Coming into last season, Reggie Johnson was sure to rank high on a list like this until he tore a meniscus in an offseason pickup game. Johnson's sophomore season (2010-11) was a revelation for a raw prospect who arrived in Coral Gables looking more like a left tackle than a basketball center.

    The knee injury cost Johnson the first nine games of the Hurricanes' season, and his already suspect conditioning was sternly tested over the remainder.

    Johnson's production fluctuated wildly, but when he was on, he was dominant. Against Duke on February 5, he ate the Plumlee brothers for lunch, scoring 27 points and ripping 12 rebounds, eight of those offensive.

    Overall, Johnson averaged 10 points and seven rebounds last season, down from 12 and nine as a sophomore. A full offseason of practice and conditioning could push Johnson to the kind of improvement that was expected before his injury.

    The emergence of Florida transfer Kenny Kadji as another post alternative took away some of Johnson's chances. If Miami commits to an inside-out offense, both Johnson and Kadji could emerge as All-ACC threats.

5. Mike Muscala, Bucknell

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    Some big men, like Reggie Johnson, can impose their will through sheer bulk. Mike Muscala is not that guy.

    Muscala stands 6'11" but weighs only 235 pounds, excelling down low through his coordination and mobility more than power and explosiveness.

    The 2011 Patriot League player of the year, Muscala was denied a repeat only through C.J. McCollum becoming an All-American candidate. Still, many conferences honored players with lesser averages than Muscala's 17 points, nine rebounds and strong shooting percentages.

    Early in the season, Muscala struggled against major-conference opponents, shooting 2-for-10 against Minnesota and following with 10 points and seven rebounds against a Vanderbilt side without Festus Ezeli.

    By season's end, though, he hit a serious stride. In the first round of the NIT, Muscala dropped 20 points, nine rebounds and four blocks on Arizona, then went for 25 and 15 as the Bison bowed out against Nevada.

    An excellent free throw shooter at 83 percent for his career, Muscala has a sneaky midrange game that makes him hard to follow for a more traditional big man. If he gets locked in the weight room enough to improve his overall strength, he'll be a handful for anybody to stop.

4. Jeff Withey, Kansas

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    For the majority of his junior season, it seemed that Jeff Withey's instructions were to block shots on defense and stay out of Thomas Robinson's way on offense. For the most part, he followed those directions to a T.

    Occasionally, though, Withey went off the reservation, just enough to give Jayhawk fans hope that their entire low-post offense didn't defect to the 2012 NBA draft.

    In a five-day stretch in early February, Kansas beat Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. In those three games, Withey exploded for 61 points, 36 rebounds and 19 blocked shots.

    To be fair, those were the only games all season in which Withey scored more than 15 points, but once again, the offense was usually Robinson's job. On defense, Withey was often putting in All-America level work.

    His 3.6 blocks per game ranked fourth in the nation, and he had nine games with six or more swats. He led the nation by blocking 15.2 percent of all shots taken while he was on the court. By comparison, Anthony Davis ranked fifth at 13.7 percent.

    If Withey plays more than last season's 25 minutes per game, there should be a corresponding rise in all of his numbers. Unless freshmen Perry Ellis and Landen Lucas step right in and make Rock Chalk Nation forget T-Rob, look for Withey to get a few more offensive touches to show that he's more than a mere swat machine.

3. Gorgui Dieng, Louisville

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    Gorgui Dieng is still a work in progress. The 6'11" pivotman from Senegal had to have teammates explain to him why the season was over after the Cardinals' 2011 tournament loss to Morehead State. If he continues to improve at his current rate, the rest of the Big East has a real headache in store.

    Dieng arrived at Louisville as a 187-pound coat rack and has added nearly 50 pounds while maintaining uncommon coordination and mobility. Few big men in America run the floor as well as he does, and his 7'6" wingspan makes him a daunting obstacle for opposing shooters.

    While Dieng's not a primary offensive option, he changes games in several other ways, such as against Michigan State in the Sweet 16. He blocked more shots (seven) than he took (five) and also ripped off nine rebounds and three steals.

    For the season, he had more double-figure rebounding games (18) than double-figure scoring games (16).

    As much as Dieng is known for his shot-blocking, foul trouble is a constant concern in his game. He fouled out of five games last season and committed four fouls in 14 others.

    He almost never left the floor except for foul trouble, averaging almost 33 minutes per game. That stamina and his other physical gifts make Dieng a fearsome opponent as he continues to improve his skills. It should not surprise anyone if Dieng makes that next great leap to All-American consideration.

2. Jack Cooley, Notre Dame

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    Notre Dame looked to be a bit of a mess after their non-conference schedule last season. A 7-5 record, the loss of senior Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending injury and losses in every game outside Purcell Pavilion all contributed to a sour mood in South Bend.

    Center Jack Cooley, in his first few games as a starter, was solid but unspectacular, averaging 8.5 points and 7.6 rebounds in the non-conference slate. He had solid coming-out games against Delaware State (11 points and 17 rebounds) and Maine (22 and 14), but still, those games were against...Delaware State and Maine.

    Once he hit the meat of the Big East schedule, Cooley proved that either his success wasn't just a function of weak competition or that the Big East was highly overrated.

    His averages in conference play increased to 14.6 points and 10.2 rebounds, buoyed by 11 double-doubles. A four-game winning streak in February yielded over 20 points and 14 rebounds per game.

    Cooley was the Big East's most effective offensive rebounder, and his effective and true shooting percentages both led the league as well. For his efforts, all he got was second-team all-conference.

    With all six first-team players gone next season, look for Cooley to figure in the All-Big East conversation early. Also look for him to have more of those Maine-type games against next season's non-conference foes.

1. Cody Zeller, Indiana

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    Decades from now, it's likely that Indiana basketball fans will revere Cody Zeller as the messiah that delivered them from mediocrity. Tom Crean spun his wheels trying to pull IU out of the muck left by the Kelvin Sampson era until Zeller arrived.

    Going strictly by the raw numbers, there were big men who produced more frequently than Zeller. His 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds don't explode off the page. Still, Zeller was ruthlessly efficient when he got the ball, and those raw numbers are impacted by the degree to which he opened up looks for his supporting cast.

    Players like Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Victor Oladipo struggled in previous seasons because there were always hands in their faces. The Hoosiers had no inside presence to draw defenses away. With Zeller, Indiana's offense improved from the 64th-most efficient in the nation to the fourth.

    Zeller shot better than 62 percent from the floor, leading the Big Ten and ranking 15th in the nation. His effective FG percentage was 28th in the country, and his true shooting percentage was 10th. Basically, if the defense let Zeller get the ball in shooting position, chalk up two points and call it a day.

    The choice for No. 1 was surprisingly close between Zeller and Cooley, so the head-to-head matchup came into play. On December 17, the Hoosiers beat Notre Dame in Indianapolis, and Zeller out-dueled Cooley.

    Zeller outscored Cooley 21-12, outrebounded him 8-5 and fouled him out in the process. Granted, this was early in the post-Abromaitis adjustment period for the Irish, but the game still scores as a TKO for Zeller.

    Check out the other 2012-13 Top 10 positional previews:

    Top 10 Point Guards

    Top 10 Shooting Guards

    Top 10 Small Forwards

    Top 10 Power Forwards