Power Ranking Cody Zeller and the Big Ten's Centers

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2012

Power Ranking Cody Zeller and the Big Ten's Centers

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    Derrick Nix is a veteran Big Ten center. Relatively speaking, Cody Zeller is a Johnny-come-lately.

    Still, it was Zeller who had a major impact on the balance of power in the Big Ten and an equally major role in bringing a storied program back from a five-year coma.

    These two may very well be the two best bigs in the entire league, but there are 10 other teams who respectfully submit their pivotmen for consideration.

    Can any of those 10 topple Zeller and Nix from the top of the center rankings? Read on.

12. Sasa Borovnjak, Penn State

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    Penn State's 2011-12 offense was frequently dominated by guards Tim Frazier, Jermaine Marshall and Cammeron Woodyard. Whether that was by design or by a lack of trust in the frontcourt, only coach Pat Chambers knows for sure.

    This season, Chambers will need to find some scoring from somebody up front, and Serbian center Sasa Borovnjak is as likely a candidate as any.

    Coming back from a torn ACL that cost him the 2010-11 season, Borovnjak was often tentative, but he was one of only four players to see action in all 32 of Penn State's games last season. The minutes weren't consistent, and neither was the production.

    Borovnjak had some decent games, highlighted by a 15-point night against Ole Miss, but Chambers didn't make extensive use of him in Big Ten play. Borovnjak only broke 20 minutes four times in 19 conference games, including the Big Ten tournament.

    If Chambers was going easy on Borovnjak out of concern for the knee injury, those questions should have been answered by now. Borovnjak shot 56 percent from the floor last season, so the potential is there for him to be a capable low-post scorer. He'll just need to see the court on a more consistent basis.

11. Nnanna Egwu, Illinois

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    Nnanna Egwu was a top 100 recruit coming out of St. Ignatius High School, but he didn't necessarily need to play like it as a freshman. Now, with Meyers Leonard off to the NBA, Egwu will need to step up to his 6'10" size.

    Egwu averaged less than 10 minutes per game last season and didn't make a tremendous impact when he did get on the court. His only double-figure scoring game was against lowly Chicago State, and the only time he topped five rebounds was against Loyola of Chicago.

    To succeed against Big Ten competition, Egwu will have to translate his relentless practice motor into games. He's a capable shooter out to 12 feet, but his 47 percent shooting may need to improve. The ghastly 46 percent from the line will certainly need to get better.

    It's Egwu's high school pedigree that helps him rank ahead of Borovnjak, but if he can't replace at least a portion of Leonard's production, next season's ranking will be less kind. The Illini fans will be even less so.

10. Elliott Eliason, Minnesota

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    Elliott Eliason started 10 games as a red-shirt freshman, including Minnesota's entire postseason slate. In those postseason games, he got an early start on making Gopher fans forget they had ever heard of the man he replaced, Ralph Sampson III.

    Eliason ripped down 39 rebounds in UM's seven games between the Big Ten tournament and the NIT, an average of 5.7 per game. In the NIT quarterfinals against Middle Tennessee State, Eliason had seven of those boards to go with 12 points, the only time all season that he broke double figures. In addition, he helped hold Sun Belt Player of the Year and NBA Summer League invitee LaRon Dendy to 3-of-9 shooting.

    The 6'11", 260-pounder only averaged 2.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game on the season, but that was in 15 minutes per game. The rebounds average out to 10.4 per 40 minutes. His offensive and defensive rebound percentages ranked fifth and sixth in the Big Ten, respectively.

    He will need to work on his free-throw shooting, which stalled at an ugly 40 percent. Also, his turnover percentage was a staggering 24.5, eighth-worst in the Big Ten.

    If Eliason plays 30 minutes per game for Tubby Smith this season, it may not be unreasonable to expect eight points and eight rebounds a night. If he can't avoid the turnovers, though, he risks being chained to the bench.

9. Alex Olah, Northwestern

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    A major problem that has kept Northwestern from making the NCAA tournament is that it hasn't had a strong post presence since Evan Eschmeyer was pulling double-doubles in the mid-1990's. Now, coach Bill Carmody hopes that seven-footer Alex Olah is the guy to bring productive size to the Welsh-Ryan court.

    Olah, from Romania by way of Zionsville, Indiana, weighs 275 pounds, bringing the kind of sheer bulk that players like Luka Mirkovic have not.

    He averaged 18.5 ppg, 13.1 rebounds, 4.6 blocks, shot 65 percent from the floor and made 72 percent of his free throws as a senior, leading Traders Point Christian Academy to its second straight Indiana Christian Schools state championship.

    Olah played for Romania in the FIBA U-18 European Championships and led his team in scoring, rebounding and blocks. He'll need to prove he's as strong as he is big if he hopes to slow down Big Ten post players like Cody Zeller or Derrick Nix.

8. Andre Almeida, Nebraska

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    Andre Almeida has yet to suit up for a Big Ten game. When he does, the 6'11" 315-pounder may be the Big Ten's reigning heavyweight, at least in terms of raw tonnage.

    After losing his 2011-12 season to a nagging knee injury, Almeida returns to a roster that desperately needs his presence in the post. Brandon Ubel's performance fluctuated when left alone last season, and Jorge Brian Diaz has left school.

    Almeida has shown little fear of top-level competition. Two seasons ago, he recorded 10 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes against Kansas, then 10 and five in 15 minutes against Texas. Bear in mind that these were the Morris twins-led Jayhawks and the Tristan Thompson-led Longhorns.

    A player who has performed solidly against multiple future NBA lottery picks should have little fear of any big man in a conference with only one such player. If he's back in game shape and finds a home in a new coach's system, that is.

    Any college hoop fan understands how big those "ifs" really are.

7. A.J. Hammons, Purdue

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    While Purdue got strong center play out of JaJuan Johnson from 2007 to 2011, Johnson wasn't exactly a true center. When trying to assess Purdue's last good and true center presence, the choice depends on how well you rate guys like Matt Kiefer, Ivan Kartelo and John Allison. If they're not your cup of tea, then you have to go back to Brad Miller.

    The latest big hope for Boiler fans is freshman A.J. Hammons. Hammons averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds and four blocks per game last season, not spectacular numbers until one considers he amassed them at Oak Hill Academy alongside six other Division I recruits.

    The seven-footer was still a 4-star recruit, rated in the ESPN 100. Multiple scouting reports praise his hands, shooting touch and defensive presence, but several make note of his occasional lapses in motivation.

    As anyone who observes Purdue basketball knows, if a player won't play hard for Matt Painter, he won't play at all for Matt Painter. Hammons will need to keep his intensity high if he doesn't want to watch from the bench as his freshman year passes him by.

    Early reports do sound promising, however.

6. Adam Woodbury, Iowa

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    Iowa coach Fran McCaffery was forced to play 6'7" Zach McCabe at center last season. The primary result was McCabe leading the Big Ten with 119 fouls. Recruiting seven-footer Adam Woodbury may turn out to be a program-changing event for the Hawkeyes.

    Woodbury is a top-50 recruit winning raves for his relentless nature on the glass and his ability to pass out of the post. The latter ability could lead to countless open jumpers for shooters like McCabe, Josh Oglesby and Devyn Marble.

    As far as his own scoring abilities, Woodbury is capable out to 12 feet and sports a nifty left-handed hook shot. He may not be a dominant Big Ten shot blocker from day one, but his sheer size and wingspan should cause plenty of misfires.

    Iowa's offensive efficiency was 34th in America, according to Ken Pomeroy's rankings. An inside presence that must be respected could allow for some improvement on that ranking, as well as the Hawkeyes' 180th-ranked defense.

5. Amir Williams, Ohio State

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    Amir Williams went from McDonald's All-American to All-Witness Protection in the span of one season. He became a victim of Thad Matta's incredible shrinking bench, averaging only 6.6 minutes per game and amassing 10 DNP's as a freshman.

    Now, with Jared Sullinger off to the NBA, Williams will need to step up and join the recent procession of solid Buckeye big men. That legacy began with Greg Oden and has wound through NBA draft picks Kosta Koufos and B.J. Mullens before the arrival of Sullinger.

    Williams' numbers aren't sexy, as one might expect given his limited playing time. Extrapolate out to 40-minute averages, though, and Williams produced approximately 10 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks per 40. It may be unreasonable to expect that kind of production if he's given starter's minutes, but there should be multiple double-doubles in Williams' future.

    For a player who got the majority of his points on dunks, Williams will need to improve on his 52 percent field-goal shooting and desperately needs work on that 35 percent free-throw stroke.

    Senior Evan Ravenel lurks in the wings if Williams isn't ready.

4. Mitch McGary, Michigan

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    Michigan coach John Beilein hasn't had a strong low post scorer since coming to Ann Arbor, unless you highly rate DeShawn Sims as an inside bruiser. Incoming freshman Mitch McGary may be able to break that streak.

    McGary's individual production may not quite justify this ranking by season's end, but he's very unlikely to care. He struggled in a matchup with fellow top recruit Nerlens Noel, but was unfazed because his team emerged victorious.

    The 6'10", 260-pounder joins a pair of veteran post players, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford, who will certainly put him through the paces early. The veterans have already given the Wolverines' touted recruits a taste of Big Ten basketball, according to reports on AnnArbor.com.

    McGary has the ability to score out to 18 feet and crashes the boards with ferocity, but his ESPN scouting report (Insider piece) describes his play as "blind aggression." Such a trait is unlikely to be rewarded by Big Ten referees, especially for a freshman.

    If he can play under control and avoid foul trouble, McGary could contend for a conference rebounding crown and establish himself as a double-double machine for the Wolverines.

3. Derrick Nix, Michigan State

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    Derrick Nix has started only one game in each of the past two seasons, but he averaged almost 19 minutes per game last season tag teaming with Adreian Payne. This season, Payne and Nix may each see starter's minutes.

    If they do, Michigan State could sport the best post duo in the Big Ten.

    Nix cracked double-figure scoring 14 times last season, highlighted by his 18 points against Long Island in the NCAA tournament. He actually averaged 10 points per game in the postseason despite playing only 18 minutes per game.

    Nix is a career 55 percent shooter from the floor, a testament to how strongly he finishes when he gets his 265-pound frame parked under the basket. His free-throw shooting is improving, but still finished at only 58 percent last season.

    That burly frame could be used more effectively on the glass, as Nix averaged only eight rebounds per 40 minutes last season. He did have his moments, though, such as nine boards in 17 minutes against North Carolina and eight in 20 against Long Island.

2. Jared Berggren, Wisconsin

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    Jared Berggren is a split personality type of player.

    On the offensive end, he can spot up at the three-point arc and drain jumpers at a 37 percent pace.

    On defense, he's enough of a force that he led the Big Ten with 60 blocked shots last season. In a February win over Ohio State, he held Jared Sullinger to eight points while scoring 18 himself.

    He can rely too much on the jumper, as illustrated by his 50 percent two-point shooting percentage. It's a low figure for a 6'10" player who can get his baskets with ease if he gets good inside position.

    Berggren could also stand to work harder on the glass, as his 4.9 boards per game ranked third on the team behind 6'6" forwards Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz. Bruiser camps out on the perimeter just as much as Berggren, so his shot selection makes a hollow excuse.

    If Berggren becomes the true focal point of the Badger offense, he could average 15 points a game between his perimeter jumpers and inside scoring. He'll need more games like his Big Ten tournament game against Indiana (16 points, nine rebounds) if he's going to truly establish himself as an all-conference performer.

1. Cody Zeller, Indiana

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    There are no superlatives left to cover Cody Zeller's impact on Indiana's basketball program.

    Zeller enters this season considered not just the top big man in the Big Ten, but very likely the top big man in the country. He finished in the conference's top 10 in points, rebounds, steals and blocks while also leading the league in field goal percentage and finishing 11th at the line.

    Listed at 6'11" and 230 pounds, Hoosier coach Tom Crean indicates that Zeller may now be a legitimate seven feet. He's also alleged to have gained 15 pounds of muscle, making him even more difficult to push off the low block.

    Another potential fear for Big Ten opponents comes in Crean's suggestion that Zeller may be getting comfortable with his three-point shot. He didn't attempt a single three-pointer as a freshman. If he adds that to his regular arsenal, there will be very few spots on the court where he can be contained.

    A player who only scored in single digits four times last season, a bigger and more versatile Zeller should contend for All-American honors this year. As it is, he's easily the best player in the Big Ten.