Position Rankings: The Top 20 Centers

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of The Lists we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The Top 10

1. Cody Zeller, Indiana: Zeller is the best player in the country, so it would only make sense that he tops a list of best centers. He’s amazing to watch on the offensive end of the floor, particularly when he runs the court in transition, but he’ll make the jump to elite when he improves on the defensive end of the floor.

2. Jeff Withey, Kansas: Withey is the best defensive center in the country. Period. He led the nation — including Anthony Davis — in block percentage last year, and could very well do the same this season. He’ll anchor what should once again be an elite defense for the Jayhawks.

3. Gorgui Dieng, Louisville: Like Withey, Dieng is the anchor for what should be one of the best defensive teams in the country. He’s a terrific rebounder and shotblocker, but he needs to continue to develop his offensive repertoire to be more than a catch-and-dunk threat.

4. Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota: Mbakwe is an interesting case. He averaged a double-double in 2010-2011, and was doing the same last season before he tore his ACL. This offseason, he’s been dealing with a bunch of legal issues, and while they have all apparently been settled, that’s a lot of distraction for a college student to deal with.

5. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky: Noel is the x-factor in these rankings. He could very well end up being the best center in the country if everything falls into place, but there are a couple of issues I think could inhibit that. He’s not as offensively gifted as Anthony Davis. He has another center that he’ll be sharing front court minutes with in Willie Cauley-Stein. And I’m still curious how Kentucky’s roster eventually comes together. But John Calipari’s last three center recruits have gone on to be top five picks, so we’ll see.

6. Mason Plumlee, Duke: I think Plumlee puts it together this season, maybe not to the point that he’s a lottery pick, but enough so that he can anchor Duke’s front line. He was a very good — albeit it somewhat inconsistent — rebounder and shotblocker last year, so if his offense comes around, he could end up being elite.

7. Patric Young, Florida: An overwhelming physical presence, Young has yet to turn those God-given gifts into consistent production; he averaged just 10 points and six boards a season ago. Is this the year that he finally lives up to that potential?

8. Jared Berggren, Wisconsin: There may not be a more underrated big man that Jared Berggren. He’s sneaky-good defensively and a pick-and-pop threat that is a perfect fit for Wisconsin’s swing offense. Here’s the question for Berggren this year: how much of his success on the offensive end last season was the result of playing with Jordan Taylor? Because with Taylor gone and Josh Gasser injured, Wisconsin is going to need someone to step up offensively.

9. Jack Cooley, Notre Dame: The kid that looks like Luke Harangody’s little brother has a chance to be the Big East Player of the Year this season. Cooley is a big-bodied center that is excellent playing his role as space-eater, rebounder, and picker-and-roller in Notre Dame’s ‘Burn’ offense.

10. Steven Adams, Pitt: There are some folks that think Adams is still a year or two away from being a real contributor for the Panthers, but I think Adams will end up being quite good for Jamie Dixon’s club. With Tray Woodall and Trey Ziegler in the back court, the Panthers will have enough scoring. All they need out of Adams is effort; defensively, on the glass, cutting to the rim. You don’t need to have your skills developed to play hard.

The Next 10

11. Khem Birch, UNLV
12. Reggie Johnson, Miami
13. Alex Oriakhi, Missouri
14. Alex Len, Maryland
15. Brandon Davies, BYU
16. Mike Muscala, Bucknell
17. Richard Howell, NC State
18. Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona
19. Gregory Echenique, Creighton
20. Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky)

The Best of the Rest: Julian Boyd (LIU-Brooklyn), Alec Brown (Green Bay), Rakeem Christmas (Syracuse), DaJuan Coleman (Syracuse), Erik Copes (George Mason), Jamelle Hagins (Delaware), Jordan Henriquez (Kansas State), Colton Iverson (Colorado State), Vander Joaquim (Hawaii), Przemek Karnowski (Gonzaga), Deniz Kilicli (West Virginia), Alex Kirk (New Mexico), Zeke Marshall (Akron), Derrick Nix (Michigan State), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Cameron Ridley (Texas), Andrew Smith (Butler), Josh Smith (UCLA), Brad Waldow (St. Mary’s), Mouph Yarou (Villanova)

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

No. 22 Baylor comes from 12 down to beat Creighton

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It was another rough night for the Scott Drew Can’t Coach crowd.

No. 22 Baylor got 15 points apiece from Jo Lual-Acuil and Terry Maston and closed the game on a 37-19 run as they knocked off Creighton, 65-59, in the title game of the Hall Of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

King McClure led the way for the Bears with 19 points, picking up the pieces for Manu Lecomte, who struggled to deal with the defense of Khyri Thomas.

Creighton jumped out to a 33-24 lead at the break and extended it to 40-28 with 18 minutes left in the game, but that’s when Baylor turned the game around. A couple of tweaks to the way that they played their zone coupled with the Bluejays missing some shots that they were capable of making led to the comeback. Instead of simply writing another ‘See, I told you Scott Drew can coach’ column, I figured it would make more sense to show exactly what I mean when I say that.

Creighton had a smart, simple game-plan offensively on Tuesday night. Get the ball into the paint, whether it was via dribble penetration or finding one of their big guys near the foul line or at the short corner, and then find a shooter on the perimeter, a cutter going to the rim or, simply, score from 8-10 feet out. That’s the best way to beat a zone, especially a zone that has the amount of length and athleticism that Baylor’s does. Notice in the clip below how extended Baylor’s guards are and, as a result, the space it creates:

Once Baylor got down by 12, their game-plan changed. Instead of extending, their defense became more compact. What is usually something of a 1-1-3 zone turned into more of a 2-3, with the focus seemingly being cutting off penetration. Baylor dared Creighton to let Ronnie Harrell be the guy that beat them, and it worked. The result was that the open threes dried up, and the jumpers that Creighton shot in down the stretch were much more contested than the looks they were getting earlier in the game:

That’s coaching right there.

Game-planning is a part of coaching. Player development is, too, as is recruiting. But making in-game adjustments like that, figuring out how a team is beating you, devising a way to stop them from doing that and getting your players to execute those adjustments is arguably the most important part of being a coach.

Here’s another example of what I mean.

Khyri Thomas might be the best on-ball defender in college basketball, and I don’t say that lightly. He essentially eliminated Manu Lecomte from the game. He is to point guards what Darrelle Revis was to No. 1 receivers. Whoever he is guarding is on Khyri Island.

Lecomte is typically Baylor’s closer, but Drew ran actions that allowed Lecomte to be a facilitator and a decoy, taking Khyri out of the play and taking advantage of matchups he thought his guys could win. That involved running a double-high ball-screen, which confused Harrell and Martin Krampelj defensively a couple of times, and resulted in a high-low action between Maston and Lual-Acuil on a number of possessions down the stretch.

But then there was also this set he drew up, using McClure as the ball-handler in that double-high ball-screen and while putting Lecomte in the same side corner. McClure refused the ball-screen, drove straight at the gap where Thomas was not going to help off Lecomte and got a bucket out of it:

That’s coaching!

And I’m not trying to say McDermott got out-coached here. His game-plan worked. Drew’s adjustment turned out to be just a bit better.

But Creighton also has players that can make the tough shots that they were forced into in the second half. If two more of them go down – if the Bluejays shoot 37.5 percent from the floor instead of 34.4 percent, if they go 7-for-30 from three instead of 5-for-30 – then they probably win this game.

Sometimes that’s how basketball works.

It’s why you always hear coaches refer to it as a ‘make or miss game’.

The larger takeaway from this game should be this: Both Baylor and Creighton are good teams. Both landed good non-conference wins during this event. Both are likely headed to the NCAA tournament.

And both took part in a fun, tactical battle between head coaches on Tuesday night that one of them had to lose.

No. 13 Notre Dame drubs LSU 92-53 to reach Maui title game

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LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — T.J. Gibbs scored 26 points, Matt Farrell added 17 and Notre Dame dominated LSU 92-53 on Tuesday night to reach the Maui Invitational championship game.

The Irish (5-0) expectedly breezed through their opener against Division II Chaminade did the same thing to LSU in their first game against a power program this season.

Notre Dame shot well, shut the Tigers down on defense and were in control from the opening tip in a superb all-around game.

Bonzie Colson had 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Irish, who shot 52 percent and hit 15 of 32 from 3-point range.

Next up: A top-of-the-marquee title game against No. 6 Wichita State on Wednesday night.

LSU (3-1) lost starting guard Brandon Sampson to an ankle injury in the game’s opening minute and struggled without one of its top defensive players.

The Tigers had trouble slowing the Irish on defense and labored from the perimeter on offense, hitting 6 of 23 shots from the 3-point arc while shooting 36 percent overall. Duop Reath led LSU with 17 points.

LSU beat Michigan 77-75 in its Maui opener behind the stellar play of Tremont Waters. The talented freshman point guard had 21 points and set up the go-ahead basket with a spectacular over-the-shoulder, no-look assist from his knees.

Notre Dame had a much easier road to the semifinals, dominating Chaminade from the start of an 83-56 rout.

The Tigers had a tough break on their first possession of the semifinals, when Sampson came down on someone’s foot and rolled his left ankle. He had to be helped off the court, leaving LSU without arguably its best defensive player.

The Irish took advantage, scoring at the rim and the 3-point arc during a 15-2 run that put them up 25-10. Farrell had the highlight-reel play of the spurt, bouncing a pass between the long legs of 6-foot-11 Reath to set up Martinas Geben for a dunk.

Notre Dame didn’t let up, hitting seven 3-pointers, 15 of 31 shots overall and holding the Tigers to 1-for-8 shooting from the arc for a 40-24 halftime lead.

The Irish continued to stretch the lead in the second half, using a 6-0 burst midway through to go up 61-35.

THE TAKEAWAY

Notre Dame turned its first game against a power program into a laugher with a strong effort on both ends of the court.

LSU was hurt by the loss of Sampson, but it may not have mattered the way the Irish played.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame plays No. 6 Wichita State in Wednesday’s championship game.

LSU gets Marquette in the third-place game on Wednesday.

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For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Hot shooting leads No. 3 Kansas past Texas Southern, 114-71

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas shot the ball from 3-point range better than it ever has in its illustrious history.

Once the Jayhawks found their rhythm from deep, their offense was virtually impossible to stop. Texas Southern coach Mike Davis was in awe.

“I’ve never seen a team pass the ball and shoot the basketball as well as they do,” Davis said.

Svi Mykhailiuk scored 21 points, Udoka Azubuike added 20 and No. 3 Kansas cruised to a resounding 114-71 victory over Texas Southern on Tuesday night in the Jayhawks’ first game of the Hoophall Miami Invitational.

They got after it early, as with just under 5 minutes remaining in the first half Lagerald Vick hit the team’s seventh 3 of the half — a program record. A similar feat was achieved in the second half, when Devonte’ Graham hit No. 17, the record for 3s in a game.

“It’s super fun,” Graham said. “Being active, sharing the ball, it’s contagious. Just making that extra pass, and when the ball’s going through the hoop like that, it just feeds energy into us.”

Graham, Vick and Marcus Garrett all finished with a double-double for Kansas, as Vick posted 19 points and 10 rebounds, Graham had 17 points and 11 assists, and Garrett logged 13 points and 11 boards.

Texas Southern’s Demontrae Jefferson led all scorers with 24 points. Donte Clark added 19 and had a game-high 14 rebounds as well.

Davis has seen plenty of high-powered offenses run by Bill Self, as the pair used to meet regularly when they coached at Illinois and Indiana, respectively. After watching a performance like this, he has no doubts over his former rival’s future chances.

“I’ve been around for a long time,” Davis said. “If you play basketball like they play basketball, they’ll be cutting the net down in April.”

BIG PICTURE

Kansas continues to thrive without freshman Billy Preston, who remains benched as the school investigates a single-car on-campus incident involving him earlier in the month. His absence has left Self with just two big men, but the lack of depth has yet to truly hurt the Jayhawks.

Texas Southern is still searching for its first win after facing a daunting schedule to start the season. Even though the Tigers have yet to find themselves in the win column, games against bigger schools like Kansas will continue to provide invaluable experience regardless of the score.

“It was a great opportunity for us,” Davis said. “We leave tomorrow to go play Clemson on Friday, and this game right here will get us ready for our next game.”

T’ED UP

Azubuike earned a technical foul midway through the first half when he hung on the rim following a thunderous dunk.

“He deserved it,” Self said of the technical. “I told the official — he said ‘I hate calling that,’ I said ‘but you got to call it.’ I mean, that’s good for us … he has a bad habit of doing that, and I was glad they called it because that may end up not costing us where we really need it, in a close game.”

SARCASTIC SELF

While Self agreed that the Jayhawks shot the ball about as well as they possibly could have, he wasn’t overtly enthused by the record, as per usual.

“I couldn’t be happier. I think we should celebrate for a week,” Self said. “My reaction is we made shots. That doesn’t mean anything to me.”

MODEL FOR SUCCESS

“Love the way they play,” Davis said of the Jayhawks. “That’s the way I want my team to play. When we get to January and play in our conference, that’s the way we want to be playing basketball.”

UP NEXT

Kansas will continue Hoophall Miami Invitational play Friday night with another home game against Oakland, which has already dropped its first two games of the tournament.

Texas Southern will once again face an uphill battle for its first victory as it travels to Clemson on Friday.

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For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25

No. 12 Cincinnati uses strong start to defeat Richmond 75-48

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GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (AP) — Unlike the previous night, Cincinnati didn’t need a hero on Tuesday night.

Instead, the 12th-ranked Bearcats relied on their defense, smothering Richmond in the first half and cruising into the championship game of the Cayman Islands Classic with a 75-48 win over the Spiders.

Cane Broome led a balanced attack with 13 points and Jacob Evans added 12 for the Bearcats (5-0).

Jarron Cumberland opened the scoring with 3-pointers on consecutive possessions and Evans hit another before the Spiders scored and when Justin Jenifer hit a 3 just beyond the five-minute mark Cincinnati was up 14-4.

The Bearcats hit 8 of 14 3-pointers and shot 54 percent overall to race to a 40-14 lead at the half and Wyoming’s opponent for Wednesday’s championship game was never in doubt. Five different Cincinnati players had six to nine points while forcing the Spiders (1-3) into 13 turnovers and 4-of-18 shooting.

“The first half, we played great defensively and on offense, when we did make the right pass, we found open shooters,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “We try to start the best defensive lineup. We want to focus on things that win games, defense, rebounding, physicality, and guys that play together.”

Jenifer went 3 of 4 from behind the arc, scoring all nine of his points in the first half. Gary Clark, the leader in a hard-fought 73-68 win over Buffalo in the opener on Monday night with 24 points and 14 rebounds, had his eight points — all in the first half — and finished with eight rebounds and seven assists.

Richmond made five 3-pointers and went 12 of 24 from the field but never challenged in the second half.

“Obviously Richmond has a young team,” Cronin said. “I thought Buffalo made us better last night. We were able to jump out to an early lead and put the game away with our defense.

Freshman Jacob Gilyard led the Spiders with 12 points.

BIG PICTURE

Richmond: Gilyard was leading the nation’s true freshmen in playing time, averaging 37.3 minutes a game. He played 32 in the loss. … Grant Golden, a redshirt freshman, had 26 points in a win over UAB in the opener, the most by a Spider freshman in 10 years and with his seven rebounds was the first UR frosh with a 20 and 7 line since 1999. The Bearcats held him to four points and one rebound on Tuesday. … Khwan Fore, Richmond’s leading scorer last year, made his debut after missing the first three games recovering from a stress reaction in his left shin. He went 1 for 1 from the foul line with a rebound and an assist and three fouls. … The Spiders have one senior and five juniors.

Cincinnati: Freshman Sam Martin scored his first points, making a pair of free throws. … The Bearcats had 20 assists on 25 baskets but they also had 20 turnovers, 11 in the second half. But in that first half had a 16-0 advantage in points off turnovers. … With reserves seeing plenty of time, Cincinnati’s bench outscored Richmond’s 38-17, 28-15 in the second half.

NEXT GAME

Richmond will face Louisiana-Lafayette in the third place game Wednesday night.

Cincinnati meets Wyoming in the championship game Wednesday night.

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For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Murphy’s double-double leads Minnesota over Alabama A&M

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Jordan Murphy had his fifth straight double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds as No. 14 Minnesota defeated Alabama A&M 100-57 on Tuesday night.

Four other scored in double figures for the Gophers (5-0). Davonte Fitzgerald had 13, Nate Mason scored 12 and Reggie Lynch and Jamir Harris each added 11.

Mohamed Sherif led the Bulldogs (0-4) with 10 points.

The Bulldogs went the first 11 minutes without a two-point field goal, preferring outside shots due to the Gophers’ size advantage. A&M’s first four baskets came from 3-point range, but Minnesota built a 26-12 lead thanks to 12 quick points from Mason.

In the last minute of the first half, reserve big man Fitzgerald threw down a dunk and drained a long jump shot for the Gophers before Murphy beat the buzzer with a step-back jumper to put Minnesota on top 47-25.

Harris, a freshman guard, hit 3-pointers from the same spot in the corner on three consecutive possessions in the second half as Gophers coach Richard Pitino played his reserves almost exclusively for the final 10 minutes of the game.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama A&M: Coming off a 2-27 season, the Bulldogs were picked to finish last in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. They were no match for a Minnesota team expected to contend for a Big Ten title.

Minnesota: The Gophers got what they needed out of this game. Everyone stayed healthy, the reserves got extended playing time, and the starters weren’t overtaxed with back-to-back games coming up this weekend.

UP NEXT

Alabama A&M: Travels to Niagara Falls, New York, for the final rounds of the Barclays Center Classic. The Bulldogs take on Niagara on Friday and will play either Western Carolina or UT-Arlington on Saturday.

Minnesota: Travels to Brooklyn to wrap up the other half of the Barclays Center Classic bracket. The Gophers play UMass on Friday and No. 25 Alabama on Saturday.

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For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25