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. 5 Clemson steamrolls No. 4 Auburn to get to Sweet 16

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Gabe DeVoe scored 22 points and Elijah Thomas added 18 and 11 boards as No. 5-seed Clemson put together the single-most dominant performance that we have seen in the NCAA Tournament to date in a 84-53 win over No. 4-seed Auburn.

Brad Brownell’s Tigers used a 29-4 run over the final 10:33 of the first half, a stretch where they held Bruce Pearl’s Tigers without a field goal, and opened the second half on an 11-3 spurt to open up a 41-point lead that, unlike Cincinnati, they were able to hold on to.

And with that, Clemson can officially put their doubters — of which I was one — to shame.

To be frank, I’m not sure that there was a single point in time throughout the course of this season where I ever believed in Clemson. I didn’t think they had a chance to get to the tournament before the season started. I thought their record was inflated by competition early in the year. I thought that they were dead in the water when Donte Grantham went down with a torn ACL. I thought they were going to lose to New Mexico State in the first round of the tournament.


They are headed for the Sweet 16, and after what they’ve done the first two weekends of the tournament, there’s no reason to think that they won’t give No. 1-seed Kansas a fight when they get there.

This group battles defensively, and they have some tough, veteran guards that don’t ever seem to be in the mood to back down from a challenge. They have the size inside to overwhelm someone that wants to go small-ball and the versatility to match up with teams that want to play big or small. They’re well-coached, they execute offensively and they have a handful of guys that can beat you.

They are a really, really good team, and I apologize to the city of Clemson, the university and the state of South Carolina got not getting here sooner.

Maybe I should have been on the bandwagon earlier, but I’m here now.

No. 7 Nevada rallies from 22 down in second half to stun No. 2 Cincinnati

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Nevada erased a 22-point second-half deficit to stun No. 2 seed Cincinnati with a 75-73 win on Sunday night in a memorable second-round NCAA tournament contest in the South Regional.

Trailing 65-43 with 11:34 left, the Wolf Pack rallied to earn the second-biggest comeback win in NCAA tournament history. Only BYU’s 25-point comeback against Iona during the 2012 First Four was a bigger comeback than Nevada’s historic win.

Jumping out to a 10-0 advantage to open the contest, it looked like Cincinnati would cruise to victory. For most of the game, the Bearcats were barely threatened. Cincinnati led by double-digits for most of the first 30 minutes of the game.

Then Nevada used a 16-0 run to claw back in the game.

With the game tied at 73-all with under a minute left, Nevada took its first, and only, lead of the game on Josh Hall’s bucket with 10 seconds left.

Junior Cody Martin paced the Wolf Pack with 25 points, seven assists and six rebounds as he was a major force behind the comeback. Hall finished with 14 points while Kendall Stephens and Jordan Caroline had 13 points each. Caleb Martin also chipped in 10 points as Nevada featured five double-figure scorers during a balanced comeback.

The Wolf Pack (29-7) now have two furious second-half comebacks in the NCAA tournament this week after Nevada rallied to beat No. 10 seed Texas in the first round. Nevada fought back from 14 down to beat the Longhorns in overtime in that one. Somehow, Nevada one-upped that impressive comeback with one of the most memorable comebacks in NCAA tournament history. With a potent offense, and weapons all over the floor, the Wolf Pack are a dangerous team heading into Atlanta. Clearly, this is a team that you can never count out. Don’t turn your back on the Wolf Pack.

Cincinnati (31-5) failed to make the Sweet Sixteen for a sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance as the Bearcats struggled to hit shots down the stretch. Shooting 5-for-17 from three-point range, Cincinnati couldn’t string together enough shots to keep Nevada at arm’s length once the Wolf Pack got hot. The Bearcat offense grew stagnant down the stretch. Jarron Cumberland (17 points) fouling out with four minutes left was a tremendous blow for Cincinnati. The Bearcats never recovered once one of their best shot-creators was forced to sit.

Jacob Evans led Cincinnati with 19 points while Gary Clark (11 points, 10 rebounds) and Kyle Washington (10 points, 11 rebounds) both finished with double-doubles.

This loss is going to sting for Cincinnati for quite some time. With only one Sweet Sixteen appearance since 2001, the Bearcats had a favorable draw in the South Regional after all of the chaos of this week. The three other top-four seeds in the regional — Virginia, Tennessee and Arizona — had already been eliminated. Loyola is obviously playing good ball, but the Bearcats would have been favored over the No. 11 seed as they attempted to make its first Elite Eight appearance since 1996.

Now, Cincinnati might have to wait a bit for another team to be this good. The AAC champions lose Clark and Washington as both are seniors who have exhausted their eligibility. The Bearcats will still be solid thanks to a promising collection of returning perimeter threats. But they won’t be the same without Clark’s two-way presence and Washington’s versatility in the frontcourt.

The American also suffered with the Cincinnati loss as all three AAC NCAA tournament teams were eliminated before the second weekend. With all three teams owning solid seeds (No. 2, No. 4 and No. 6 seeds) this was not a good showing from the AAC.

Nevada advances to face No. 11 seed Loyola in the South Regional. Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen matchup in Atlanta was completely unexpected as the South Regional has been chaotic so far. Since NCAA tournament seeding began in 1979, the top four seeds in a regional have never all been eliminated heading into the Sweet Sixteen.

Now, we’re looking at either a Mountain West program or a Missouri Valley program playing for the right to advance to the Final Four.

No. 7 Texas A&M upsets No. 2 North Carolina

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Back in January, Texas A&M was a missed Breein Tyree buzzer-beater away from starting SEC play 0-6.

Today, after mollywhopping the defending national champions and the No. 2-seed in the West Region, North Carolina, the Aggies are headed to the Sweet 16.

Texas A&M got 26 points, 22 boards and five blocks combined from Tyler Davis and Robert Williams while shooting 10-for-23 from three in a 86-65 win over the Tar Heels. A 29-8 surge at the end of the first half opened up a 42-28 halftime lead, and North Carolina never found a way to get back into the game after the Aggies landed the first punch in the second half.

We’ll get to North Carolina in a second, because there is going to be plenty to talk about with them, but the story today should be the Aggies, who will advance to take on No. 3-seed Michigan in the Sweet 16.

There is a reason that, all season long, pundits covering the SEC called this group the most talented team in the league. There is a reason that they were a top 20 team in the preseason. There’s a reason that, for all of the losses they suffered and the players that couldn’t find a way to stay healthy and out of off-the-court trouble, they were still a team that was too tantalizing to complete write-off.

And we all saw it come to fruition on Sunday night in Charlotte.

Playing what was a de-facto road game, the Aggies overpowered North Carolina in the paint while holding the Tar Heels to just 33 percent shooting from the field and a 6-for-31 performance from beyond the arc. Williams and Davis were terrific, but Texas A&M’s perimeter players — Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg, T.J. Starks — deserve just as much credit.

Because that has been the biggest question mark with this group from before the season began.

It’s not difficult to look at this Aggie roster and realize just how good their big men are. Williams is a projected lottery pick for a reason. Davis was a preseason first-team all-SEC player for a reason. But Hogg spent his first two seasons on campus as the most inconsistent elite shooter in the sport. Gilder was good when he was healthy, but that wasn’t always the case. The point guard spot? That’s been a revolving door. It was supposed to be Jay Jay Chandler and J.J. Caldwell that played that role, but both of them have been in and out of trouble; Caldwell was dismissed from the team. Duane Wilson took the job over during the middle of the season, but he fully tore his ACL after spending two weeks playing on a partially torn ACL.

Starks inherited the role almost by necessity, and he’s been really good in flashes. When he plays like he did on Sunday — 21 points and five assists on 7-for-15 shooting — this is was A&M can be.

As far as North Carolina is concerned, this loss is disappointing and certainly one that is going to draw headlines, but the fact that this group did enough work to earn themselves a No. 2-seed in the tournament says more about Williams coaching job and the play of Luke Maye than anything else.

It’s a disappointing result, and one I certainly did not see coming, but for a program that thrives on elite bigs to do what they did while essentially playing small-ball is impressive.

Joel Berry II will certainly be missed, but at some point talent wins out in March and the Aggies, the more talented team, came to play on Sunday.

VIDEO: Texas A&M’s Robert Williams delivers another massive NCAA tournament windmill

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Robert Williams windmills are becoming a common trend during the 2018 NCAA tournament.

The Texas A&M sophomore forward threw down another vicious dunk as the Aggies were comfortably ahead of No. 2 seed North Carolina during a second round game in the West Regional on Sunday. Texas A&M eventually pulled off the upset win over the Tar Heels to advance to face No. 3 seed Michigan in next week’s Sweet Sixteen

A potential NBA lottery pick if he leaves after this season, Williams previously punctuated No. 7 seed Texas A&M’s first-round win over No. 10 seed Providence on Friday with another absurd windmill.

That windmill was notable because Williams just missed hitting his head on the backboard.

The second Williams NCAA tournament windmill against North Carolina was a little bit cleaner.

Williams wasn’t the only Aggie to pull off slick moves in an NCAA tournament game on Sunday. In the women’s NCAA tournament, Texas A&M used a late, cold-blooded three-pointer from Chennedy Carter to knock out DePaul to advance.

No. 11 Syracuse upsets No. 3 Michigan State to advance to Sweet Sixteen

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Syracuse continued its string of upsets in the 2018 NCAA tournament on Sunday afternoon as the No. 11 seed Orange knocked off No. 3 seed Michigan State, 55-53, to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the Midwest Regional.

Winners of three straight games after knocking off Arizona State in the First Four and TCU in the first round, Syracuse (23-13) pulled off another impressive victory in front of a very pro-Michigan State crowd in Detroit. Dictating the slow tempo with its 2-3 zone, Syracuse’s defense kept them in the game despite extreme foul trouble, cold perimeter shooting and issues on the defensive glass.

The Orange had to deal with guard Frank Howard (13 points) fouling out with over six minutes left in the game. Center Paschal Chukwu earned three fouls in the first half and had a tough time getting in a rhythm. Tyus Battle led the Orange with 17 points while Oshae Brissett chipped in 15 points to lead the Syracuse offense. Despite making only one three-pointer (1-for-8) and giving up 29 offensive rebounds to Michigan State, the Orange are moving on with another surprising win.

Although the Orange were literally the last team to make it into the field of 68 — and many had a gripe with their inclusion in the 2018 NCAA tournament — they are headed back to the Sweet Sixteen, as a double-digit seed, for the second time in three years.

Syracuse faced a similar situation when they made the Final Four run in 2016. Not many people thought the No. 10 seed Orange deserved to be in the field that year either. But Boeheim and his team surprised everybody by making it to the national semifinals before eventually falling to North Carolina.

The 2016 version of the Orange had multiple pros and four double-figure scorers. Tyler Lydon, Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson all came up huge at times during the team’s NCAA tournament run. Richardson’s second-half domination of Malcolm Brogdon and No. 1 seed Virginia in the Elite Eight might have single-handedly contributed to him being a first-round pick.

The 2018 version of the Orange doesn’t have nearly as much offensive firepower. Battle is a highly-touted former McDonald’s All-American who is capable of going for big scoring games. Brissett has developed his offensive game significantly to the point of also being a steady scorer. Battle and Brissett also don’t have nearly as many weapons around them to help. Howard is only other player besides the duo on the Syracuse roster averaging more than six points per game this season. As a team, Syracuse is only shooting 32 percent from three-point range — one of the worst marks in the country.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim deserves a lot of credit for taking this offensively-challenged team with a short bench to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Detractors might get annoyed by Syracuse’s reliance on the 2-3 zone, but it seems to be working out pretty well for the Orange during the past few NCAA tournaments. The ACC and its coaches seem more prepared to face Syracuse’s 2-3 zone during conference play. But the quick turnaround of the NCAA tournament might make the 2-3 zone a bit tougher to prepare for.

As Wally Szczerbiak astutely noted in the pregame show, Syracuse’s zone makes teams take a lot of awkward shots that they aren’t accustomed to taking. Unfortunately for the Orange, they face a No. 2 seed in Duke in the next round that will already be well-versed on their zone. The Orange and Blue Devils played each other in the ACC in February as Duke won a home game by double-digits in Marvin Bagley III’s return from injury.

It’s not an ideal matchup for Syracuse, but then again, they also took down Virginia with a 16-point second-half comeback two years ago. This year’s tournament has already taught us that anything is possible.

Michigan State (30-5) saw its season end in disappointing fashion as they shot only 25 percent (17-for-66) from the field and 21 percent (8-for-37) from three-point range. Point guard Cassius Winston led Michigan State with 15 points while All-American forward Miles Bridges struggled to a 4-for-18 shooting day to finish with 11 points.

Winston, Bridges, Josh Langford and Matt McQuaid were the only four players to attempt three-pointers for Michigan State on Sunday. None of them could get going. McQuaid’s only make came on an unlikely circus buzzer-beater that was blocked and caught in mid-air.

While a cold-shooting day was the main reason for Michigan State’s demise, head coach Tom Izzo will also be questioned for his strange frontcourt rotation. Senior Ben Carter (23 minutes) and freshman Xavier Tillman (22 minutes) both received more playing time than potential top-10 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. (15 minutes). Veteran senior Gavin Schilling didn’t play after playing 10 minutes per game during the season. Kenny Goins only played three minutes after averaging 14 minutes per contest.

Tillman (12 rebounds) deserved minutes because of his activity on the glass. But Carter had a pedestrian stat line of two points, two rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes of action. In a tight, one-possession game with the season on the line, Carter looked timid in the middle of the Syracuse 2-3 zone. It certainly didn’t help a Michigan State offense that desperately needed a jumpstart from literally anyone who could help.

Jackson has admittedly struggled down the stretch of his freshman season since a scintillating 27-point outing in a Big Ten win over Minnesota in February. He’s also a 39 percent three-point shooter on the season who could have been another floor-spacing option for Michigan State to try. He only attempted four field goals in what will likely be his final college game. It’ll be fascinating to hear Izzo’s logic behind his frontcourt rotation.

This is also a really bad loss for the Spartans. For the second time in three seasons, Michigan State was bounced before the second weekend when many people considered them serious national title contenders. On the recruiting trail, rivals will point out that a top draft pick like Jackson only played 15 minutes in the loss. Bridges generated a lot of positive headlines the last two seasons. The sophomore is also likely headed to the NBA after never making it past the second round.

The Spartans will probably lose a lot of talent this offseason with two potential lottery picks leaving. And with uncertainty looming about Michigan State’s future thanks to an explosive sexual misconduct investigation that was revealed during the season, it’s hard to say how the Spartans will look next season. Athletic director Mark Hollis already resigned and head coach Tom Izzo has fielded numerous questions about the report. That story probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

A program once known for consistency and stability is now facing a potentially tumultuous offseason.