The NCAA tournament’s best big men

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Yesterday, our Eric Angevine highlighted the nation’s most prominent back court studs. But you’re not going to win the NCAA tournament without big uglies in the paint anchoring the front court. Here are the best of the bigs that you need to know:

(CLICK HERE: To browse through the rest of our 2013 NCAA Tournament Previews)

Anthony Bennett, UNLV: There aren’t many players in the country more exciting than Anthony Bennett. The 6-foot-7 combo-forward can soar, using his physical frame to throw down some of the most impressive dunks that we’ve seen this season. Oh, and he has also been known to hit three or four threes in a row, and if that’s not enough, he has good enough handle to cross you over and get to the rim. It’s a matter of effort and consistency with Bennett, which is why he’s such a scary talent. What happens if he puts it all together for three weeks?

Jake Cohen and De’Mon Brooks, Davidson: I have Davidson knocking off Marquette in the opening round of the tournament, and the biggest reason is the combination of Cohen and Brooks up front. Both are versatile scorers up that can score with their back to the basket or facing up, which will create matchup problems for Buzz Williams’ team.

Gorgui Dieng, Louisville: Dieng’s presence around the rim is one of the biggest reasons that Louisville’s defense is so tough. The Cardinal guards would be out pressuring on the perimeter whether or not Dieng was camped out under the rim, but it sure makes it easier to gamble for a steal when you know that getting beat only means someone has to finish over Dieng.

Colton Iverson, Colorado State: The reason the Rams are as good as they are this season? Rebounding. They’re the best in the country when it comes to hitting the glass, and Iverson is the anchor, averaging a double-double. He can also score in the paint, which should make him tough for teams to matchup with.

Alex Kirk, New Mexico: Kirk is the x-factor for the Lobos. He can score with his back to the basket and step out and hit a three. His emergence on the offensive end of the floor is one of the reasons that New Mexico went from being atrocious on that end of the floor to respectable. He’s also legitimately seven-feet tall, which gives the Lobos an anchor to matchup with the biggest of the big men.

CJ Leslie, NC State: Leslie is the x-factor for NC State. He’s by far their most talented player, but he’s also the most enigmatic member of the Wolfpack. He hasn’t even been the best post player this year, as that title falls to Richard Howell. NC State has the talent to make the Sweet 16, but they are going to need a pair of great games out of Leslie.

Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota: Mbakwe has the ability to dominate the paint when he wants to, and he’ll have the opportunity to do just that against a UCLA team that is allergic to rebounding. When Minnesota upset Indiana last month, it was Mbakwe that set the tone from the tip. He’ll have to do the same this month for the Gophers to turnaround their fortunes.

Doug McDermott, Creighton: The nation’s most versatile and efficient scorer. He moves without the ball, he can hit threes, he can score in the post, he can beat you off the dribble, he is as good as anyone in the country at holding position in the paint. Good luck, Cincinnati.

Muke Muscala, Bucknell: Muscala’s a throw-back big man, a 6-foot-11 center that can score with his back to the basket by going over either shoulder. He’ll be matched up with Butler’s Andrew Smith in the opening round of the tournament, so he’ll have his work cut out for him.

source:  Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, Gonzaga: The best front court in the country. Olynyk is brutally efficient offensively while Harris has redefined himself since a terrific freshman season, becoming a role-player, defender and leader. Oh, and how can you argue against the hair?

Mason Plumlee, Duke: Plumlee should be thanking Ryan Kelly’s foot for getting healthy by tournament time. Without Kelly on the floor, the Duke center will now have a chance to go one-on-one on the block on every touch. If he gets doubled, he simply will need to find one of Duke’s four knock-down shooters that has been left open.

Otto Porter, Georgetown: What makes Porter so dangerous is that there are so many things that he’s able to do with the ball. He can drive and get to the rim. He can pull-up and hit an NBA-range three. He’s a very good passer. He can score in the post. You want the ball in his hands because you know he’s not only going to take advantage of what the defense is giving him, but he’s going to make the right decision with the ball.

Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State: Thomas is one of the toughest players to matchup with in this tournament. He plays the four for the Buckeyes, and he’s even been playing the five-spot of late as Thad Matta is experimenting with a smaller lineup. That’s dangerous before Thomas is such a good scorer. He can hit threes, he can face-up from 15 feet, he can get all the way to the rim.

Jeff Withey, Kansas: Withey can dominate a game on the defensive end of the floor. He’s that good of a shotblocker, and with the number of big, athletic wings that Kansas has on the perimeter, it makes the Jayhawks a very good defensive team.

Cody Zeller, Indiana: Zeller is simply the best low-post scorer in the country. Indiana has made more of an effort to pound the ball inside to him late in the season, which is a good thing for the Hoosiers. The more touches that Zeller gets, the better chance Indiana is going to have of winning the national title. He needs to be their go-to guy.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

DiVincenzo to test NBA draft waters

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The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player is testing the water to see if the NBA will let him have next.

Villanova announced on Thursday that Donte DiVincenzo, who scored a career-high 31 points in the national title game two weeks ago, will declare for the draft but will not hire an agent so as to preserve his collegiate eligibility.

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” stated Wildcats head coach Jay Wright. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

At this point, every relevant Villanova player has announced what their intention is for the NBA draft. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are heading to the NBA. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall are returning to school, and barring a shock decision to transfer or to declare for the draft, both Collin Gillispie and Jermaine Samuels will be as well.

That leaves Divincenzo and Omari Spellman, both of whom have declared for the draft without signing with an agent.

What those two decide to do could end up determining who college basketball’s best is next season, and there is no easy answer here for either of them.

We’ve been over this with Spellman already. At 6-foot-9, Spellman is already an elite shooter for someone his size. He’s also down to a svelte 245 pounds, which has turned him into a much more impressive athlete than he was when he first arrived on the Main Line. He’s more explosive. He’s a better shot-blocker and rebounder. He’s much better at attacking closeouts. As it stands, he’s got a shot to be a late first round pick should he remain in the draft.

The same can be said for DiVincenzo, a 6-foot-5 off-guard that is a streaky scorer with range and athleticism that can operate in ball-screens actions. He’s coming off one of the most impressive performances that we’ve seen in a national title game ever, which means that the memory that everyone is going to have of DiVincenzo is of him raining threes, blocking players at the rim and winking into the crowd.

But that’s not what NBA scouts are going to necessarily remember of him.

Villanova might not have been appointment viewing for people that wanted to see the next crop of superstars play, but they were on every NBA team’s list of teams that they needed to see. That’s what happens when there are five potential pros on the roster, including a top ten pick in Bridges and the National Player of the Year in Brunson.

Put another way, NBA personnel are very, very familiar with DiVincenzo. They know that he is a streaky scorer that can go off for 20 points in a half or 30 points in a game. They know that he is a plus athlete that can guard different positions despite the fact that his wingspan is all that massive. They also know he is a guy who doesn’t always make great decisions and can really struggle when he has to handle the ball against pressure.

Like Spellman, DiVincenzo is a borderline first round pick that is more likely to end up being snatched up in the early-to-mid second round if they remain in the draft.

The question they need to ask themselves is whether or not they feel that where they get selection could be drastically altered by returning to school, and I do think there is some reason to believe that to be the case. For starters, there are places where both players can improve to become more highly-regarded prospects, but I think what would be more relevant is that, if they both do return, we could be looking at a situation where both are preseason all-americans for a preseason top three team.

Hell, I don’t think it’s out of the question that DiVincenzo will be a Preseason National Player of the Year candidate, Spellman a preseason first-team all-american and Villanova the preseason No. 1 team in the country.

And if that is the case, one would assume that DiVincenzo — like Bridges and Josh Hart before him — could put together the kind of season that would see him shoot up draft boards. The same with Spellman.

But what’s more relevant for this space is that with both of those players in the fold, Villanova would once again be a national title contender and the overwhelming favorite to win a down-Big East conference.

Without them?

Villanova will be looking at having a rotation that includes three sophomores and three freshmen, which is not close to the ideal for Jay Wright. They’ll still be good, but we won’t be talking about them as a team that can win a title, at least not at the start of the season.

There is no hyperbole when I say that what DiVincenzo and Spellman decide to do will drastically alter the landscape of college basketball for the 2018-19 season.

Paschall, Booth to return for senior seasons with Villanova

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Villanova announced on Thursday morning that both Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be returning for their senior seasons with the Wildcats.

“Phil and Eric are two of the cornerstone leaders of our team,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “Each of them is widely respected by their teammates, not just for their talent, but for the kind of young men they are. We are thrilled that they will help lead our team again as seniors.”

Booth, a 6-foot-3 guard, is a redshirt senior from Maryland that averaged 10 points and 3.2 boards this past season despite dealing with a broken bone in his shooting hand that held him out of the lineup for seven games during Big East play. Paschall is a 6-foot-6 wing that started 38 games and averaged 10.6 points and 5.3 boards this past season, his second with Villanova after transferring into the program from Fordham.

There was some question that Paschall could end up declaring for the NBA draft. He is a redshirt junior and, given his athleticism, defensive versatility and ability to knock down threes, he would be an intriguing second round prospect and a potential role player at the NBA level. His return is big, because he is the piece that allows Villanova to be able to switch 1-through-4 without much worry, and he’ll allow sophomore Jermaine Samuels and incoming freshman Cole Swider to have another year before they are relied upon as heavily as they would be without him.

As good as Booth is at the college level, he’s not likely to end up being an NBA player. The concern is that, like Mikal Bridges and Paschall, is he was a senior from an education perspective, meaning that he could have earned his degree and moved on to the professional ranks. He will be an important veteran presence on the floor, and the kind of program piece that will help bridge the gap between last season’s title-winning team and the next crop of youngsters on the roster.

Arizona lands Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther

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Arizona landed a key addition for its frontcourt on Wednesday as Pitt transfer forward Ryan Luther pledged to the Wildcats.

The 6-foot-9 Luther is expected to receive a hardship waiver that would give him immediate eligibility, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com, as Arizona gets some much-needed help up front.

Playing in 10 games last season before a stress reaction in his right foot ended the season, Luther averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds per game for the Panthers. In his final game of the season, Luther went for 13 points and 12 rebounds in a Pitt loss to West Virginia. Luther shot 45 percent from the field and is a noted perimeter threat as he was 38 percent from behind the three-point line.

Luther hasn’t logged heavy minutes as a contributor through a full season. Mostly a role player at Pitt until last season, Luther was the team’s most productive player when he was on the floor. But that production also didn’t come during ACC play and through the course of a full season.

Thankfully at a program like Arizona, Luther should have a bit more help around him. He could be a nice addition to the Wildcats, particularly if he rebounds and spaces the floor in the frontcourt as he did at Pitt. Arizona needed someone like Luther to provide more stability after losing players like Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.

In the last few weeks, Arizona has rebounded nicely to land three commitments for next season — including freshmen Devonaire Doutrive and Omar Thielemans. The group isn’t as heralded as some past Arizona recruiting efforts. Given where the Wildcats were in recruiting a few weeks ago, however, this isn’t a bad turnaround.

TCU extends Jamie Dixon’s contract by two more years

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TCU has given head coach Jamie Dixon a two-year contract extension through the 2023-24 season, according to a release from the school.

Dixon took the Horned Frogs to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years this season as he’s done a great job of turning around his alma mater. The release also notes that TCU had the highest average attendance in program history this season. Fans are also taking notice of a revitalized team.

With back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason appearances, Dixon and TCU have a lot of positive momentum going on right now. The two-year extension for Dixon should help a bit in recruiting when it comes to overall stability, as well, as he’s been able to attract some quality talent so far.

Report: Kevin Ollie claims UConn violated rights with firing

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Fired former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is claiming that the school violated his constitutional rights during his departure.

Ollie sent a letter to UConn school president Susan Herbst which was obtained by ESPN’s Myron Medcalf in a report released on Wednesday. Ollie’s lawyers are claiming the school proceeded with his firing before giving Ollie a proper chance to contest his termination — which was guaranteed in his contract and also the collective bargaining agreement with the University of Connecticut’s branch of the American Association of University Professors. Ollie was fired, with cause, in late March as the school mentioned an NCAA inquiry as the reason why. According to Medcalf’s report, the NCAA has not sent a notice of allegations to the school.

Ollie’s union membership includes thousands of faculty members around the country as the collective bargaining agreement demands a hearing process before any employee can be terminated for allegations of serious misconduct. Ollie claims he didn’t receive a letter he was supposed to get to begin the termination process.

“From our review of the facts and circumstances relating to Coach Ollie’s employment status, it is apparent that the University of Connecticut has already violated [Coach Ollie’s] rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by subverting Coach Ollie’s opportunity to respond to charges and evidence in a meaningful way in advance of the decision to terminate his employment,” said the letter dated April 3.

“The public record, action taken, and authorized communications by representatives of the University of Connecticut, demonstrate that the decision to terminate Coach Ollie has already been made and therefore the University of Connecticut has effectively negated Coach Ollie’s property right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

This letter to UConn likely begins a long legal battle to try to get an eight-figure payout back as Ollie is going to do everything he can to clear his name.