Cody Zeller

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.

POSTERIZED: Dennis Smith Jr. takes flight

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While Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz and the Kentucky stars are the freshmen getting all the publicity, Dennis Smith Jr. of N.C. State is quietly sitting as a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

Why?

Because’s he’s a point guard that can do things like this:

Manu Lecomte’s 24 points leads No. 9 Baylor past No. 7 Xavier

KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 10:  Johnathan Motley #5 of the Baylor Bears shoots a free throw against the Texas Longhorns during the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Basketball Tournament at Sprint Center on March 10, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Manu Lecomte finished with 24 points, hitting six threes and dishing out five assists as No. 9 Baylor added to what is unquestionably the best résumé in college basketball on Saturday with a 73-58 win over No. 7 Xavier in Waco.

The Bears have already beaten Louisville, VCU, Michigan State and Oregon this season, so it’s not like we needed anymore confirmation that the Bears were good this year.

But we got it.

Johnathon Motley finished with 17 points and eight boards and Jo Lual-Acuil chipped in with 12 points and six blocks, but it was Lecomte that was the star here. Entering the season, the question everyone had with this Baylor team was whether or not they had enough outside shooting and enough point guard, and it just so happens that Lecomte checks both those boxes.

And frankly, I don’t think anyone knew just how good Lecomte was going to be this season.

The Baylor coaching staff did. Word out of Waco during the preseason was that Lecomte looked great, that his redshirt season did wonders for him as a player, but then again, you hear that about every kid that’s ever sat out a season. With Lecomte, it turned out to be true. And on Saturday, we saw him at his best.

It’s also worth noting here just how important these non-conference wins will be not just for the Bears, but for the Big 12 as a whole. If Baylor can somehow find a way to win the Big 12 regular season title – or maybe even if they finish second in the league and win the Big 12 tournament – they’ll be in a great spot to earn a top four seed in the NCAA tournament. A No. 1 seed isn’t out of the question.

That’s great for the conference as a whole. These wins will significantly help the computer numbers for the league, and it also means that there are going to be more quality wins available for the other teams in the conference during league play.

Put another way, bubble teams won’t have to simply rely on trying to steal a win against Kansas at home if they need to inject some life into their at-large profile in February.

The most impressive part?

Baylor has done all of this despite not getting a single vote in the Preseason AP top 25 poll.

Jaysom Tatum to play tonight for Duke

Jayson Tatum (photo courtesy Duke Athletics)
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Duke announced on Saturday afternoon that Jayson Tatum will return to action against Maine.

Tatum is a top five prospect and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He has been out since late October with a foot injury.

Grayson Allen and Frank Jackson are not expected to play. Allen has been battling a toe injury that has limited his explosiveness this season.

Marques Bolden is expected to return to the lineup soon, and on the pregame show, head coach Mike Krzyzewski said there’s a chance he could play tonight. He’s been out with a lower leg injury.

No. 15 Purdue uses 3-pointers to beat Morehead State 90-56

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Caleb Swanigan #50 of the Purdue Boilermakers celebrates during the game against the Villanova Wildcats at Mackey Arena on November 14, 2016 in West Lafayette, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) Freshman guard Carsen Edwards scored 16 points, and No. 15 Purdue made 11 3-pointers in the first half Saturday on the way to a 90-56 victory over Morehead State.

The Boilermakers (6-2), coming off a Wednesday loss at No. 14 Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, used a 15-0 first-half run to stretch a 10-9 lead to 25-9, and Purdue continued to pull away.

Dakota Mathias added 14 points, and Caleb Swanigan and P.J. Thompson had 13 each for Purdue.

Miguel Dicent had 11 points for Morehead State (2-5), which played without coach Sean Woods, who has been suspended with pay since Nov. 22, when the university launched an official investigation into Woods’ treatment of players.

Purdue made 11 of 20 from 3-point range during the first half when it built a 47-25 lead. Carsen Edwards, who made his first start in place of slumping Vince Edwards, and Mathias made four 3-pointers each in the first half.

The Boilermakers played without fifth-year graduate student transfer point guard Spike Albrecht, who suffered a back injury this week.

BIG PICTURE

Morehead State: With Woods suspended indefinitely, the Eagles are a distracted basketball team, and it shows as their losing streak reached five on Saturday, including 0-3 for acting coach Preston Spradlin.

Purdue: It’s a byproduct of opposing defenses centering their attention on Boilermaker big men Swanigan and Isaac Haas, but Purdue entered this game leading the Big Ten in 3-point field goal shooting percentage at 41.8 and made 55 percent from beyond the arc during the opening half on Saturday.

UP NEXT

Morehead State: The Eagles do not play until going to Lipscomb on Dec. 10.

Purdue: The Boilermakers travel to New York City for a Tuesday night game against Arizona State in the Jimmy V. Classic.

 

SATURDAY’S SNACKS: Big road wins for UCLA, West Virginia

MADISON, WI - DECEMBER 03:  Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers is defended by Kristian Doolittle #11 of the Oklahoma Sooners during the first half of a game at the Kohl Center on December 3, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 11 UCLA 97, No. 1 Kentucky 92

This one was a ton of fun to watch as UCLA shook off a sluggish start to run past Kentucky at Rupp Arena. CBT’s Rob Dauster has the story on this one and why it was important for both teams.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

No. 25 West Virginia 66, No. 6 Virginia 57: Bob Huggins’ group has a potential signature victory as West Virginia won a big one on the road. I have more about why this one is particularly important for West Virginia here.

No. 9 Baylor 76, No. 7 Xavier 61: The Bears added to what is the best résumé in college basketball with an impressive win over a very good Xavier team. Manu Lecomte was the star of the show, finishing with 24 points and five assists. We went in depth on this game here.

STARRED

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: After just missing a triple-double in a big win over Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge earlier this week, Hayes dominated in a 90-70 win over Oklahoma with 28 points on 10-for-13 shooting. Hayes made both of his three-point attempts and also added six assists and two rebounds. Hayes is playing like an All-American lately.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Speaking of All-American caliber play, the senior guard put up a triple-double in the Wildcats’ 88-57 win over Saint Joseph’s as he finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Hart was 6-for-10 from the field and 3-for-6 from three-point territory as he had a tremendous outing.

Sebastian Saez, Ole Miss: Underrated nationally, the senior forward had his fourth double-double of the year with 20 points and 16 rebounds in a win over Memphis. Saez also added three blocks as he now has 12 or more rebounds in five games this season.

Anthony Livingston, Texas Tech: The Red Raiders needed three free throws from Livingston with under three seconds left for a one-point win over Rice as Livingston finished with 33 points and seven rebounds.

Collin Smith, George Washington: Also knocking in a huge go-ahead bucket was Smith as his three-pointer with three seconds left gave the Colonials a win over USF. Smith ended up with 22 points and eight rebounds.

STRUGGLED

E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island: Matthews finished 3-for-13 from the floor with just nine points as No. 21 Rhode Island lost their second straight game, this time falling to Providence, 63-60, on the road.

JeQuan Lewis, VCU: Lewis had 23 points and 11 assists in a come-from-behind win over Princeton during the week, but he had just three points and one assists – and turned an ankle – in a 64-46 loss to Illinois in Miami on Saturday.

San Diego State: The Aztecs took a 65-59 loss to Loyola (IL) on Saturday, a loss that puts SDSU is an all-too-familiar hole: Bad losses on their résumé that they won’t be able to make up for in league play.

TOP 25

  • Using a balanced scoring effort, No. 15 Purdue picked up an easy home win over Morehead State. Freshman guard Carsen Edwards knocked down four triples to finish with a team-high 16 points while Caleb Swanigan and P.J. Thompson both finished with 13 points and six assists.
  • Kelan Martin went for 30 points as No. 18 Butler knocked off Central Arkansas, 82-58.
  • Andrew White hit seven threes and finished with 26 points while Franklin Howard chipped in with 13 assists for No. 22 Syracuse as they held on to beat North Florida, 77-71, in the Carrier Dome.

NOTABLE

  • Solid win for Wake Forest on the road at Richmond as John Collins had 16 points, 13 rebounds.