2013-2014 Season Preview: The Top 20 Big Men

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

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

Basketball has five positions, but the way that the sport has grown, particularly at the collegiate level, has produced hybrid players, unusual roster makeups and far too many teams with players that don’t fit into a typical positional category. Few teams actually field a traditional starting five, which is why CBT decided to make our positional rankings reflect that.

We will be ranking:

The final installment of our Top 20 player rankings focuses on the big men, and for all the talk of college basketball being a “guard’s game” post presences are a necessity if a team’s going to win a national title. With NBA Draft eligibility rules being what they are, national champions more often than not have at least one elite big man. Some are bruisers who do the majority of their work inside, while others possess the ability to step out on the perimeter and score as well.

Here’s our list of the Top 20 big men in college basketball:

1. Julius Randle (Kentucky): The 6-foot-9 freshman has the build of a pro already, and the talent is there as well. Incredibly difficult to stop around the basket, Randle is also capable of knocking down perimeter shots. Given how difficult it is to match up with Randle, it’ll be interesting to see how John Calipari utilizes the most talented player on his star-studded roster.

2. Doug McDermott (Creighton): The senior forward, who averaged 23.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game last season, will be in the Big East and national Player of the Year discussions in his senior campaign. With range well out beyond the three-point line, McDermott shot 54.8% from the field and 49.0% from three in 2012-13.

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3. Mitch McGary (Michigan): McGary’s (7.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) played his best basketball at the most important time of the year for the Wolverines, who reached the national title game for the first time since 1993. The 6-foot-10 big man averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 boards in the tournament.

4. Aaron Gordon (Arizona): Gordon’s an elite athlete who finishes above the rim with authority. If Gordon’s able to consistently knock down perimeter looks in addition to his ability to score inside, look out. The key? Gordon needs to embrace being a big man at the college level.

5. Montrezl Harrell (Louisville): Harrell, a role player for last season’s national champions, is expected to play a starring role for the Cardinals as a sophomore. Harrell (5.7, 3.6) is a very physical interior player, and he was dominant at times with the United States Under-19 team in this past summer’s World Championships.

6. Adreian Payne (Michigan State): Payne’s been a tantalizing player for much of his time in East Lansing, and he began to show signs of putting it all together during the latter portion of his junior season. Payne, who averaged 10.5 points and 7.3 boards per game last season, can also knock down perimeter shots when left open. Consistency is the key for Payne.

7. Isaiah Austin (Baylor): The 7-foot-1 Austin may be one of the most skilled players in the country, as he can handle the ball on the perimeter as well as score from just about anywhere on the floor. The question for Austin (13.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg), who’s healthy following offseason shoulder surgery, is whether or not he’s better equipped to handle physical play on a nightly basis in the Big 12.

8. Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee): Pound for pound one of the strongest players in America, Stokes averaged 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game without Jeronne Maymon (knee) available to help him out in the paint. With Maymon healthy, look for Stokes to be even better as a junior.

9. Cory Jefferson (Baylor): Jefferson went from being a role player to being an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection. Currently fifth in school history in blocked shots for a career (117), Jefferson (13.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.9 bpg) shot 61% from the field as a redshirt junior.

10. Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky): Cauley-Stein (8.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.1 bpg) was one of the bright spots in what turned out to be a tough season for the Wildcats. An excellent athlete, the 7-foot big man was an SEC All-Freshman Team selection and he’s expected to play a starring role for Kentucky this season.

TEN MORE NAMES TO KNOW

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  • 11. Le’Bryan Nash (Oklahoma State): It can be argued that Nash should be listed with the wings, but his versatility allows the Cowboys to use him in a variety of ways. He’s already a handful off the dribble and on the block, but he needs to be a better shooter.
  • 12. James Michael McAdoo (North Carolina): Anyone’s guess as to how long P.J. Hairston will be out of the lineup, but regardless of the shooter’s status, McAdoo needs to be a key figure for the Tar Heels this season.
  • 13. Alex Kirk (New Mexico): A good argument could have been made for Kirk winning Mountain West Player of the Year last season over teammate Kendall Williams. Kirk posted averages of 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in 2012-13.
  • 14. Jerrelle Benimon (Towson): The reigning CAA Player of the Year was outstanding for the Tigers in 2012-13, posting averages of 17.1 points and 11.2 rebounds per game.
  • 15. Joel Embiid (Kansas): Embiid’s received high praise from many and he’s yet to play a college game. A bit raw offensively, Embiid will likely do the majority of his damage on the defensive end to start the year.
  • 16. Augustine Rubit (South Alabama): Rubit’s a bit underrated nationally, but the fact of the matter is that he was one of the nation’s most productive big men last season. The Sun Belt Player of the Year averaged 19.4 points and 10.5 rebounds.
  • 17. Dwight Powell (Stanford) : Powell’s expected to have a big year for the Cardinal after averaging 14.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Powell earned first team All-Pac-12 honors and was named the league’s Most Improved Player.
  • 18. Juvonte Reddic (VCU): The last line of defense for the Rams, Reddic emerged as the Atlantic 10’s best big man in 2012-13, averaging 14.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
  • 19. Akil Mitchell (Virginia): Tony Bennett’s big man is one of the most underrated players in the ACC. He averaged 13.1 points and 8.9 boards as a junior and should be a major part in Virginia’s push for an ACC title.
  • 20. Ryan Anderson (Boston College): Anderson is a major reason that BC is expected to surprise a lot of people in the ACC. He averaged 14.9 points and 8.0 boards as a sophomore.

USC lands four-star 2018 guard Elijah Weaver

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USC landed an important commitment for its future on Monday night as four-star Class of 2018 guard Elijah Weaver.

Regarded as the No. 35 overall prospect in the Rivals’ national Class of 2018 rankings, the 6-foot-5 Weaver gives the Trojans a floor leader to build around for the future as he provides great size in the backcourt. Capable of playing multiple guard spots, Weaver has a lot of upside for a program that has done a very solid job of developing backcourt talent under head coach Andy Enfield.

Weaver’s commitment is also important for the Trojans because it comes despite the looming FBI investigation that the program is dealing with thanks to former assistant coach Tony Bland. USC had recently lost a four-star commitment from forward J’Raan Brooks, so the commitment of Weaver is a huge momentum boost for them as they get right back on track in the Class of 2018.

With Weaver in the mix, USC now owns three four-star pledges in the 2018 class as he joins four-star forward Taeshon Cherry and four-star guard Kevin Porter.

Jim Larranaga believes he’s ‘Coach-3’ in FBI investigation

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Despite losing key contributors Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy from last season’s NCAA tournament team, the Miami Hurricanes are expected to be a player both within the ACC and nationally this season. But instead of having the focus solely on the likes of JaQuan Newton, Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker, Jim Larrañaga’s program is also having to deal with the impact of the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball.

While no one connected to the Miami men’s basketball program was arrested last month, the program is referenced in the FBI report. On Monday, Larrañaga stated during a press conference that he believes that he is “Coach-3” in the FBI report. Larrañaga also maintained his innocence, saying that he had done nothing wrong while also being thankful that none of his assistant coaches were involved.

“It’s been a strain, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” Larrañaga said according to the Palm Beach Post. “It’s something that’s there. I have to deal with it. I have the support of my wife and a wonderful family. I have the support of the university, my staff and players.”

According to the FBI report, “Coach-3” requested that payments totaling $150,000 be funneled to “Player-12” in order to ensure his commitment to their university. It has been reported that “Player-12” was 2018 five-star prospect Nassir Little, who has also stated that he had done nothing wrong. Two of the schools recruiting Little at the time, Arizona and Miami, have been entangled in the FBI investigation to varying degrees.

While Miami has not had anyone connected to its program arrested, Arizona assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson was one of the four Division I coaches were were indicted. As a result Little removed both Arizona and Miami from consideration before ultimately committing to North Carolina earlier this month.

There’s no telling what the FBI investigation will ultimately uncover, which for the schools involved could take a heavy toll not only for the 2017-18 season but for future years as well. The FBI case has been comparatively quiet since the first set of indictments, with future moves likely to be influenced by what authorities learn from the ten individuals named in the first announcement.

Miles Bridges discusses being offered money during recruiting process

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With the FBI launching an investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball last month, the entire sport has found itself under the microscope. Ten people, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested and there’s no telling just how long the FBI’s investigation will last or what information it will produce.

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges is considered by many to be the leading candidate for national Player of the Yeah honors, and he had the opportunity to turn pro after a good freshman season. But Bridges made the decision to return to East Lansing, and with that comes questions as to why he would do that as opposed to cashing in on his NBA potential as soon as possible.

In an interview with Brendan Quinn of The Athletic (subscription required) Bridges discussed a host of issues, including being offered money by people while going through the recruiting process.

“I mean, if you get caught, that might be the end of your career. I wanted to play in college really bad,” Bridges told Quinn. “I don’t know — materialistic things, they don’t really get to me. So when people were offering me money, I would say no right away, because I wanted to be able to live out my college experience. But really, I don’t know, it is hard, especially because I was so young at the time — 17.”

Given the ongoing investigation, high-profile players and teams will be on the receiving end of increased scrutiny even if they aren’t part of the FBI probe. It’s an unfair situation for a player like Bridges to deal with, as even in the actual cases of alleged wrongdoing the players themselves are essentially commodities whose services are being auctioned as opposed to the main characters looking to cash in.

Unfortunately, due to recent events a decision like the one made by Bridges will result in some questioning whether or not the player received something from the school or another entity/individual. And that’s a tough — and unfair — thing for a young player to have to deal with.

Broken hand sidelines North Carolina PG Joel Berry II

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North Carolina’s defense of its national title will likely begin without its most important player, as it was announced on Monday that senior point guard Joel Berry II will miss approximately four weeks due to a broken bone in his right hand.

Berry started at the point each of the last two seasons, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in April as the Tar Heels defeated Gonzaga to win the national title. As a junior, Berry averaged 14.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and started 37 of the 38 games in which he played. Berry shot 42.6 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three, with the latter percentage being the best on team amongst players who attempted at least two three-pointers per game.

Berry was named an NBC Sports Preseason Third-Team All-American in late September.

With Berry out of the lineup, North Carolina loses its floor general as well as one of their top perimeter shooters. Sophomore Seventh Woods and freshman Jalek Felton become more important options at the point as a result of Berry’s injury, and the team doesn’t lack for perimeter shooters either with Cameron Johnson, Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams and freshman Andrew Platek all being capable of helping to pick up the slack.

North Carolina opens its regular season on November 10 against Northern Iowa.

Bill Self’s stance on Kansas/Missouri series remains unchanged

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Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, bitter rivals Kansas and Missouri got together on the basketball court for the first time since 2012, with the Showdown for Relief raising $1.75 million for recent hurricane victims. In what was an entertaining game, the Jayhawks won by the final score of 93-87 with point guard Devonté Graham leading the way for the winners with 25 points and ten rebounds.

Kansas finished the game with five players in double figures, including Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman (17 points) and center Udoka Azubuike (16). On the other side freshman Michael Porter Jr. paced four Tigers in double figures with 21 points while younger brother Jontay grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds off the bench.

However despite the excitement for the two rivals being on the same court in any capacity, Sunday’s meeting was different given the circumstances. Following the game Kansas head coach Bill Self was asked about the possibility of the two teams meeting in a regular season game, and he maintained the stance he’s held since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC.

“I’m not going to say never, but I don’t think there’s been any change in our position as far as the university goes,” Self said following Sunday’s exhibition. “I’m the spokesman, I guess, on this but trust me, I’m not the only one that feels that way.”

While it would certainly benefit college basketball if Kansas and Missouri were to renew acquaintances down the line, it is understandable that Self — and maybe some others on the Kansas side of things — would have reservations. The programs, even with the arrival of Cuonzo Martin in Columbia and the freshman class led by the aforementioned Michael Porter Jr., are in different places right now.

The Jayhawks have their sights set on a 14th consecutive Big 12 title and a run at their first national title since 2008, Missouri is looking to fast-track a rebuilding process after struggling mightily under former head coach Kim Anderson. Yet with that being said, the state of the two athletic departments during realignment likely has more to do with the teams not playing each other.

Missouri was a school with options earlier this decade before joining the SEC, but that was not the case for Kansas. Had the Big 12 broken up as some believed would be the case, where would the Jayhawks have landed? Fortunately for the school the Big 12 survived the realignment craze, losing four schools (Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten) and adding TCU and West Virginia to get their membership number to ten.

Given that, the best bet for college basketball fans who want to see this rivalry played during the regular season may be to hope for the programs wind up in the same in-season tournament. Even better, how about the same NCAA tournament region?