Looking at the top big men in the 2014 NCAA Tournament

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PREVIEWSEast Region South Region | Midwest Region West Region

A presence in the paint can go a long way this time of year. Look no further than last year’s national title game. Gorgui Dieng manned the frontline for national champion Louisville. In the title game the Cardinals topped Michigan, which had freshman center Mitch McGary emerge as the tournament’s breakout star. 

Here’s a look at 12 of the most important wing forwards in the 2014 NCAA Tournament:

MORELead Guards | Off-Guards | Wing Forwards

Adreian Payne, Michigan State — One of three key players for Michigan State who dealt with injuries this season, but we’ve seen how dangerous Sparty can be when healthy. Payne averaged 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the field and stretching out the opposing frontcourts, hitting 42 percent of his threes. He and Keith Appling will try and keep Tom Izzo’s streak of seniors reaching the Final Four alive.

Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico — The Lobos won the Mountain West Conference Tournament and a big reason to their success this season has been Bairstow’s improvement. He went from 9.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as a junior to 20.3 and 7.4 a night as a senior, and can be tough to defend on the block. With Bairstow, fellow big man Alex Kirk and 2013 Mountain West Player of the Year, Kendall Williams, it isn’t crazier to think New Mexico could reach the Elite 8.

Montrezl Harrell, Louisville — There were big expectations from Harrell to go from role player to star and the sophomore forward has not disappointed. He’s recorded five double-doubles in Louisville’s last 11 games and is posting averages of 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. In the Midwest Region, you won’t find many bigs as physical as Harrell. Teams like Wichita State and Duke could have trouble stopping him inside.

Frank Kaminksy, Wisconsin — This is a different offensive team than Wisconsin has had in the past. A main reason for that is the emergence of Kaminsky. The junior center only logged a little over 10 minutes a game for the Badgers last season, but this year he’s given them a versatile frontcourt option. He can score down low, and he can stretch the defense with deep shooting. Will he help the Wisconsin offensive attack get Bo Ryan to his first Final Four?

Patric Young, Florida — While he won’t necessarily intimidate anyone with his offensive skill set, he’s is a force down low on defense in a big frontline for the Gators. The SEC Defensive Player of the Year is one of the best post defenders in the country with the size and foot speed to gain position on the block and in the paint. Florida has a roster where players know their roles. Young is no exception.

MORE: Eight teams that will win it all Eight teams that won’t win it all

James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina — The Tar Heels have been hot and cold this season, and enter the tournament with two straight losses with a matchup against a Providence riding the momentum of a Big East Tournament championship. When Marcus Paige and McAdoo, who is averaging 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, are on, North Carolina is a sleeper in the East Region.

Sam Dower, Gonzaga — Marcus Smart has played well since returning from suspension, but Oklahoma State is in for a challenge in the Round of 64. Without Michael Cobbins, the Pokes will have a disadvantage inside against Gonzaga’s Sam Dower. After averaging 15.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 59 percent from the field, the Zags forward could be in for a huge first game of the NCAA tournament.

Cory Jefferson, Baylor — Take away the Big 12 Tournament loss to Iowa State and Jefferson had a string of really good games, posting three straight double-doubles. He and Isaiah Austin are playing well together for a team that dug itself in the conference basement earlier this season. Jefferson and the Bears can bust some brackets with their size on the frontline.

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee — The Volunteers haven’t even reached the Round of 64 as they take on Iowa in the First Four on Wednesday. The junior forward could be a big reason why Tennessee could advance to play UMass. Stokes is averaging a double-double per game and can control the defensive glass against the Hawkeyes.

Joel Embiid, Kansas* — He entered Lawrence with a high ceiling, which quickly turned into the projected top overall draft pick in 2014. However, Embiid has been sidelined with a back injury, putting Kansas’ title hopes in question. Embiid went for 18 points, six rebound and blocked four shots against New Mexico in the regular season back in December. That’s a potential Round of 32 game and without him in the lineup, the Lobo frontline (mentioned above) could send the Jayhawks home early.

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.