2014-15 Season Preview: Jahlil Okafor, Frank Kaminsky lead a strong crop of big men

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Frank Kaminsky (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

We’ve already gone over the other positional rankings on CBT this week but now we get to the big men. You’ll see a lot of new faces on the list this year, because the incoming group of freshman has a lot of talented McDonald’s All-Americans playing in the post that should contribute right away. But there are plenty of experienced post cogs as well and some that are versatile inside-outside threats with the ability to stretch the floor.

POSITION RANKINGS: Lead Guards | Off Guards | Wing Forwards | Big Men

THE TOP TEN

1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: It’s high praise for a true freshman to be ranked No. 1 on this list, but then again, Okafor isn’t your typical college freshman. Many viewed Okafor as the No. 1 player in the country in the 2014 class and the 6-foot-11 center is patient, skilled and comes from a winning pedigree. Okafor was a major factor for USA Basketball during his high school career and enters Duke as an instant double-team threat whenever he gets his mitts on a post touch. Coach K will ride his new center as far as he can take him.

2. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Now a senior, the 7-foot Kaminsky had a breakout junior season, averaging 13.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 52 percent field-goal shooting, 76 percent free-throw shooting and 37 percent three-point shooting. A rare inside-outside offensive threat at center, Kaminsky can be a nightmare to defend because he can stretch the floor, is a patient passer and doesn’t force too many shots. If the Wisconsin big man has a weakness, it’s on the defensive end, where he’s an average rebounder and positional defender on his own.

3. Karl Towns, Jr., Kentucky: You’ll see plenty of Kentucky big men on this list — and quite fairly, as they’re all McDonald’s All-Americans with a lot of talent — but the 6-foot-11 freshman might be the most talented and productive of them all in 2014-15. Towns was a member of the Dominican Republic’s senior national team as a 16-year-old and has steadily improved his overall game ever since. During the Wildcats’ summer exhibition tour in the Bahamas, Towns, at times, looked like the team’s most talented overall player and he’s more offensively skilled than any other Kentucky center.

4. Georges Niang, Iowa State: Niang will be one of the most intriguing big men in the country this season thanks to his offseason weight loss and increased role. The 6-foot-8 junior averaged 16.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last season, but when you consider he was often the Cyclones’ third offensive option, that’s impressive. Skilled enough to step out and hit the long ball, if Niang can improve his 32 percent three-point shooting, he could be virtually unstoppable on the offensive end thanks to his off-balance post looks and mid-range game.

RELATED: The nation’s Top 20 Frontcourts | And Top 20 Perimeters

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Montrezl Harrell (AP Photo)

5. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: Harrell was one of the top big men in the country last season as the powerful 6-foot-8 junior averaged 14 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1 steal per game for one of the best teams in the country. The high-motor Harrell never seems to take a play off and he’s relentless on the glass and around the rim when hunting for dunks. If Montrezl can improve his mid-range jumper — which looked shaky in August at adidas Nations — he could take another step forward this season.

6. Perry Ellis, Kansas: The 6-foot-8 junior had a breakthrough sophomore season, as the Kansas native averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game on 54 percent shooting. Skilled enough to hit jumpers, but tough enough to play on the interior, Ellis shot a respectable 76 percent from the free-throw line and even made 8 of 17 three-pointers last season to help keep the defense honest. Ellis also thrives on doing the little things like setting off-ball screens and sealing opposing defenses so his wings have a free lane to the hoop.

7. Cliff Alexander, Kansas: Alexander comes into his freshman season with a big reputation thanks to his bruising 6-foot-8 frame and a dunk-at-all-costs attitude. Seriously, this dude lives to dunk on people and we’ll probably see Big Cliff  deliver some posters throughout the college basketball season. Besides his affinity for dunks, Alexander is a tremendous rebounder and is more skilled with the ball in his hands than people give him credit for. His jumper takes a little bit too long to get out of his hands right now, but it’s workable with the increased reps and practice time Alexander is sure to get in Lawrence.

MORE: Breakout StarsCoaches on the Hot Seat | Mid-Major Power RankingsAll-Americans

8. Brandon Ashley, Arizona: After Ashley broke his foot in February of last season, Arizona went from a national championship contender to falling just short of the Final Four. The 6-foot-9 Ashley can do it all for the Wildcats as he averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field, 75 percent from three-point range and 37 percent from the three-point line. With Ashley back in the lineup, Sean Miller’s offense can spread the floor or attack on the interior by using Ashley in whichever way creates a mismatch.

9. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: It’s really a shame that Cauley-Stein injured his ankle in the Sweet 16 win against Louisville, because it caused the 7-footer to miss the rest of the tournament. But if you’re looking for positives, that injury likely kept the 7-foot junior in school and he returns to Kentucky as one of the best defensive big men in the nation. Cauley-Stein averaged 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game as a sophomore and passed up a guaranteed first-round spot in the NBA Draft to return to Lexington.

10. Trey Lyles, Kentucky: The 6-foot-10 freshman was also a McDonald’s All-American and gives Kentucky a versatile and skilled offensive player. The Indianapolis native can face-up and make plays or score on the block using hooks or short jumpers. Lyles should also be able to rebound well for Kentucky and he’s not afraid to mix it up a bit down low.

THE NEXT TEN

  • 11. Jordan Mickey, LSU: Overlooked by recruiting analysts, the 6-foot-8 Mickey put up great numbers during his freshman season, averaging 12.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game.
  • 12. Jonathan Holmes, Texas: The 6-foot-8 senior increased his shooting percentages (50% FG, 74% FT, 33% 3PT) and his averages (12.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg) across the board in helping Texas get back to the NCAA Tournament last season.
  • 13. Myles Turner, Texas: Another McDonald’s All-American, the 6-foot-11 freshman gives Rick Barnes another shot blocker on the interior, but Turner also has a smooth perimeter stroke.
  • 14. Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara: The pride of the Big West, the 6-foot-8 Williams averaged 21.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game during his junior season.
  • 15. Bobby Portis, Arkansas: An impressive freshman season has NBA people talking highly of the 6-foot-11 sophomore. Portis put up 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1 steal per game last season.
  • 16. Dakari Johnson, Kentucky: The 7-foot sophomore was the starting center on a team that played in the national championship game and is now considered the fourth best big man on the roster. Johnson did lose 20 pounds this offseason and additional mobility should make him that much better.
  • 17. Josh Scott, Colorado: The 6-foot-10 junior has had two productive seasons for Colorado and averaged 14.1 points, 8.4 rebounds per game last season on 51 percent shooting and 81 percent free-throw shooting.
  • 18. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina: Incredibly productive in limited minutes as a freshman (7.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg in 16.3 mpg), expectations are high for the 6-foot-9 big man after his offseason weight loss. And keep an eye on Meeks this season as a skilled outlet passer for North Carolina’s transition breaks.
  • 19. Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette: The 6-foot-9 junior has averaged a double-double in each of his first two seasons and averaged 18.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game last season 52 percent field-goal shooting and 42 percent three-point shooting.
  • 20. Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: Much like Meeks, Hayes was very productive in limited minutes last season and should see his role increase this season in Madison. The 6-foot-7 sophomore averaged 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game in 17.4 minutes a game last season.

ALSO CONSIDERED: A.J. Hammons (Purdue), Markus Kennedy (SMU), Justin Sears (Yale), JayVaughn Pinkston (Villanova), Jarell Martin (LSU), Kevon Looney (UCLA), Chris Walker (Florida), Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona)

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.