Ranking College Basketball’s Top Front Courts

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Where it was tough to whittle down the back courts to just 15 teams, for the front lines, it was tougher to find 15 units that we truly thought were potentially dominant. Whether it was a result of a lack of depth or a lack of star power, the back end of this list didn’t feel all that overpowering.

Here are the 15 teams with the best big men:

1. Gonzaga (Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis)

The Zags ended up winning out on this list for the simple fact that there isn’t another program in the country with three big men that are as good as this trio. Wiltjer is a prototype stretch four with shooting splits that are reminiscent of Doug McDermott. Karnowski is the rim protector, a 7-foot-1 behemoth that has developed a solid offensive repertoire that includes baby hooks and the ability to dive to the rim in ball-screens actions. And Sabonis may actually be the best of the three, a throwback power forward that plays physical, sets hard screens and is always looking to hit the glass.

As a whole, however, I’m personally not sold, although my colleagues don’t necessarily agree with me. I think Wiltjer is a defensive liability and I worry about lineup flexibility; can you get all three on the floor at the same time? Can Sabonis and Karnowski both be on the court without the shooting of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to spread the floor? If the answer to those questions is yes, than Gonzaga should be a top 15 team. If not, it’s a much different story.

2. North Carolina (Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Joel James, Luke Maye)

When the casual ACC hoops fan thinks of North Carolina basketball, they probably think of an uptempo, run-and-gun team built around Roy Williams’ patented secondary break offense. And while that’s true, the best North Carolina teams have always had a couple of big bodies that commanded double-teams on the block. Sean May turned into Tyler Hansbrough who eventually became Tyler Zeller. None of UNC’s bigs have that kind of lottery pick potential, but Meeks, Johnson and James are all above average post scorers. Hicks struggles with his confidence in games, but he’s routinely one of UNC’s best players in practice. If he can put it together this season, the Tar Heels will reach another level.

3. Kentucky (Skal Labissiere, Isaac Humphries, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis)

On paper, Kentucky probably has the most raw talent along their front line. The problem is that none of their five players have proven anything at the college level. Lee has been good in flashes but has yet to play extended minutes. Poythress struggled with his position identity before tearing his ACL. Humphries is a freshman that enrolled a year early. Willis has always been projected as an end of the rotation kind of guy. Labissiere has the talent to be the National Player of the Year, but until we see how he transitions to the college level, it’s tough to know whether he’s going to be great or just simply good. The good news? It’s hard to imagine all five failing to live up to their individual potential.

4. Maryland (Robert Carter, Diamond Stone, Damonte Dodd, Michael Cevosky)

I’m probably higher on this Maryland group that anyone mostly because I love the potential of running high-low offense through Diamond Stone and Robert Carter. Stone is the name you know. A 6-foot-10 four man that can play on the perimeter, he’s a top ten recruit and a potential one and done player. But Carter is the guy that has gotten all the hype since practice started. He averaged 11.4 points and 8.4 boards at Georgia Tech before sitting out last season and shedding a good 20 pounds. Dodd and Cevosky are both better than adequate subs as well.

RELATED: Top back courts in college basketball | Top 100 Players

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A.J. Hammons (Getty Images)

5. Purdue (A.J. Hammons, Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan)

Like Gonzaga, I love Purdue’s big men individually even if I don’t love them as a group. Hammons, when he’s dialed in, is one of the best big men in the country. He was, more often than not, dialed in last season. Haas is a 7-foot-2 center that showed tons of promise as a freshman, while Edwards, another sophomore, has a chance to be a star at the three after a very good freshman season. Throw in Biggie Swanigan, a McDonald’s All-American and a terrific low-post scoring threat, and Matt Painter is going to have some legendary battles in practice. But Haas and Hammons can’t play at the same time. Can Purdue function offensively with Swanigan at the four and Hammons or Haas at the five?

6. Baylor (Rico Gathers, Jonathan Motley, Taureen Waller-Prince)

I love this Baylor group. Waller-Prince is as underrated as anyone in the country, Gathers is an absolute bully in the paint and Motley has a chance to be this season’s breakout star in the Big 12. When all three are on the floor together — which is possible given Waller-Prince’s versatility — they’re going to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The problem? Depth. If Jo Acuil can’t get cleared (he has a heart issue, as if Baylor hasn’t had enough of those), the Bears will have to rely on Terry Maston, who played 11 games as a freshman.

7. Kansas (Cheick Diallo, Perry Ellis, Hunter Mickelson, Carlton Bragg, Jamari Traylor, Landon Lucas)

It was hard to know what to do with Kansas here. Bragg is promising, Mickelson and Lucas should be serviceable and Ellis should once again put up first-team all-Big 12 caliber numbers. That’s a good front line, but one that should be closer to No. 15 than No. 7. But if Diallo gets eligible, that changes things, as he’s precisely the piece their missing, an athletic, 6-foot-9 four that plays hard, runs the floor, defends and crashes the glass. He’s everything that Cliff Alexander wasn’t last year, and makes Kansas so much better. He’s also not yet cleared to play. So we slotted them here.

8. Utah (Jakob Poeltl, Brekkot Chapman, Jordan Loveridge, Kyle Kuzma, Chris Reyes)

I like the mix that Larry Krystkowiak has at his disposal here. Poeltl is an elite rim protector with a chance at being a lottery pick, Loveridge is a veteran scoring presence that can space the floor and Chapman and Kuzma are talented sophomores with bright futures. Losing Delon Wright is going to hurt the Utes, but the reason they’ll remain in hunt for a Pac-12 title.

9. Vanderbilt (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet, Djery Baptiste, Jeff Roberson, Samir Sehic)

There’s a chance that Vandy’s ranking here could look far too low by the end of the season. We expect Jones to be a star this season, potentially as the best center in all of college basketball. Baptiste and Roberson both look like quality rotation players and Sehic, a freshman, is an undersized four that always seemed to be able to produce regardless of competition at the high school level. Kornet is the x-factor. People around the program expect the 7-foot-1 sharpshooter to have a big season. If he lives up to the hype, the Commodores will be very dangerous.

Damian Jones (AP Photo)
Damian Jones (AP Photo)

10. UNLV (Stephen Zimmerman, Dwayne Morgan, Ben Carter, Goodluck Okonoboh, Derrick Jones)

There is so much talent on this front line. So much. Morgan and Okonoboh were high profile recruits in the Class of 2014, Jones — a freshman — will be the nation’s best dunker this season and Carter was a starter at Oregon. Zimmerman is the best of a bunch, a versatile, 7-foot lefty whose biggest strength is his ability to pass the ball. Can they live up to their potential is the major question mark here.

11. Virginia (Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Isaiah Wilkins, Jarrod Reuter)

Losing Darion Atkins, who was so, so good for the Cavs on the defensive end of the floor, is a bigger blow than some may realize. But Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are both above average post scorers and Isaiah Wilkins is an intriguing prospect that had some promising moments last season. As with just about everyone on Tony Bennett’s roster, these guys are better than their numbers will suggest.

12. Arizona (Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson, Mark Tollefsen, Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche)

Even with Ray Smith done for the year with a torn ACL, the Wildcats deserve a place on this list. That’s what happens when you have this much quality depth. But who is a star in this group? Who scares opposing scouts? Zeus has never lived up to the billing of being a top ten prospect, scouts love Ristic but he has yet to beat out Zeus, Comanche is a freshman that needs a year or two and Tollefson is a transfer from San Francisco. Anderson, who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 boards at BC, is the best of the bunch on paper, but he lacks explosiveness and is coming off of a redshirt season. He’s the x-factor in this equation.

13. Iowa State (Georges Niang, Jameel McKay, Simeon Carter)

Niang is the single-toughest cover in all of college basketball. A 6-foot-8 power forward, he’s so skilled: he can beat you in the post, he can beat you to the rim from the perimeter, he can pass, he can shoot, he can dribble. He’s a stud. McKay is the perfect compliment, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker and offensive rebounder. But after those two, there really isn’t much of note in ISU’s front court.

14. LSU (Ben Simmons, Craig Victor, Elbert Robinson, Aaron Epps, Brian Bridgewater)

Simmons is going to be must-see TV every time he plays as a freshman. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward with handle, an innate passing ability and a flair for making highlight reel plays. He’ll notch multiple triple-doubles this season. But where is his front court support? Craig Victor is the most talented of the bunch, but left Arizona because he couldn’t crack the rotation.

15. San Diego State (Malik Pope, Skylar Spencer, Zylan Cheatham, Angelo Chol)

This ranking is based on the assumption that Malik Pope lives up to his potential. He’s got the talent of a lottery pick and the consistentcy — and the health — of a four-year Mountain West big man. Spencer is a shot-blocker extraordinaire, Chol is an above-average high major big man and Cheatham has plenty of promise, but if Pope doesn’t play his way into being a first round pick, this rank will look silly in March.

Others considered: Texas A&M, Cal, Marquette, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Duke

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats BC 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.

Miles Kelly leads Georgia Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.

No. 17 Illinois rallies late, beats No. 2 Texas 85-78 in OT

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NEW YORK – Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 12 of his 16 points in overtime, including the tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:34 remaining, and No. 17 Illinois rallied to hand second-ranked Texas its first loss of the season, 85-78 on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic.

Jayden Epps added 11 points, including the final five points of regulation – a 3-pointer with 35 seconds left and two tying free throws with 8 seconds remaining. Epps then blocked Marcus Carr’s jumper in the lane just before the buzzer to force overtime in an entertaining showdown at Madison Square Garden.

Matthew Mayer, who faced Texas several times at Baylor, tied a career high with 21 points as he made his first seven shots and finished 8 of 10.

Shannon, who missed eight of nine shots in regulation, took over in the extra period to help Illinois (7-2) beat a ranked foe for the second time this season. He opened overtime with a jumper after Marcus Carr was called for traveling and then hit an open 3 from the right wing over Brock Cunningham for a 73-70 lead.

Shannon then converted a reverse layup and finished off a three-point play to make it 77-70 with 2:16 left. Carr hit two free throws to get Texas within one with 1:28 remaining. Jayden Epps hit a layup, RJ Melendez sank two free throws to put Illinois ahead by five, and Shannon made two free throws with 27.7 seconds left.

Timmy Allen scored a season-high 21 points for Texas (6-1), which failed to open 7-0 for the first time since 2014-15. Tyrese Hunter added 10 points but Carr was held to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting as Texas had 12 shots blocked and shot 42%.

Texas took its only double-digit lead when Dillon Mitchell hit a layup with 8:28 left. Illinois cut the lead to 58-56 on a 3 by Melendez nearly four minutes later. After Cunningham hit an open 3 with 4:15 remaining, Si’Jabari Rice made a 3 for a 64-58 lead.

Allen found Cunningham for an open jumper that counted when officials called goaltending on Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins. That gave Texas a 65-61 lead with with 1:51 remaining.

Carr’s rainbow jumper in the lane made it 68-63 with a minute left and Illinois had a 3-pointer by Melendez waved off because it called timeout with 45.3 seconds left. After the timeout, Epps made an open corner 3 with 33 seconds remaining.

Hunter missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to set up Epps’ tying free throws.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The Illini continued to struggle with turnovers, committing 17. But only two of them came in the final 10-plus minutes of regulation or overtime. Illinois’ 15th turnover was an offensive foul by Mayer, which sent him to the bench with four fouls with 10:42 remaining.

Texas: The Longhorns had little offense beyond Allen and Hunter. While the duo was a combined 13 of 29, the rest of the team missed 24 of 40 shots.

UP NEXT

Illinois hosts Penn State in its second Big Ten game on Saturday. The Illini lost their conference opener to No. 13 Maryland.

Texas hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the Jimmy Blacklock Classic on Saturday.

Clark, Gardner lift No. 3 Virginia past James Madison, 55-50

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Kihei Clark scored 18 points, Jayden Gardner had 14 points and eight rebounds, and No. 3 Virginia beat feisty in-state rival James Madison 55-50 on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (8-0), who lost starting guard Reece Beekman to a right leg injury early in the first half, prevented the Dukes (7-3) from winning a second straight December game in Charlottesville. James Madison beat Virginia 52-49 last Dec. 7.

Clark had seven assists while playing nearly 39 minutes with Beekman sidelined.

“Kihei gave everything he had and I had to, you know, ride him,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Sure, he missed some free throws. And I know he made some mistakes, but you could just see him, you know, how tough-minded he was.”

Dukes coach Mark Byington said he told Clark – who’s playing his fifth season for Virginia – after last year’s game that he loved watching him play.

“He’s seen everything and nothing you’re going to do is going to surprise him,” Byington said. “There’s nothing Kihei Clark hasn’t seen out there, and he’s poised. I mean, you can’t rattle him. … So I told him this time I was like, `Look, I better never see you in college basketball again.’ But he’s one of my favorite players to watch just because he’s tough, talented, and he’s a winner.”

Takal Molson scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half for James Madison, including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 42-all with 7:47 to play. Gardner responded for Virginia by scoring five straight points in a 9-1 run.

The Cavaliers kept the Dukes in the game by missing eight of 13 free throws over the last six minutes.

Molson made an acrobatic layup while being fouled with 1:51 left, but he missed the free throw. He scored again with 1:01 left, pulling the Dukes within 52-50, but freshman Ryan Dunn answered with a strong move on the baseline for Virginia with 35 seconds to play.

James Madison threw the ball away on its ensuing possession.

BIG PICTURE

James Madison: The Dukes came into the game leading the nation in scoring (93.3 points per game) and having scored as many as 95 points five times. They were shooting 52.7% for the year, but made just four of their first 19 shots and finished 15 of 55 (26.9%). Vado Morse scored 11 points, the only other JMU player in double figures.

“Yeah, we knew how good they were and they showed it in spots tonight,” Gardner said. “But I think you saw a lot of resiliency tonight on the defensive end getting crucial stops.”

Virginia: The Cavaliers played the final 36 minutes without Beekman and gave extensive minutes to freshman Isaac McKneely. Virginia will hope Beekman, its third-leading scorer and a primary ballhandler and defender, recovers in time for its showdown with No. 1 Houston on Dec. 17.

UP NEXT

The Dukes return home to play Gallaudet on Saturday night.

Virginia has a 10-day break before hosting the top-ranked Cougars.