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Ranking the nation’s top big men

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After ranking the top lead guards and off guards, we move to the wing position.

With more teams moving away from the rigid positions that defined the game of basketball for years, the wing has become a more important role. Nowadays versatility is a trait of many of the nation’s best wings, as they can be used to initiate the offense as either a scorer or distributor.

Without further ado, below are our ranking of the top big men in college basketball. Who’s too high on the last? Who isn’t high enough on the list? Who’d we leave out?

[MORE: Top backcourts | Top frontcourts]

1. Skal Labissiere (Kentucky)

Expectations will be high for the 6-foot-11 center, especially after 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks during Kentucky’s Blue-White scrimmage this week. The native of Haiti still has to prove that he’s consistent on a game-in, game-out basis against big men who are more physically developed, but Labissiere’s skill set makes him a matchup nightmare when he’s setting high ball screens.

2. Georges Niang (Iowa State)

It’s already been a tremendous career for the 6-foot-8 senior, who is hoping for a deep NCAA tournament run to cement his legacy in Ames. One of the most versatile big men in the country, Niang shoots with efficiency from everywhere on the floor (46% FG, 80% FT, 40% 3PT) and is also a very good passer. With another strong season, Niang should pass the 2,000 point mark for his college career by the end of the season.

3. Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga)

One of the nation’s best shooters, the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer put up ridiculous shooting splits (54% FG, 78% FT. 46% 3PT) while averaging 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. While he’s a liability on the defensive end — and that’s probably putting it lightly — Wiltjer is one of the toughest matchups in the country on the offensive end because his range extends to 25 feet.

4. Damian Jones (Vanderbilt)

The 7-foot junior has already made it clear that he intends to enter the 2016 NBA Draft, so this season will be a huge showcase for Jones. The last two seasons, Jones has been one of college basketball’s most underrated big men and now it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with the spotlight on him. Jones averaged 14.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season.

5. Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin)

One of the stars of the NCAA tournament last season (on and off the floor), this is Hayes’ team now since the Badgers lost so many key pieces. As a sophomore, Hayes showed improved range on his jumper, as he shot 39 percent from distance, and he also showed some tremendous footwork when he went to the post. Hayes average 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2 assists per game last season and those numbers should go up as he’s now a go-to player.

MORE: Top 100 players | Top leads guards | Top off guards | Top 100 Wings

Utah's Jakob Poeltl (AP Photo)
Utah’s Jakob Poeltl (AP Photo)

6. Jakob Poeltl (Utah)

The freshman burst on the national scene last season after little was known about him coming from Austria. The 7-foot sophomore will now get a lot of NBA draft buzz this season after coming off the bench for much of last season. Poeltl averaged 9.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game last season in only 23 minutes per contest. If you’re still having trouble pronouncing his name, Poeltl was kind enough to help you out with a video.

7. Henry Ellenson (Marquette)

A new-breed big man who can stretch the floor with his jumper or handle the ball a bit in the open floor, Ellenson should give the Golden Eagles a tough-to-defend high-low post attack with junior Luke Fisher. A McDonald’s All-American last season, Ellenson stayed in his home state of Wisconsin in-part because his older brother Wally transferred into Marquette from Minnesota to continue his basketball career.

8. Rico Gathers (Baylor)

You could make the argument that Gathers should be playing for Baylor’s talented football team with the way he’s built, but he’s doing just fine on the basketball court. Gathers averaged a double-double of 11.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game as a junior and the 6-foot-8 big man is a load to handle on the interior. Along with Johnathan Motley and Taurean Waller-Prince, Gathers helps the Bears form one of the nation’s best frontcourt units.

9. Perry Ellis (Kansas)

Before a late-season ankle injury, Ellis was playing as well as any big man in the Big 12 and the senior is hoping for a big year to close out his career. One of the most consistent members of an inconsistent Kansas team, Ellis averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season.

10. Cheick Diallo (Kansas)

If he’s eligible to play, Diallo will be one of the best high-motor big men in the country. A terror in the open floor, Diallo was one of the stars of the high school senior all-star circuit this past spring and he’ll rebound and run the floor with the best of them right away.

  • 11. Brice Johnson (North Carolina) Perhaps the best pro prospect on North Carolina’s loaded team, Johnson averaged 12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a junior.
  • 12. Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga) After a solid freshman campaign in which he averaged 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds off the bench, Sabonis is once again apart of a deep Gonzaga frontcourt rotation.
  • 13. Diamond Stone (Maryland) The five-star big man from Wisconsin will be expected to give the Terps an immediate option in the post as Stone is one of the best post scorers to emerge from the Class of 2015.
  • 14. Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV) A five-star McDonald’s All-American who decided to stay home, Zimmerman is a highly-versatile big man who is a very good passer. If Zimmerman hunts his own shots, he could have a big year.
  • 15. A.J. Hammons (Purdue) As part of a deep Purdue front line that features two 7-footers and McDonald’s All-American Caleb Swanigan, Hammons should be a load to handle on the interior — if he remains consistent.
  • 16. Anthony Gill (Virginia) An unsung part of what Virginia does on both ends of the floor, Gill had a solid junior campaign, shooting 58 percent from the floor and averaging 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest.
  • 17. Kennedy Meeks (North Carolina) The 6-foot-9 junior got himself into better shape and had a very productive sophomore year, going for 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in only 23 minutes per outing.
  • 18. Amida Brimah (UConn) One of the nation’s elite rim protectors, Brimah averaged 3.5 blocks per game last season. While defense is his calling card, Brimah also had some good offensive outings, including a 40-point game last season.
  • 19. Ivan Rabb (Cal) Cuonzo Martin convinced Rabb to stay in the Bay Area and the Golden Bears are thrilled to have this springy 6-foot-9 big man. Rabb should rebound and defend the rim right away and his offense is improving.
  • 20. Zach Auguste (Notre Dame) Notre Dame usually utilized Auguste as their only true big man last season and he shot a ridiculous 61 percent from the field while averaging 12.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

Others Considered: Shawn Long (Lafayette), Markus Kennedy (SMU), Elgin Cook (Oregon), Daniel Ochefu (Villanova), Devin Williams (West Virginia)

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar
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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.