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College Basketball’s Best Big Men

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While plenty of our best-of lists are heavily populated by freshmen, this one, highlighting the top frontcourt players in the country, has a decidedly veteran bent.

From four-year stars to seasoned upperclassmen to super sophs and successful transfers, the best players big men in the country this season will be no strangers to college basketball fans.

Here are the 10 best big men heading into the 2018-19 season.



1. LUKE MAYE, North Carolina

By this point, Maye’s story is well known as he went from over-qualified walk-on to a potential National Player of the Year. Still, his rise is remarkable. He went from averaging 5.5 points in 14.4 minutes per game as a sophomore to 16.9 points in 32.2 minutes per game as a junior to establish himself as one of college basketball’s best bigs – and players.

Maye, a 6-foot-8 power forward, has gotten there largely on the strength of his ability to stretch defenses. He shot 43.1 percent from 3-point range last season, including a mark of 46.6 percent in ACC play, which was tops in the league. A rather remarkable feat for a frontcourt player who launched over 100 3s for the season. In a sport often dominated by freshmen, Maye gives North Carolina the valuable weapon of the combination of experience and talent.

2. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

The 6-foot-8 Japanese standout has been a favorite in basketball circles for awhile, though he’s yet to truly breakthrough in a major way to the broader hoops public. That could very much change this season.

Hachimura averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds as a sophomore for the Bulldogs last year while shooting 60.6 percent inside the arc. It’s been on the international scene, though, where he’s really flashed the potential that has him being looked at as a lottery pick. He averaged 20.6 points and 11 rebounds in the 2017 U19 World Cup and he’s averaging 21.5 points and six rebounds per game in Japan’s World Cup qualifiers this year. WIth Johnathan Williams graduated and Killian Tillie out for two months with injury, Hachimura will take over the Gonzaga frontcourt in a big way.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

3. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

The Kansas roster is loaded with returners off last year’s Final Four squad, a top-flight recruiting class and transfers like K.J Lawson and Charlie Moore, but it’s Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis, that really puts the Jayhawks over the top as the preseason national title favorite.

As a sophomore at Memphis, the 6-foot-9 forward averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He’s an elite defensive rebounder, an underappreciated shot blocker and a willing passer. He can replicate something close to the numbers he put up in the AAC in the Big 12, Lawson will have a spot on the All-American first team.

4. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

Wisconsin was bad last year. The Badgers finished under .500 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades. That famed top-four-in-the-Big-Ten run came to a close, too, obviously. Things were not sweet in Madison. Ethan Happ, though, he was good.

The Badger big man averaged 17.9 points, eight rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.5 steals per game while converting at a 52.8 percent clip from the floor. As an under-the-rim player who doesn’t stretch the floor, Happ doesn’t project particularly well at the next level, but he is unquestionably one of the top players – let alone big men – in the country. Wisconsin should be improved this season, and Happ will once again get his due after sliding off the radar some during the Baders’ dip last season.

5. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Grant Williams has a chance to do something that no one has done since Corliss Williamson and Shaquille O’Neal did in the early 1990s: Repeat as SEC Player of the Year, as Williamson did in ‘94 and ‘95 and the Shaq Diesel did in ‘91 and ‘92.

The 6-foot-7 junior averaged 15.2 points, six rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season en route to those honors as the Volunteers surprised just about everyone with their move to the top of the SEC standings. Williams, picked as the league’s preseason player of the year this fall, isn’t a high-level finisher, but he draws fouls, gets to the line and frustrates opponents at a rate few others can match.

6. REID TRAVIS, Kentucky

It’ll be interesting to see how Travis fits in at Kentucky after spending four NCAA tournament-less seasons out west at Stanford. Given the monster numbers he put up the last two seasons with the Cardinal, it’s not hard to see the 6-foot-8, 238-pound forward as the linchpin on an otherwise young roster.

Travis put up 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the floor. As a graduate transfer who flirted with the idea of going pro before making his way to Lexington, the bet is here that Travis embraces his role around a group of talented-yet-inexperienced teammates to help make the Wildcats one of the preeminent national title contenders.

7. DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas

Gafford could have easily called it a collegiate career last year after averaging 11.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while shooting 60.5 percent from the floor. The 6-foot-11 Arkansas native made the decision quickly that he’d return to the Razorbacks after his rookie campaign, and enters this season as one of the premier shot blockers in the country.

8. DEAN WADE, Kansas State

There’s not much flashy about Wade’s game. He’s not overly athletic and he’s not going to be throwing down rim-rattling dunks, but he leads the charge for a Kansas State team that brings back everyone from last year’s surprise Elite Eight team.

He averaged 16.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals (more than he averaged on blocks) as a junior, but it was his 44 percent mark from 3-point range that truly made him an offensive threat and a potential All-American for his senior season.

Dean Wade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

9. MIKE DAUM, South Dakota State

All Mike Daum has done for three seasons in Brookings is put up huge numbers. He averaged 15 points as a freshman before 25 as a sophomore and 23.9 – while shooting 42.5 percent from deep – last season as a junior. The 6-foot-9 Nebraska native could have been a graduate transfer or gone pro after last season, but instead returned to what will be the overwhelming favorite in the Summit and almost certainly a Cinderella darling come March.

10. P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky

The strangest part of this list is that it has two Kentucky Wildcats and neither are freshmen. How about that?

Washington averaged 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists last season as a rookie for John Calipari. He’s back for his sophomore campaign, and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s deployed by Calipari, who will have decisions to make about weighing 3-point shooting, experience and defense with his lineup construction, especially up front.

Sunday’s NCAA tournament recap: Duke and Tennessee survive, chalk thrives

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Zion Williamson, Duke

On a night where Duke looked like they were ready to see their season come to an end, Zion Williamson made just enough plays to keep the Blue Devils close enough to get lucky at the end.

The big fella finished with 32 points, 11 boards and four assists in the 77-76 Sunday evening win, scoring the and-one with 14 seconds left that led to the offensive rebound that R.J. Barrett’s game-winning put-back. This was anything-but a quintessential Duke performance. It was actually precisely the kind of game that Duke should have lost, but I’ll get to that at the bottom of this column.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Oregon Ducks

Payton Pritchard finished with 18 points and seven assists, the Ducks made 13 threes and, over the course of the final 12 minutes of the game, outscored UC Irvine 38-17 en route to a 73-54 win and a spot in the Sweet 16. The Ducks are the only team to make it to the second weekend of the tournament as anything other than a top five seed, but there’s an argument to make that they are actually a top 16 team at this point in the season. They’ve now won 10 straight games, and the last eight of them have come on the road or on neutral courts. It’s been a wild ride, and it’s not done yet.

GAME OF THE DAY: Duke 77, UCF 76

It was a thriller in Columbia, S.C., on Sunday night, one that we wrote about here and here (and down at the bottom of this column) and that ended like this:

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Grant Williams, Tennessee

Tennessee was getting ready to make history on Sunday, and not in a good way. The Volunteers blew a 25 point first half lead to Iowa, getting to overtime where Williams absolutely took over. Tennessee used a 9-2 run to take control in the extra frame, and Williams was responsible for all nine points. He scored three straight buckets and found Jordan Bone for a three in the mix, too.

I guess there’s a reason he’s an all-american.

WTF OF THE DAY: Admiral Schofield, Tennessee

During that overtime period, Admiral Schofield was on the bench. He was on the bench at the end of regulation, too. He didn’t foul out. Rick Barnes wasn’t drunk. Schofield knew that the Vols needed Kyle Alexander on the floor, and so did his teammates. So Alexander stayed on the floor and Schofield stayed on the bench and, as a result, Tennessee stayed in the NCAA tournament.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech

Buzz Williams must be happy to have his point guard back. Justin Robinson finished with 13 points and four assists off the bench, but 10 of those 13 points and all four of those assists came after No. 12-seed Liberty had taken a 26-18 lead on Virginia Tech late in the first half of the second round tilt in San Jose. He sparked an 18-6 surge that spanned both halves and had a pair of assists in another 11-3 run early in the second half as the Hokies landed a come-from-behind, 67-58 win over the upset-minded Flames.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Buffalo Bulls

The game that I was most excited about heading into Sunday was Texas Tech vs. Buffalo, and that’s because I thought that the Bulls would at least put up a fight. They didn’t. After staying within striking distance for more of the first half, the Red Raiders buried Buffalo down the stretch.

ONE MORE THING TO KNOW

This was the one.

This was the game that Duke was supposed to lose in this tournament.

This matchup had all the elements necessary to make it happen.

For starters, UCF has the roster makeup to be able to hang with Duke. They have size, they have depth, they have athleticism and they have the one guy in college basketball that can make Zion Williamson an inefficient finisher around the basket in Tacko Fall. They played precisely the way that you need to play to be able to beat these Blue Devils, by packing everyone in the paint, daring Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire to beat you from the perimeter and parking a shot-blocker directly in front of the rim. And they did all that while one of their shot-making wings went bonkers. Aubrey Dawkins finished with 32 points on 12-for-18 shooting, making tough shot after tough shot to give the Knights a shot to win this thing in the final minutes.

Throw in the good fortune from the basketball gods — specifically, a couple of no-calls on Fall and the shot clock violation that wasn’t in the final minutes — and it was all coming together.

Duke was going to lose.

And then that shot happened, this didn’t fall and UCF was heading home:

One of the things that I kept seeing after the end of this game is that this is evidence that Duke is not invincible, which I just don’t understand.

This is something that we have known all season long. Duke struggles to shoot the ball, particularly at the point and the five, and good teams are capable of exploiting that. They pack in the paint, they do their damnedest to avoid turnovers that allow Duke to get out in transition and they hope that all of this happens on a night when their star plays like a star.

That’s how you beat Duke.

That’s the blueprint.

UCF had all the tools they needed, and luck just didn’t break their way.

It’s not different than the end of last year’s Elite 8 game, when Duke was on the other end of the luck spectrum.

That’s when Grayson Allen’s game-winner rolled off the rim, just like Dawkins’ did on Sunday night:

Just how different would the narratives be for these two Duke teams had both of these shots fallen?

Top overall seed Duke survives No. 9 UCF’s upset bid

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Two days removed from the first NCAA tournament victory in program history, East Region No. 9 UCF had two shots at knocking off top overall seed Duke Sunday in Columbia, South Carolina. But B.J. Taylor’s floater and Aubrey Dawkins’ attempted tip-in both missed the mark in the final seconds, and as a result the Blue Devils pulled out the 77-76 victory.

UCF took a 76-73 lead with 45 seconds remaining, but the failure to cap a key defensive possession with a rebound proved costly. Zion Williamson’s offensive rebound led to a basket and Tacko Fall’s fifth foul with just over 14 seconds to go. RJ Barrett would corral the resulting missed free throw, and his put-back with 11.4 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winning basket.

Williamson finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, leading four double-digit scorers on the day. And even with the freshman’s offensive mastery Duke nearly saw its season come to an end, as UCF defended well and also shot the ball well on the other end of the floor.

UCF used multiple looks on defense, from man-to-man to a standard 2-3 zone to a matchup that purposely left Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire open. Jones and Goldwire (combined 2-for-11 from three Sunday) would both make a three-pointer in the second half, but neither was proficient enough to punish UCF for this approach.

This proved especially problematic for Duke when Cam Reddish was on the bench with four fouls, as the Blue Devils turned to a backcourt tandem that is the team’s best defensively but struggles mightily to shoot the ball.

Reddish (3-for-4; including a huge three with 1:45 remaining) and Barrett (2-for-3) combined to shoot 5-for-7 from three on the day, with Williamson making three of his seven attempts. While future opponents won’t be able to replicate the size that UCF has in Fall, teams can certainly pack it in defensively and force Duke’s non-shooters to prove that they can hit those shots. Johnny Dawkins’ team nearly made Duke pay the price, but two offensive rebounds in the final 30 seconds cost the Knights.

Offensively UCF was proficient, making 48.1 percent of its shots from the field and shooting 9-for-18 from three, with Aubrey Dawkins leading the way. In scoring his 32 points Dawkins shot 12-for-18 from the field (5-for-8 from three), and he also accounted for four assists, three rebounds and three steals. Taylor and Fall added 15 points apiece, with the latter also racking up six rebounds and three blocked shots.

UCF may have revealed the “blueprint” to beating Duke, but it isn’t as simple as allowing them to put up perimeter shots. Knowing the personnel is especially key, as the Knights did a good job of funneling those shots to players Duke would be better served not having shoot. And even with that blueprint UCF was unable to take full advantage itself, which is why Duke is moving on.

“Survive and advance” is the preferred saying this time of year, and Duke managed to do just that.

No. 12 Oregon locks up third Sweet 16 in four seasons

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South Region No. 12 Oregon appeared to be in some trouble during the second half of Sunday’s second round matchup with No. 13 UC Irvine. Dana Altman’s team went more than seven minutes without scoring a point, with the Anteaters going on a 16-0 run to take a two-point lead. But Oregon regained its composure and shooting ability, going on to win by the final score of 73-54.

Payton Pritchard led four double-digit scorers with 18 points while also dishing out seven assists, with Louis King adding 16. The two other double-digit scorers were just as impactful on the defensive end of the floor, as Ehab Amin and Kenny Wooten changed the tenor of the game after UC Irvine’s 16-0 run.

Amin was a pest on the perimeter, racking up three steals to go along with 12 points, five rebounds, and two assists. And if any UC Irvine player managed to get into the paint more often than not Kenny Wooten was waiting, as he blocked seven shots and changed many others. He was a finisher around the basket as well, adding 12 points and nine rebounds to his stat line.

Robert Cartwright led three UC Irvine players in double figures with 14 points, but Russell Turner’s team shot just 5-for-18 from three and the 24-point differential (Oregon finished 13-for-25) was too much for the Big West champions to overcome.

This is the third time in the last four years that the program has managed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. But unlike those runs, an Elite Eight appearance as a 1-seed in 2016 and a Final Four as a 3-seed in 2017, this run has been more about a team getting hot at the right time.

Oregon lost Bol Bol in mid-December to a season-ending foot injury, and even though the Ducks won their first two games without the talented freshman it was obvious that things weren’t right. Oregon lost four of its first six conference games, and in February there was a three-game skid capped by a 90-83 loss at UCLA in which the Bruins scored 62 second-half points.

Since then the Ducks have been outstanding on the defensive end of the floor, allowing 60 points or less in eight of their ten wins. There’s still offensive talent on the roster, but without Bol Oregon had to buckle down defensively in order to have any chance of making good on the preseason expectations. It took some time but the Ducks eventually got things right, and the end result is a run that few imagined possible a month ago.

Next up for Oregon will be top-seed Virginia, a program well-known for its work on the defensive end of the floor. This will undoubtedly be a challenge for the Ducks, but thanks to the improved defense they’re more than capable of continuing this run.

Houston reaches first Sweet 16 in 35 years with in over Ohio State

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It may not be Phi Slamma Jamma, but Kelvin Sampson has something special brewing with his iteration of the Houston Cougars.

Behind 21 points from Corey Davis Jr. and 13 points, five assists and five steals from Galen Robinson, the No. 3-seed Houston Cougars advanced to the program’s first Sweet 16 in 35 years with a 74-59 win over the 11th-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes on Sunday evening.

Houston will advance to take on No. 2-seed Kentucky.

The names that you read there, the leading scorers and the players that will go down in the recaps as the stars of the game, are Houston’s guards. They have a bunch of them. Davis is the best of the bunch and Robinson has been a rock solid lead guard all year, but Armoni Brooks and Dejon Jarreau – neither of whom were particularly great on Sunday – are both capable of popping off for big games on the right night.

In fact, the top five scorers on the Houston roster are all perimeter players.

But they are heading to the Sweet 16 thanks in very large part to their very large men.

Ohio State’s strength is that they have Kaleb Wesson. He’s their leading scorer, their leading rebounder, one of their best passers and the guy that Chris Holtmann runs his offense through. He finished with 15 points, six boards and a pair of assists — his average on the season — but he was no where near as effective as we have come to expect out of the all-Big Ten center. To get a sense of just how in check he was, think about this: Wesson attempted just a single two point field goal on the night. Kelvin Sampson’s crew double-teamed him to perfection, with Breaon Brady, Fabian White and Brison Gresham doing everything that you can ask of them.

They are going to need that heading into the next round, as they will take on a Kentucky team that may or may not be getting P.J. Washington back from the foot injury that has kept him out since the SEC tournament.

Whatever happens in the Sweet 16 is besides the point by now.

Houston is back in the Sweet 16.

Everything from here on out is playing with house money.

WATCH: Johnny Dawkins addresses locker room after loss to Duke

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East Region No. 9 UCF nearly pulled off the upset of this year’s NCAA tournament, but two shot attempts in the final seconds missed the mark in the Knights’ 77-76 loss to top-seed Duke.

Following the game head coach Johnny Dawkins addressed the locker room, thanking his senior class and the team as a whole.

While the NCAA tournament is about determining a champion, it’s moments like this that make the event so special.