One of the recurring questions that always seems to pop up on my twitter feed these days involves Cheick Diallo.
More specifically, how come Kansas can’t — or won’t — find a way to get their top ten freshman more involved.
The answer I always give: Diallo just doesn’t quite know what he’s doing yet. Look, if the only thing that he had to do on a basketball court was to protect the rim on defense, crash the offensive glass and rim-run in transition, he’d be the best freshman in the Big 12 this side of Chris Paul Jawun Evans. The athleticism, the physical tools, the effort. It’s all there. There were times last season where it didn’t look like Cliff Alexander was trying. I don’t think you can say that about Diallo.
He just doesn’t know yet where he’s supposed to be or what he’s supposed to do.
And after watching the tape of last night’s 86-67 loss at Oklahoma State, there are a few glaring examples that I figured I’d share.
The first came early in the first half, when Diallo got matched up on Leyton Hammonds after switching a big-to-big exchange with Perry Ellis. Hammonds isn’t a great three-point shooter, but he’s taking 3.5 threes per game and shooting 33 percent on them. He’s not a guy that you can simply leave open beyond the arc, but that’s precisely what Diallo — who begins this possession as the lone KU defender under the rim — does here:
That cannot happen.
Later in the half, there was this play, where Diallo doesn’t stop Evans — who finished with 22 points and eight assists and was a week removed from putting 42 points up on Oklahoma — from turning the corner off of the ball-screen, allows the point guard to get within six-feet of the rim and then tries to block a shot he had no chance of blocking while allowing his man to get into position to tip in Evans’ miss:
Those are both issues, but the straw that broke Bill Self’s back last night was when Diallo again messed up a play on offense.
Before I show you what Diallo did, here’s what the set is supposed to look like:
And here is what it looked like when Diallo ran it. Granted, it’s on the opposite side of the court, but the key here is that Diallo is supposed to fake a ball reversal and give the ball back to the guard receiving the pindown. He … reverses the ball, and the result is ugly:
That came with 17 minutes left in the second half.
If you don’t know the plays, you better be a damn good defender. If you’re lost on defense, you better be putting up Jahlil Okafor numbers. If you don’t know the plays and you can’t properly guard a ball-screen, you’re going to be sitting next to the coaches.
It’s that simple sometimes.
Bragg, Diallo off bench help No. 1 Jayhawks beat TCU 70-63
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) Kansas coach Bill Self has long insisted that five-star recruits Carlton Bragg and Cheick Diallo might be the best players on his team – five years down the line.
They might have been the best on Saturday.
Bragg had 10 points and four rebounds, Diallo had nine points and nine boards, and their spark off the bench helped the top-ranked Jayhawks to an otherwise sluggish 70-63 victory over TCU.
“Coach is always telling them to be ready when their number is called,” Kansas guard Devonte Graham said. “And in practice, you can see them getting better and better each week, and they’re going to be huge for us down the stretch.”
Wayne Selden Jr. had 11 points and Graham and Perry Ellis added 10 points apiece for Kansas (15-2, 4-1 Big 12), which bounced back nicely from its loss at West Virginia earlier in the week.
It was the 33rd consecutive win at Allen Fieldhouse for Kansas, matching the fourth-best streak in school history. It was also the Jayhawks’ seven straight win over the Horned Frogs.
“I was happy with Carlton, I thought he did some things in the first half,” Self said, “and I thought Cheick was a presence for the most part.”
Michael Williams had 13 points and Brandon Parrish and Chauncey Collins scored 11 apiece for TCU (9-8, 1-4), which remained close for a while thanks to a flurry of early 3-pointers.
The Jayhawks eventually took the perimeter away, and their size and depth in the post made it nearly impossible for TCU to score. Diallo finished with five blocks in just 21 minutes.
“They’re long. They’re really long,” Williams said. “So sometimes they’re not doing what they need to be doing offensively, and they struggle, but that length is really tough defensively.”
On the flip side, “I think my wife could score on us in the post,” TCU coach Trent Johnson said.
Malique Trent missed the Horned Frogs’ second straight game because of a violation of team rules. The transfer from New Mexico Junior College was tied for the team lead at 11.7 points per game.
His loss has been sorely felt for a team short on depth. The Horned Frogs were able to hang around with the Jayhawks for the first half, but their weary legs got the best of them late.
In fact, TCU built a 19-15 lead fueled almost entirely by 3-pointers before Kansas answered with a 16-2 run. But even after the Jayhawks took a 31-21 lead with about 4 minutes left before the break, the Horned Frogs were able to keep the game within striking distance.
It was still a 10-point game midway through the second half when the Jayhawks peeled off six quick points, first on a dunk by Ellis and then consecutive layups by Frank Mason III. And while TCU never truly went away, Kansas had enough depth and athleticism to prevent one more comeback.
Not to mention give Self another opportunity to tinker.
The Jayhawks’ coach is still experimenting with lineups, trying to find the best five guys – and the top guys off the bench – approaching the midpoint of the season. Bragg and Diallo made their case for more minutes, while Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas seemed to backpedal a bit.
Bragg soared past his career-best of nine points while providing some energy on the defensive end and the glass, while Diallo provided a jolt with a series of crowd-thrilling rejections.
“They look the part. They play the part. And they’re playing with the right guy,” Johnson said. “They’re going to be good players. Great players, probably. I hope they leave after this year.”
Fire alarms sounded in Allen Fieldhouse with just over a minute left in the game. True to form at Kansas, the 16,300 seats were never empty – despite a bleating horn and flashing lights. The officials decided to play through it and finish up the game.
TCU: Chris Washburn started for the third time after missing the early portion of the season with a broken finger. He finished with eight points. … TCU was 7 of 17 from beyond the arc.
Kansas: Ellis had nine rebounds. … Kansas was 5 of 20 from beyond the arc. … The Jayhawks had just 10 turnovers after piling up 22 in their loss to the Mountaineers.
TEN NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Here are the ten best freshmen in the sport.
1. Ben Simmons, LSU: A native of Australia, Simmons has been getting huge national buzz already as a potential Player of the Year candidate this preseason. As one of college basketball’s most versatile players this season, Simmons has a chance to put up regular triple-doubles while leading LSU to a bunch of wins. The 6-foot-10 Simmons can rebound, handle the ball in the open floor and pass with elite vision. If there’s any part of his game that remains a question mark, it’s his perimeter jumper — which has always been workable but inconsistent.
2. Skal Labissiere, Kentucky: Perhaps the most talented freshman of this class, the 6-foot-11 Labissiere has a ton of upside and could dominate stretches on both ends of the floor this season. A native of Haiti, Labissiere can defend the rim and rebound and he’s also a dynamic offensive threat who can score from a number of positions on the floor. When Kentucky’s guards run high ball screens with Labissiere this season, he should have the ability to score rolling to the basket or finding space for his jumper. Handling the strength of older and more experienced opposing big men might be Labissiere’s biggest obstacle this season.
3. Jamal Murray, Kentucky: If Labissiere is Kentucky’s most talented freshman, then Murray could be the most productive this season. The Canadian guard looked like a potential superstar during portions of this summer in the Pan-Am Games, especially when he went for 22 points in the fourth quarter and overtime alone against the United States. At 6-foot-5, Murray has great size for a lead guard and his pull-up jumper is deadly. His vision is also solid and he spend the summer playing with and against professionals and top college players in high-stakes international settings. If Murray finds good balance within Kentucky’s deep perimeter attack, he could have a huge year.
4. Brandon Ingram, Duke: Duke was able to keep Ingram from leaving the state of North Carolina and they’re hoping the Kinston native can be their next superstar wing forward. Ingram won’t be nearly as physically developed as players like Jabari Parker and Justise Winslow as freshmen, but he’s got an offensive arsenal that more than makes up for it. At 6-foot-9, Ingram can spray jumpers from nearly anywhere on the floor and he has the mentality of a cold-blooded scorer. With an advanced pull-up game and improving toughness going to the rim, Ingram became a three-level scorer later in his high school career. If his frail body can handle the day-to-day rigors of college basketball, Ingram will have a big year.
5. Jaylen Brown, Cal: It was a surprising commitment when the 6-foot-6 Brown decided to leave Georgia and head out west, but the Golden Bears are happy to put him on the floor immediately. A big and physical wing who can attack the basket or the glass, Brown improved his perimeter jumper and handle as high school went along. A gifted scorer, Brown is a load to handle in the open floor with a full head of steam and he’s the type of player who could have some poster dunks this season thanks to his brute strength at the rim. If the perimeter jumper is consistently going down, Brown is going to be a force.
6. Henry Ellenson, Marquette: Underrated nationally coming into the season after missing the senior all-star games with injury, Ellenson is a new-breed big man who has open-floor skill and an ability to space the floor. The Wisconsin native stayed home to play with his brother Wally at Marquette and now the Golden Eagles have a 6-foot-10 freshman who can handle like a guard and hit 3-pointers to stretch the floor. With Ellenson teaming with junior big man Luke Fischer, Marquette instantly has one of the most intriguing front courts in America entering the season and Ellenson’s skill level makes him a tough cover.
7. Cheick Diallo, Kansas: If the NCAA deems him eligible, Kansas will get a gigantic lift from the high-motor big man. A star during the senior all-star circuit this spring, Diallo rebounds and defends the rim with the best of them and he’s also improving as an offensive player. At his best in transition, the 6-foot-9 Diallo runs the floor like a guard and has the length around the rim to erase shots that many others couldn’t get to. Diallo’s warrior-like mentality should help raise the level of play for the Jayhawks when he’s on the floor. The question is: when will that be?
8. Malik Newman, Mississippi State: Ben Howland is going to put the ball in Newman’s hands right away and the pressure will be on the in-state guard to immediately produce. A natural scorer with deep range on his pull-up jumper, the 6-foot-3 Newman can go on silly scoring runs where he’s pulling up 3-pointers and nailing them in consecutive possessions like Kevin Durant at Rucker Park. Although his efficiency and ability to be a high-level point guard will come into question at times this season, Newman will be one of the best freshman scorers in college basketball.
9. Diamond Stone, Maryland: How happy is Melo Trimble to have a post scorer like Stone entering College Park? The native of Wisconsin is a load to handle on the interior as a post scorer, as he showed moves going over both shoulders in high school. Also a candidate to knock home a 3-pointer when he’s a trailer on a break, Stone can fall in love with his jumper a bit too much, but now he has a ton of talent around him to help him settle into the post. The 6-foot-10 center has good hands, is a productive rebounder and should be a tough cover with Robert Carter also being a post option for the Terps.
10. Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV: Runnin’ Rebels fans are thrilled to keep Zimmerman home and the 6-foot-11 lefty is skilled enough to make an immediate impact. The product of local powerhouse Bishop Gorman is an advanced passer for a big man and he’s also shown an ability to score in a variety of ways. Also a good rebounder and communicator as a back-line defender, Zimmerman’s leadership qualities could be an underrated aspect of him joining the UNLV program. The pressure will be on Zimmerman to help lead UNLV back to the NCAA tournament, but he’s built for the challenge.
FIVE POTENTIAL D’ANGELO RUSSELLS: Here are five guys outside the top ten that could play their way onto an all-american team come the spring
1. Jalen Brunson, Villanova: The son of former NBA veteran Rick Brunson, Jalen was tremendous as the starting point guard of the USA U19 World Championship team and went 40 minutes without a turnover in the gold-medal game to help secure MVP honors. The 6-foot-2 lefty has a tremendous basketball IQ and can hit pull-up jumpers from everywhere.
2. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: An impressive scorer who regularly put up 40-point games in high school, Dorsey will be asked to help replace Joseph Young. The 6-foot-4 Dorsey’s ability to hit jumpers and get to the basket should immediately translate to the college level.
3. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Now that he’s been cleared by the NCAA, the 6-foot-9 Swanigan can focus on being a bruising force alongside centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. Swanigan is rugged and physical, but he’s also more skilled than he appears.
4. Dwayne Bacon, Florida State: One of the most physically-ready freshmen entering college basketball, the 6-foot-6 wing had a tremendous senior season and should be able to help the Seminoles in the scoring column. Bacon’s athleticism is top notch and he should have some highlights this season.
5. Allonzo Trier, Arizona: With freshman Ray Smith Jr. going down to injury, the 6-foot-3 Trier could be asked to play more minutes for the Wildcats. The Nike EYBL’s first four-year player, Trier is experienced in big games at the high school level and should be an immediate contributor.
MARCH HEROES?: Here are five freshman that could play a big role come March.
1. Jalen Adams, UConn: Kevin Ollie has a ton of perimeter options this season, but the speed of the 6-foot-1 Adams will make him a great change-of-pace guard off the bench in the early season.
2. Aaron Holiday, UCLA: The younger brother of former Bruin Jrue Holiday, Aaron is already starting alongside Bryce Alford this preseason and he’s showed positive signs on the defensive end with his activity.
3. Carlton Bragg, Kansas: The 6-foot-9 Bragg is skilled as a shooter and also physically gifted enough to rebound and score in the post. If Cheick Diallo is not cleared to play, Bragg’s role could expand even further.
4. Ryan Cline, Purdue: In desperate need of perimeter shooting, the Boilers kept this 6-foot-5 sharpshooter in the state of Indiana and he should help the spacing around Purdue’s talented big men.
5. Thomas Bryant, Indiana: Likely to start in the middle for Indiana, the 6-foot-10 Bryant brings a lot of energy and tenacity to the interior. The Hoosiers will count on Bryant to rebound and defend the rim early as his offense continues to grow.
Kansas played their first exhibition game on Wednesday night, and unlike the Johnnies, the Jayhawks were able to come away with a win.
Bill Self started his three guards, Perry Ellis scored 22 points, Svi Mykhailiuk was 0-for-3 in 15 minutes off the bench and Carlton Bragg went for 14 and six when he finally got on the court.
The most notable part of the exhibition was that Landen Lucas started alongside Ellis in the front court. That’s important because of who didn’t start: Cheick Diallo. The star freshman didn’t even dress, as he’s still awaiting word from the NCAA on whether or not he is going to be cleared to play this season.
Self spent all Wednesday in meetings with the NCAA, trying to help them work through what it will take to get Diallo on the floor.
“There wasn’t progress, but there were certainly talks,” Self said after the game. “And the talks are ongoing. The process is still playing itself out.”
Kansas told Cheick at 4 p.m. yesterday he wouldn’t be able to play, and it’s possible, Self believes, that he could end up missing regular season games.
“I would like to say it’s not possible, but after going through the process I think anything’s possible,” he said. “Not putting any blame or fault on anything, it’s just there’s a few moving parts and the NCAA has to follow policy on those parts. It can be frustrating, but it’s not one, at this point in time, we’re going to stand up and beat the drum saying this should happen. We have to respect the process.”
“It’s disappointing that we’re still dealing with this on Nov. 4th.”
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?
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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