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College basketball’s best frontcourts

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As the NBA game gets smaller and quicker and more spread out, the college game can still be beaten with big guys.

Just two years ago, in between Villanova’s two national titles, was a championship game played between a Gonzaga team built around their big guys and a North Carolina team built around their big guys.

Hell, I think you can make the argument that Kansas center Udoka Azubuike is one of the five most valuable players in college basketball, even if his potential as a pro is limited.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the best frontcourts in college hoops.



1. KANSAS (Udoka Azubuike, Mitch Lightfoot, Silvio De Sousa, David McCormack, Jalen Wilson, Tristan Enaruna)

The Jayhawks have perhaps the best traditional big men in college hoops in Udoka Azubuike, who shot 77 percent from the floor in his last (and only) healthy season, but it’s unclear just exactly how this frontcourt will work as a whole. Silvio De Sousa is probably the most talented of this group with David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot the most experienced. None of those three, though, have shown the ability to step out on the perimeter to help create the space that will be critical for Azubuike to operate. Lightfoot is actually largely expected to redshirt. That leaves freshmen Jalen Wilson and Tristan Enaruna, a couple of four-star recruits.

What Bill Self does with this situation could very well determine Kansas’ ceiling. Frankly, it won’t be at all surprising if we see Self try doses of Marcus Garrett, Isaiah Moss and Ochai Agbaji at the four to alleviate the spacing concerns.

2. DUKE (Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt, Javin DeLaurier, Jack White)

Coach K’s use of his frontcourt last year was one of the more scrutinized tactical decisions, with Zion Williamson, a singular force in the sport, splitting his time between power forward and center, when more time at the five probably would have unlocked a little more firepower for the Blue Devils. That won’t be the case this year with Duke’s roster flipping over, but how its frontcourt performs will go a long way in determining if it can get where last year’s team didn’t – the Final Four.

Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt are both five-star recruits and potential one-and-done lottery picks as top-15 prospects. The pair should, well, pair well with Carey at the five and Hurt stretching the floor at the four. Javin DeLaurier got a lot of run for the Blue Devils last year, and will help provide experience and depth up front.

3. MEMPHIS (James Wiseman, Precious Achiuwa, Isaiah Maurice, DJ Jeffries, Malcolm Dandridge)

Just how good Penny Hardaway’s frontcourt is will go a long way in determining if the Tigers are as good as their recruiting class. 

It starts with James Wiseman, the 7-foot-1 top-rated freshman and potential top-NBA draft pick come June. If he’s All-American good, then that sets Memphis up for success more than anything else. There’s that pesky ankle injury that’s kept him sidelined in the preseason, which is concerning but not cause for a full panic now.

It’s not the only thing, though. Precious Achiuwa was the other five-star Hardaway collected in his No. 1 recruiting class, which also included Isaiah Maurice, D.J. Jeffries and Malcolm Dandridge.

4. GONZAGA (Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Drew Timme, Pavel Zakharov)

Killian Tillie is one of the more intriguing forwards in the country. People have been raving about his talent for years, but he’s been stuck behind great college players and future pros while also dealing with injuries. He even had knee surgery this offseason that has his immediate availability currently in question. If he’s healthy, the deck has been cleared in Spokane for him to be featured.

Six-foot-11 Filip Petrusev played in 32 games last year for the ‘Zags but wasn’t a huge piece of the rotation. He did have a big summer playing for Serbia at the FIBA U19s, putting up nearly 20 points a game and shooting 66 percent from the floor. He and Tillie could make for a dynamic duo.

Coach Mark Few also has some highly-rated freshmen he can mix in with Drew Timme and Pavel Zakharov, but they did get dinged when Oumar Ballo was forced to redshirt..

5. WASHINGTON (Jaden McDaniels, Isaiah Stewart, Naz Carter, Hamier Wright, Sam Timmins)

Memphis’ recruiting deservedly got a lot of love this summer, but Mike Hopkins got the job done, too. Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels are both top-10 recruits that will immediately make the Huskies’ frontcourt formidable. Both are 6-foot-9, but Stewart weighs in at 245 pounds and McDaniels 185. Nahziah Carter averaged 8.1 points and 2.4 rebounds while Hameir right played nearly 18 minutes per game. Sam Timmins played sparingly, but shot 62 percent.

6. LOUISVILLE (Jordan Nwora, Steve Enoch, Malik Wiliams, Aidan Igiehon, Jaelyn Withers)

The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Nwora blossomed into an All-American candidate last year, averaging 17 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while shooting 37.4 percent from the floor. He’s an ACC player of the year frontrunner, and the cornerstone to both the Cardinals’ frontcourt and their Final Four aspirations.

Steve Enoch was effective both inside and out last season while Malik Williams is a top-level shotblocker. Aidan Igiehon is a four-star, top-75 recruit while Jaelyn Withers is a top-150 prospect from 2019.

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

7.  MISSISSIPPI STATE (Reggie Perry, Abdul Ado, Elias King, Robert Woodard II, Prince Oduro, KeyShawn Feazell, E.J. Datcher, Quinten Post)

Reggie Perry is a first-team all-SEC pick after he averaged 9.7 points and 7.2 rebounds last season while Abdul Ado is back after shooting 61.4 percent from the floor and blocking 1.8 shots per game last season. Robert Woodard played 17 minutes per game last year while Prince Oduro is eligible after a promising freshman season for Siena.

8. MARYLAND (Jalen Smith, Ricky Lindo, Chol Marial, Makhi and Makhel Mitchell)

Bruno Fernando is gone, but Jalen Smith was nearly as productive as him last season as a freshman. The 6-foot-10 Smith blocked 12.5 percent of opponent shots while on the floor while shooting 56.2 percent from 2-point range. He shot just 26.8 percent from distance, but hoisted 71 attempts, at least an indication he could potentially be a floor-spacer. The Terps are also adding twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell, the former a top-75 recruit and the later a three-star prospect. Chol Marial is a 7-foot-2 freshman that could contribute if he gets healthy.

9. BAYLOR (Tristan Clark, Mark Vital, Freddie Gillispie, Flo Thamba)

Tristan Clark was on his way to first-team all-Big 12 honors last year before his knee injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season in January. He’s back this year, and he’ll anchor one of the best frontcourts in the country. Mark Vital, Freddie Gillispie and Flo Thamba all were contributors last season, and should be more effective with Clark by their side this season.

10. MICHIGAN STATE (Xavier Tillman, Marcus Bingham, Thomas Kithier, Malik Hall, Joey Hauser*)

Nick Ward and Kenny Goins are gone, but Xavier Tillman returns after a productive sophomore campaign that has him blossom on both ends of the floor, albeit not his 3-point shooting. Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier will be in line for more minutes after being seldomly used as freshmen while Malik Hall is a top-75 recruit.

The wildcard here is Joey Hauser. The Marquette transfer has already seen his request for an immediate-eligibility waiver denied by the NCAA, but Michigan State has appealed. If the NCAA reverses course, the Spartans’ frontcourt will suddenly look much more formidable.

11. FLORIDA (Kerry Blackshear, Keyontae Johnson, Gorjok Gak)

The Florida frontcourt got a massive boost when the 6-foot-10 Kerry Blackshear decided to grad-transfer over this past offseason. Blackshear averaged 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds for the Hokies last season while also shooting 50.8 percent from the field. He’ll join Keyontae Johnson, who put up 8 and 6 last year, and Gorjok Gak, a 6-foot-11 center who missed last season with injury.

12. VIRGINIA (Jay Huff, Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key)

The national champs lost a lot from last year’s team, but their frontcourt remains somewhat intact, although De’Andre Hunter is a major loss, no doubt. Getting Mamdi Diakite, Braxton Key and Jay Huff all to return is a help, though.

Diakite averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 22 minutes per game while blocking more than 10 percent of opponent shots while he was on the floor. Braxton Key and Jay Huff were smaller contributors last year, but still important ones. They’ll help Tony Bennett bridge the gap to the post-title era.

13. NORTH CAROLINA (Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks, Justin Pierce, Sterling Manley, Brandon Huffman)

Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson are both gone, but Garrison Brooks is back from his junior season and five-star center Armando Bacot comes into the fold. So, too, is William & Mary graduate transfer Justin Pierce, a third-team all-CAA honoree who averaged 14.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game last season as a junior.

14. UTAH STATE (Neemias Queta, Justin Bean, Diogo Brito, Kuba Karwowski, Roche Grootfaam)

Neemias Queta, a 7-foot sophomore, averaged 11.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in his rookie campaign while shooting 61.4 percent, putting him among the country’s most productive centers. Justin Bean saw more time late in the season and was productive against MWC competition. Diogo Brito is a floor-spacer when he’s at the four. Kuba Karnowski and Roche Grootfaam are a pair of junior college transfers that could contribute.

15. PURDUE (Matt Haarms, Trevion Williams, Aaron Wheeler, Evan Boudreaux)

Matt Painter and the Boilermakers have made a habit of having one of the nation’s best frontcourts, and that won’t be any different this year. Matt Haarms will anchor the group after the 7-foot-3 center averaged 9.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 63.2 percent from the floor. Two freshmen that saw time last year – 6-foot-9 forwards Aaron Wheeler and Trevion Williams – will step into bigger roles up front, too.

Michigan State reports violation for Tom Izzo hosting visit for former high school

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Michigan State self-reported an NCAA rules violation for Tom Izzo hosting Iron Mountain High School for a tour while the team was in town to compete for its first ever state title that weekend.

Izzo unknowingly committed the violation — which only occurred because Iron Mountain was competing in the Breslin Center that weekend — and the Spartans immediately gave notice once they became aware of it. Proud of his alma mater for advancing to Michigan’s final weekend, Izzo was merely taking interest in players and a team connected to his youth. The Iron Mountain program toured the Breslin Center with Izzo and toured Michigan State’s locked room while also watching the Spartans practice before their state semifinal game.

Since it was a special privilege for Iron Mountain, playing in an event there, the Spartans were technically at fault for a violation. The fact that Izzo and Michigan State have to report a violation for this sort of thing is kind of ridiculous since Izzo has a natural connection to the team in question. Although Michigan State likely isn’t going to get hit with any NCAA issues from this, it’s the kind of thing that critics come to question about the NCAA’s rulebook.

Draymond Green nearly transferred from Michigan State before high school coach’s advice

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Draymond Green’s storied career at Michigan State almost ended during his first season on campus.

The Golden State Warriors all-star is known for his brash style and unpredictable emotional swings as those tendencies came to a head when Green wasn’t getting minutes early in his freshman season. In a story from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Green’s high school coach, Bruce Simmons, is interviewed, as he gives some perspective on how Green turned things around early in his college career.

When Green thought about leaving for somewhere else, Simmons told him to start going after Spartans senior Marquise Gray in practice and making a name for himself by outplaying him. Simmons also instructed Green to stare down Izzo if he played well against Gray.

“His freshman year at Michigan State, he got one minute against Ohio State,” Simmons said to Shelburne. “He called and said, ‘Coach Bruce, I’m going to transfer. F— this s—.’ And I said, ‘Noooo. We don’t do that. This is what you’re going to do. You’re going to go into practice. [Senior] Marquise Gray is getting your minutes. Bust his ass. Talk s— to him. And then when you’re doing that, look at Izzo, because Izzo is putting this [guy] on the court instead of you.'”

Knowing what we know now about Green, and his tendency to trash-talk and play mind games, this approach totally makes sense for him. Not many players are capable of going to emotional war like Green is and the style worked well with Izzo as the duo made a Final Four and Green became one of the NBA’s most important players.

 

Marquette’s Hauser brothers go separate ways in transferring to new schools

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After surprisingly transferring from Marquette following a successful season, Joey and Sam Hauser announced on Tuesday that they are heading to separate schools to continue their college basketball careers.

Sam Hauser, a junior with one season left of eligibility, will head to Virginia to play for head coach Tony Bennett. Joey Hauser, a freshman with three seasons left of eligibility, will play for head coach Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Both brothers were considered two of the best transfers available on the market a year removed from regularly contributing to a team that was consistently in the top 25 last season.

Sam put up 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last season while shooting 45 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range. Joey averaged 9.7 points, 5.3 rebounds per game in his freshman year while shooting 44 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range.

Many expected the high-scoring brothers to continue to play with one another at their next destination, so the split recruiting decisions come as a bit of a surprise after the duo took official visits together during the recruiting process. Both brothers are expected to sit out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules before resuming their careers the following season.

While Sam could be an immediate boost offensively to a Virginia team that has sometimes struggled to score, Joey is a nice rotation piece that should add shooting to a promising young Michigan State core.

Joshua Langford finds new role amid injury and Michigan State’s Final Four run

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MINNEAPOLIS — Tom Izzo had seen enough.

His Michigan State team had botched its out of bounds defense, and he felt another voice was needed to get the Spartans locked in. So he turned to his injured star, Joshua Langford.

“I said, ‘Josh, it’s time for you to take over,’ Izzo recalled this week. “So if you watch him on the bench, whenever there’s an out of bounds play, he’s getting the guys ready.”

Out-of-bounds defensive coordinator has been the type of role that Langford has been relegated to since a foot injury ended his junior season in December. Then, it seemed as though Langford might be the key to the Spartans’ success as their best pro prospect, but Michigan State has rolled all the way to U.S. Bank Stadium and Izzo’s eighth Final Four as Cassius Winston blossomed into a Player of the Year Candidate and the Spartans became one of the best two-way teams in the country.

That’s left the 6-foot-5 Langford, who was averaging 15 points per game and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, to contribute where he can.

“I just try to stay involved with my voice, reminding the guys and encouraging the guys, try to make sure they know we’re a great team,” Longford told NBC Sports. “I jumped right into it because I’m a captain on the team. I was already talking and doing things like that. As soon as I was on the sidelines, I just went right back to doing what I felt like I should do for my team.”

Langford’s reaction to his transformation from star to sideline hasn’t been altogether surprising to his teammates.

“He’s been very positive about it,” fellow junior Nick Ward said. “He’s very optimistic. He’s just been helping us no matter his status with the injury.

“Josh is very optimistic and positive person.”

He’s also someone who craves hoops.

“Some guys like the game, some guys love the game, and some guys live the game. Joshua is a guy that lives the game,” Izzo said. “He’s become a quiet kid that became a great leader last summer, and he still leads. That kid has not missed one second of one practice the entire time he’s injured. Even when he rehabs, he either does it right there in front of him or he comes in. H

“We miss him, but we have kept him involved.”

That’s why you’ll see Langford barking directions when Texas Tech takes the ball out under the basket Saturday night.

“I just try to remind the guys to stay down and focus,” Langford said of his out-of-bounds responsibilities. “I don’t really do anything with the defensive schemes. That’s the coaches’ job. I try to remind the guys what our game plan is. I try to make sure they stay down and ready because most of the times teams score on out of bounds because they’re not prepared.”

Langford, though, is dialed in to not only what the Spartans have to do, but what they’ll see from their opponents.

“Just telling us to get down, the plays that they’re about to run,” Ward said. “It’s always good to have reminders.”

It’s also good to have a guy like Langford, even if he’s in a walking boot rather than a pair of Nikes.

“He’s going to be one of those guys that, when he leaves,” Izzo said, “I’m going to be sorry that he left.”

Michgian State’s Xavier Tillman is ready for his moment

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MINNEAPOLIS — Xavier Tillman couldn’t quite believe it when he saw it. As he stepped out on to the floor, the Michigan State sophomore was almost overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Tillman looked around U.S. Bank Stadium and tried to get a grasp of it.

“I’ve never been in anything like this before. We walked out there and everybody was kind of looking around like this is huge,” Tillman. “It was hard to even see the top of the stadium. I’ve never played in something this big.”

The stadium matches the stage, as well as the role Tillman has played for the Spartans over the last six weeks to help them get back to their first Final Four since 2015 and try to win Tom Izzo’s second national championship. The Grand Rapids, Mich. native has transformed from useful reserve to indispensable piece after taking over as starter following Nick Ward’s hand injury in mid-February.

“He plays his role to perfection,” All-American point guard Cassius Winston said.

That role was one the 6-foot-8 forward had to wait for, not just this season, but last. A four-star recruit coming out of Grand Rapids Christian High School, Tillman spent the bulk of his freshman season watching. He played just 305 minutes, rarely seeing the floor for more than just spot duty for a few minutes each game. Still, that was a role he tried to embrace.

“My freshman year when I didn’t play in any games, I was on the bench standing up, yelling. I was clapping. I was smacking the ground,” Tillman said. “Show as much energy as I could from the bench so whenever they looked over, they’d be locked in.”

Tillman went from spending most of his time on the bench last year to seeing much more action as a sophomore, but it wasn’t until Nick Ward broke his hand on Feb. 17, that Tillman emerged not only as a reliable replacement but a critical cog in Michigan State winning 14 of its last 15 to reach the Twin Cities and Izzo’s eighth Final Four.

He immediately put up numbers, going for 19 points and nine boards in his starting debut against Rutgers and followed that up shortly with double-doubles against Nebraska and Michigan. Despite the stats, though, Tillman was still trying to feel his way through his expanded role.

“I wasn’t comfortable,” Tillman. “In the moment you try to get comfortable, you try to lock in, but you’re always going to be a little shaky in the moment. When you look back on it, you can say, ‘OK, at this moment I made a mistake that I usually don’t make so I was probably a little nervous at that point.’”

Eventually, those nerves melted away as Tillman’s production rose down the stretch of the season. In his 12 starts, he averaged 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the floor.

“He’s stepped up a lot,” Ward said. “He’s been doing his thing.”

That thing was never better than when Michigan State needed him most. Sunday against Duke, the tournament’s prohibitive favorite, and Zion Williamson, the biggest force to hit college basketball in years, Tillman was at his best, putting up 19 points and 10 rebounds while defending Williamson.

There were no more nerves. No more searching for comfort. Just production.

“You would think, this is a big game, you should be a little nervous,” Tillman said, “but I was really comfortable. I think I’ve gotten to the point that I’m living with all my results that happen on the court so now I’m just trying to win the game and play as hard as I can no matter how well I play or not.”

Tillman is a man who not only has settled into his role with the Spartans, but his spot in life. He’s the father of a 2-year-old daughter and will marry his fiance next month. It brings the perspective that allows him to thrive at a university that casts a shadow 70 miles across Interstate 96 from East Lansing to his hometown.

“Other than getting engaged, this has been the best decision I’ve made, for my family, just for myself,” he said. “Myself because I’ve gotten to compete against some really great guys that made me better, and formed me into the man I am today.”

That’s a man that will be vital for Michigan State as it looks to reclaim its spot atop college basketball after nearly a two-decade hiatus.

“We’ve come this far, might as well finish it,” Tillman said. “To be part of a program with such a winning history is already an honor. To make another mark with the history of this program, is just unbelievable. Hopefully we’re able to finish it out with another national championship and add to coach’s resume and start our’s as well.”