Big men on campus
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Anthony Davis showed how valuable a top tier big man can be for a team as it pushes for an NCAA title. An inside presence such as Davis completely changes the complexion of a game and season for a program.
Several centers left school early to chase professional careers. The following is an early list of the top centers who will be competing for First-Team All American honors.
CODY ZELLER - It is rare for an elite center to last more than multiple seasons in the NCAA before testing their skills at the next level. Zeller, whose older brother, Tyler was last season's ACC Player of the Year, comes from an excellent pedigree and has all the tools needed to dominate. Cody earned the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year award along with First Team Freshman All- American and Second Team All-Big Ten accolades. Zeller averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds, leading Indiana to a 15-game turnaround, which ended in the round of 32. The Hoosiers have high hopes for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament next season and it all starts with their sophomore sensation.
NERLENS NOEL - The highly touted recruit is expected to keep Kentucky relevant this season despite John Calipari losing his entire starting five and sixth man to the NBA. Noel is also expected to challenge Davis's single-season record of 186 blocked shots with his 6-10 frame, 7-4 wingspan, and explosive athleticism. The hype around this incoming freshman is evident, however he will have help as the Wildcats have arguably the best incoming class in the nation. Noel was investigated by the NCAA in early May, however Kentucky fans are at ease that no further action has taken place since. The upside of the prized center would have made him one of the top selections in this year's NBA Draft despite the fact he has never played a minute of college basketball.
TRAVIS AND DAVID WEAR - The towering twins failed to carry UCLA as far as they would have liked last season in their first season under the coaching of Ben Howland after transferring from North Carolina. However, they did not fail to display their talents during a hectic year. The Wears are going to be a vital component of a Bruin revival this season. Travis is the team's top returning scorer and David led UCLA in rebounding in 2011-2012. Both players are 6-10, which clogs the lane and makes their squad one of the top at defending the interior. The Bruins' brothers mimic the sophomore seasons of another pair of twins, Brook and Robin Lopez, who led Stanford to an NCAA Tournament three- seed.
RICHARD HOWELL - NC State's Sweet 16 run of the 2012 NCAA Tournament was a total team effort. The slightly undersized Howell battled inside all season to average 10.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, which is the top average on the boards among returning players in the ACC. Howell made his mark in the second round of the Big Dance as he dominated versus San Diego State with 22 points on 10-of-12 shooting before struggling offensively against Georgetown and Kansas in the Wolfpack's next two games. The senior-to-be did manage to grab 16 rebounds in NC State's season-ending loss to Kansas while squaring off with the Jayhawks' Thomas Robinson. If Howell can manage to maintain consistency on the offensive end, the Wolfpack will be legitimate contenders for the ACC crown.
ALEC BROWN - Green Bay finished last season with momentum as it won eight of its last 11 games to finish at .500. Brown led the Phoenix in scoring and was second in the Horizon League in rebounding and blocked shots in 2011-2012 as a sophomore. The 7-1 center was named to the All-Horizon League First Team for his stellar season and is an early candidate for next season's player of the year award. Brown has the size, mid-range shooting touch, and strength to cause problems for most opposition. He will have the attention of professional scouts next season as he attempts to lead Green Bay back to a winning record and into the postseason.
BROCK MOTUM - Washington State nearly won the CBI Tournament postseason championship and many feel it would have won had Motum not gone down with an ankle injury in the semifinals. The Cougars' 6-10 star led the Pac-12 Conference with 18.0 points per game and also grabbed a team-high 6.4 boards per contest. The Australian born Motum is attempting to refine his skills even further and earn a spot on his native country's national team in the upcoming Summer Olympics. His capable inside-outside game will make him a viable candidate to win the Pac-12 Player of the Year award if the Cougars can manage to compete for the conference title.
ISAIAH AUSTIN - Scott Drew has transformed Baylor into a national powerhouse since taking over the reins of the program. The Bears took a hit when Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, and Quincy Acy left the program in the spring, but Austin will immediately restore at least some of what was lost. The 7-0 center, who is the nephew of former NBA center Isaac Austin, is a special type of player for someone his size. Austin is an excellent jump shooter with great range and shot blocking ability, however his post up skills are lacking at this point. The freshman center will progress with his season and will be considered one of the top NBA prospects for next year's draft if all goes as planned.
JEFF WITHEY - The Jayhawks had one of the best interior combinations in the NCAA last season with Thomas Robinson and Withey holding down the fort. Although he was a solid contributor in 2011-2012 to his team's second place finish, Withey is expected to play an even more vital role for Kansas this season with Robinson's departure. KU's center is the NCAA's leading returning shot blocker and a drastic improvement to his scoring and rebounding production is not unlikely with his running mate's departure.
GORGUI DIENG - Louisville took the nation by storm this past March when it won the Big East Tournament and rallied all the way to the Final Four, and Dieng was a big part of that success. The Senegal native led the Big East in blocks and set the all-time school record for blocks in a season in 2011-2012 as a sophomore. Dieng has taken major strides since arriving in Kentucky as a 187- pound, 6-10 freshman. The now 235-pound center will undoubtedly be a player to keep an eye on as he develops his athleticism and basketball skill set under Rick Pitino.
MASON PLUMLEE - The Blue Devils' disappointing loss to Lehigh in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament was no fault of Duke's junior center. Plumlee went 9-of-9 from the field to score 19 points which he accompanied with 12 rebounds and three blocks in the losing effort. Duke fans took a sigh of relief when Plumlee announced his intent to stick around for his senior season after the tough loss. The Blue Devils' big man is very athletic and developed from a player who scored primarily off of offensive rebounds into a legitimate off the ball option. Plumlee, who finished third in the ACC in rebounding last season, has the talent, intangibles, and athleticism to go head-to-head with any center in college basketball.
HONORABLE MENTION: Mike Muscala (Bucknell), Patric Young (Florida), Mouphtaou Yarou (Villanova), Alex Len (Maryland), Steven Adams (Pittsburgh), Reggie Johnson (Miami-Florida), Joshua Smith (UCLA), Kyle Barone (Idaho), Gregory Echenique (Creighton), Andrew Smith (Butler), Jamelle Hagins (Delaware)