By now you've heard that a surprising number of quality players chose not to enter the 2011 NBA draft and will instead return to the college game for the 2011-12 season. Well, you heard right. Coming up with a list of the nation's 10 best frontcourts for this coming season is difficult, simply because there's so much talent to choose from. But at the end of the day, these are the frontcourts that stand out:
In 7-0 Robert Sacre and 6-8 Elias Harris, Bulldogs coach Mark Few has two veterans that throw their weight around on both sides of the ball. Start with a surprise: last year Sacre and Harris shot a combined 80 percent at the line, which was good news for Gonzaga fans because, on average, the duo drew more than seven fouls for every 40 minutes they played together. Both are solid (if not spectacular) on the defensive glass, and Sacre in particular is a good offensive rebounder. Speaking of surprises, Sacre made less than half of his two-point attempts last year, which is unusual for a seven-footer. But his shot-blocking and ability to get to the line (not to mention the 55 percent two-point shooting the Zags get from Harris) more than offset the occasional miss.
Trevor Mbakwe might be the most productive player you didn't pay any attention to last year. All he did as a junior was make 58 percent of his two-point tries and pull down 26 percent of opponents' missed shots during his minutes. Plus he stays out of foul trouble while drawing an average of six whistles per 40 minutes on the other team. If he could just make free throws (he shoots 63 percent at the line) his kenpom efficiency rating would set tongues a wagging. Not that Mbakwe's a one-man frontcourt in the Twin Cities. Ralph Sampson's an excellent shot-blocker, one who swats and alters shots without committing many fouls. Even with Colton Iverson's transfer to Colorado State, Tubby Smith still has a formidable frontcourt on hand.
When it comes to big men and the reigning national champions, the whole is most definitely more than the sum of its parts. Not to revisit ancient history, but in 80 minutes of basketball played at the Final Four in April, Jim Calhoun's team held Kentucky and Butler to 15-of-66 shooting (23 percent) on their two-point attempts. Not all of that was the doing of the frontcourt, of course, but then again having Alex Oriakhi on hand, along with cameo appearances by Charles Okwandu, certainly helped those numbers along. As a sophomore the 6-9 Oriakhi was a role-player on offense, one who usually "created his own shot" simply by pulling down an offensive rebound. Now that Kemba Walker has moved on to the next level, you may hear talk about Oriakhi taking on a larger role. But if the big guy continues to dominate the offensive glass and deny the paint to opposing offenses, his job description will be pretty substantial as is. Also note that last week highly-rated 6-8 freshman wing DeAndre Daniels announced that he'll be joining the UConn frontcourt in the fall.
While we're on the subject of outstanding two-point defense, consider Alabama. You didn't hear a lot about the Crimson Tide last year -- they didn't even make the newly expanded 68-team NCAA tournament field -- but Anthony Grant's team held their SEC opponents to 42 percent shooting from inside the arc last year. Give 6-8 JaMychal Green and 6-6 Tony Mitchell their fair share of the credit: this was far and away the best defense in the conference (allowing just 0.92 points per possession in league play). Green, who's the Tide's best rebounder at both ends of the floor, draws an average of six fouls per 40 minutes and shoots a respectable 74 percent at the line. Meanwhile Mitchell get his points largely from the field, draining 58 percent of his two-point attempts.
Here's one indicator of a strong frontcourt. Your leading scorer and rebounder from the previous year is returning, and your coach is giving interviews saying that in the upcoming season the team is going to feed the big man -- but he's not talking about last year's leading scorer and rebounder. Meet the Bruins. Last year Reeves Nelson scored more points and pulled down more boards than any UCLA player, but when Ben Howland talks about surrounding a big man with four more perimeter-oriented players in 2011-12 he is talking about Joshua Smith. Take it from Howland: "The only other player we've had like him was Kevin (Love)." That is some very high praise, but if the 300-pound Smith can log enough minutes he may just earn the comparison. Smith and Nelson will be joined this season by Travis and David Wear, who are eligible after transferring from North Carolina.
For a 6-11 shot-blocker surrounded by the likes of Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli plays a surprisingly large role in the Commodores' offense. True, it's a role that comes and goes, as Ezeli struggles to stay out of foul trouble. But when he's on the floor (23 minutes a game) he commands the attention of opposing defenses, often by pulling down an offensive board and/or drawing a foul. In other words feel free to be impressed by Ezeli's 59 percent two-point shooting, because it came while he functioned as something like a co-featured scorer alongside Taylor. Speaking of Taylor, his two-point accuracy's declined in each of his three seasons, but the 6-7 wing is nevertheless adept at drawing both attention and fouls from the opponent.
If you're looking for a big man who's going to make a big leap in scoring average in 2011-12, you could do worse than Perry Jones. As a freshman the 6-10 Jones could function as a supporting player while LaceDarius Dunn took the bulk of the shots in the Bears' offense. But now Dunn's gone and it's time for Jones to show what he can do as the proverbial Man. If last year's 56 percent accuracy from inside the arc is any indication, Jones should do just fine (once he sits out an NCAA-mandated five games due to loans his mother received from an AAU coach). Throw in 6-9 freshman sensation-in-waiting Quincy Miller, not to mention veterans like Quincy Acy (Scott Drew has cornered the market on "Quincy"s) and Anthony Jones, and fans in Waco may well be treated to a special season.
Expectations can be misguided, of course, but right now very big things are anticipated from Anthony Davis. The 6-10 freshman from Chicago is billed as an athletic and dominant big man, one who could hear his name called as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. And, depending on how you classify freshman wing Michael Gilchrist, Davis may have some competition for the honor of top UK frontcourt freshman. One more thing: did I mention Terrence Jones is back? After mulling his options the 6-8 sophomore-to-be decided to play another season of college ball. Jones missed his share of shots last year, but for a freshman functioning as his team's co-featured scorer (along with the now departed Brandon Knight) his body of work suggests very good things to come. This projects to be one loaded frontcourt.
2. Ohio State
For the purposes of these rankings I'm defining the Ohio State frontcourt as Jared Sullinger, period. To be sure, Thad Matta has a 6-10 McDonald's All-American joining the roster this fall (hard to believe, I know), and I'm sure Amir Williams will be a fine player. But I'm already on the record as believing that Sullinger is poised to do some very special things as a sophomore. Simply put, I'm not sure we've seen a player this good not enter the draft in recent years. The closest examples would be Blake Griffin and DeJuan Blair as freshmen, and of the three Sullinger arguably has the best numbers as a first-year performer. To repeat what I said about Sullinger a few weeks ago: "For a freshman to log this many minutes, stay out of foul trouble, make 70 percent of his free throws, take care of the ball and dominate the boards at both ends of the floor is very rare." Assuming that Sullinger's teammates can keep opposing defenses honest, I'm really looking forward to seeing just how much damage the big guy can do as a sophomore.
1. North Carolina
I know you expected to me rank the Tar Heels' frontcourt No. 1, and, sure enough, here they are. After all, a trio comprised of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, and John Henson gives Roy Williams what can only be termed a ridiculous embarrassment of riches. But here's a fun fact. How many of those guys made first-team All-ACC last year? Answer: none. Zero! That ACC must have been one talented conference in 2010-11. While it's true Barnes is currently refining his backcourt skills, I'll lump him in with the big guys here simply because opposing coaches have to think that way. Any team that plays Carolina has to figure out how to guard the 7-0 Zeller, the 6-10 Henson, and the 6-8 Barnes. (Good luck.) All of the above will be joined by McDonald's All-American James Michael McAdoo. (And, remember, the name really is James Michael McAdoo.)
Next up: top 10 backcourts for 2012. See you then.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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