Recent draft rule forces big men to college ... and that's a good thing
College coaches typically are devout believers -- in themselves, in their systems and usually in their players -- so it takes a big man to admit that his program's modus operandi might be flawed.
Villanova coach Jay Wright gets a bit of a break, though. His Wildcats have small-balled their way to three straight NCAA Tournaments, including a No. 1 seed in 2006 that resulted in an Elite Eight appearance, but it has been injuries, not personal preference, that have prompted Nova to play that style. But Wright truly believes it takes a big man to win a national title.
|Recent Naismith winners|
1995 - Joe Smith, Maryland
1996 - Marcus Camby, Massachusetts
1997 - Tim Duncan, Wake Forest
1998 - Antawn Jamison, North Carolina
1999 - Elton Brand, Duke
2000 - Kenyon Martin, Cincinnati
2001 - Shane Battier, Duke
2002 - Jason Williams, Duke
2003 - T.J. Ford, Texas
2004 - Jameer Nelson, St. Joseph's
2005 - Andrew Bogut, Utah
2006 - J.J. Redick, Duke
2007 - Kevin Durant, Texas
"No, I don't think you can," Wright replied when asked if a perimeter-based team can take home the crown in today's environment. "We have been lucky to have been as successful as we've been without dominant bigs."
Maybe five years ago, Wright wouldn't have said that. Teams like Michigan State and Maryland had recently won titles behind the strength of their backcourts, and the NBA draft, which annually tempted almost any competent player with size to declare early, had really started to take its toll.
A look at the annual Naismith Award winners in the preps-to-pros era implies that shift toward a guards' game. Starting with Duke's Jason Williams, five of the past six winners (yes, even Kevin Durant) have been perimeter players. The sixth, Andrew Bogut, is an international outlier.
The past five NCAA Tournaments, though, underscore Wright's point. In 2003, Syracuse was led by Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick, a lottery pick and a first-rounder. Emeka Okafor carried UConn in 2004. Ditto Sean May and North Carolina in 2005. Florida had Al Horford and Joakim Noah fueling its back-to-back titles. All four also were lottery selections. Last season's Final Four featured Horford, Noah, Greg Oden and Roy Hibbert. The 2006 version featured the Florida duo along with Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Tyrus Thomas and even George Mason's lethal duo, Jai Lewis and Will Thomas.
It seems clear that the game has been driven back into the post. But if we're getting closer to replicating the days when players like Ralph Sampson, Akeem (no H) Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing dominated inside, the bigger question becomes why? For starters, the 2006 NBA draft rule change that now prohibits high school-to-NBA leaps has greatly expanded the pool of high-end post talent at the college level. Without the rule, it's entirely conceivable that Oden, Spencer Hawes, Hasheem Thabeet, Kosta Koufos and Love never would have played a minute of intercollegiate hoops.
This comes on the heels of an era when almost any reasonable big man -- remember, Robert Swift was a lottery pick -- considered the preps-to-pros leap.
"It's kind of been a theme of the NBA taking big guys on potential, maybe more so than guards, and maybe that's why we had a stage where we went without them," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who in this new era has enjoyed both Oden and Koufos, and has a verbal commitment from five-star center B.J. Mullins for next season.
Additionally, these types of players come in vastly more prepared than they used to be. After nearly year-round play between their high school/prep school teams and the AAU and summer circuits, elite players are finding that the leap to the college level has been reduced.
"You're getting big kids now who are playing 80, 90 games that they never would have played before," said UConn head coach Jim Calhoun. "That, to me, has made a great deal of difference."
The full sea change is even broader, with bigs of all shapes and sizes making their mark across the college landscape. Just look at the Pac-10 this season as a microcosm.
Beyond Love (to go with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata-Real) at UCLA, you have the 7-foot-1 Lopez twins at Stanford. At Cal, shot-blocking fiend DeVon Hardin returns to pair with inside/outside threat Ryan Anderson. Washington has ground-bound workhorse Jon Brockman. Oregon has undersized do-it-all threat Maarty Leunen. USC has jumping jack Taj Gibson. Arizona State has sweet-shooting Jeff Pendergraph.
No two are the same, which makes preparation and execution very difficult.
"Every big guy on every team just plays completely different. It was crazy," said Cal's Anderson, who was left by himself last season after injuries sidelined Hardin and Jordan Wilkes. " It was just different playing [guys like Leunen] and then coming out and playing the 7-1 Lopez twins the next day. It gave me a perspective on everyone I had to guard. I had to game plan a little different every day."
Anderson is a typical example of the "new" big man: He can score on the block, he can handle the ball, and he has shooting range out beyond the 3-point arc. Wright credits the creeping influence of the international game for the skillful evolution in American big men. Others, including Anderson, tout the prep circuit and better overall development and coaching at the college level.
"I think a lot of coaches, as well as players, are focusing a lot on developing the big man," Anderson said. "Now, to be a big man in college, you have to do it all. You have to be able to shoot, you have to be able to rebound to be successful. It's a different world for big men now. You have to be athletic, be skilled, to play at that next level."
Whatever the reason(s), more than ever is being asked of big men -- and there seem to be more than ever across the college game.
"I think there are a lot more skilled and better-developed frontcourt people," Wright said. "I think it's good for the game, and the best ones are the ones that are carrying their teams."
If the recent trends hold, several of them will carry their teams all the way to San Antonio in April. And that would be a very big deal indeed.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.