Positions in college basketball can be difficult to determine. It’s not uncommon to see a 6-foot-8 center or a 6-3 wing. What’s the difference between a 7-foot center and a 7-foot power forward? Yes, we’re writing about you, Karl Towns, Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein. Is Dez Wells bringing the ball up the floor or posting up in the paint? Will Ryan Boatright be a point guard or a shooting guard?
Instead of organizing these lists as positions 1-5, we’ve decided to group them as bigs, wings and guards. Our aim was to include the best players in college basketball, and accordingly, we didn’t consider at all how players would project to the NBA.
In this list of bigs, you’ll find four Kentucky Wildcats, a frontrunner for national player of the year awards and perhaps the most underrated player in all of college basketball.
Despite his height, Ellis is one of the most efficient paint scorers in this group. He shoots 54.9 percent from the floor overall, but, according to hoop-math.com, he shoots 54.3 percent of his shots at the rim, where he converts at a 65.1 percent clip. He was overshadowed last season by all-world talents in Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, who both went in the top 3 of the NBA draft – but Ellis will have Kansas right back in thick of the Big 12 and national championship races. In fact, not having those two players around should give Ellis more opportunities to show his athleticism. Wiggins and Embiid combined to take 50.2 percent of the teams possessions, leaving plenty of space for Ellis to step up this season.
College basketball players typically make their biggest strides between their freshmen and sophomore seasons, and Karnowski certainly did that. He went from 5.4 points and 2.6 boards a game in his first year with the Bulldogs to 10.4 and 7.1, respectively, last season. A big reason for that was his ability to get to the foul line -- he drew, on average, 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes -- but he'll need to convert at a higher clip than the 50 percent he shot a season ago. The Zags are hoping that the Polish center can pair nicely with Kyle Wiltjer, who is more of a face-up player, to give them a frontcourt advantage.
Niang averaged 16.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists and 30.1 minutes per game last season, and if he hadn’t broken his foot in Iowa State’s NCAA tournament-opening win over North Carolina Central, the Cyclones might have reached the Final Four. Niang’s biggest asset is his range: He has a nice enough jump shot to keep perimeter defenders honest, shooting 47.4 percent from the floor and 32.7 percent on 142 three-point attempts. He also has enough post moves to back the ball down against smaller defenders. Niang sometimes plays the 5-spot in Iowa State’s lineup, but his most natural college position is as at power forward.
Portis quietly had an excellent freshman season for the Razorbacks, landing on the All-SEC second team. It was quiet mostly because Arkansas finished 22-12 and was bounced in the second round of the NIT. Arkansas returns its top six scorers (Portis was second), and the team is certainly hoping to get over the hump and into the NCAA tournament for the first time under head coach Mike Anderson. According to Anderson, Portis will be the Razorbacks' most valuable player this season, and he's working hard to live up to expectations. “He has a motor that doesn’t stop,” Anderson told SI.com's Seth Davis in late June. “He doesn’t want to be good. He wants to be great.”
Nothing about Tarzcewski or his game is particularly flashy, but the Wildcats offer plenty of flash in the frontcourt to compensate. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley can put their athleticism on display as Tarzcewski does the dirty work: creating space, setting up screens and snagging rebounds. He showed marked improvement from his freshman to his sophomore seasons, and there’s no reason not to expect a similar increase in productivity this year. He has always had the size and mobility of an NBA first-round pick, but only last year did he begin putting together a consistent offensive game – his true shooting percentage was top 50 in the country at season’s end. One thing to watch this season will be how well he defends without Aaron Gordon – one of the best defenders in the nation last season – by his side.
Towns will face serious competition for playing time at Kentucky, but he’s used to it: He spent part of the summer playing for the Dominican Republic senior national team. He’s not an overly confident player, but he’ll be able to grow without the weight of the team on his shoulders. Towns is tall and long and an excellent shooter, and he’ll provide a different kind of big man for Kentucky, if only for a year.