The Postmodern Postman Coming in shorter sizes and smaller shapes, today's college centers are using their skill and savvy in the middle to redefine the pivot position

November 24, 2003

The finest low-post scorer in college basketball has a
confession to make. When he's asked how he can be so adept
around the basket at just 6'8", Arizona State sophomore Ike
Diogu breaks into an impish smile. "To be honest with you," he
says, sotto voce, "I'm 6'7"." ¶ Not that he doesn't sometimes
fantasize about being bigger. For a recent project in his 3-D
design class, which required Diogu to sew, shape and stuff a
life-sized alter ego, the digital-arts major created a
Franken-Ike version of himself--as a 7-footer. "Sometimes I
wish I were 7 feet, but that's just the way it is," says
Diogu, whose 19.0 points and 7.8 rebounds a game last year made
him the top freshman in the land not named Carmelo Anthony.
"Besides, if you get good low-post position, it doesn't really
matter how tall you are." ¶ In fact Diogu's skills are so
outsized, his moves so fully fashioned, it only seems as if
he's a 7-footer. "Look at this," says Sun Devils assistant Tony
Benford, popping a tape into his VCR. There's Ike mesmerizing
USC with right-and lefthanded reverse layups; herculean
and-ones; and a breathtaking, 360-degree, spinning drive from
the top of the key. There's Ike beguiling Memphis with jump
hooks, up-and-unders and turnarounds, then moving outside to
nail two straight three-pointers. And there's Ike walking
Oregon's 6'11" Ian Crosswhite up the lane, then using his
250-pound bulk to seal him off and explode to the basket for a
catch-and-release bank shot. "Ike got double-and triple-teamed
all year," Benford says. "It didn't matter."

Who says you can't teach height? Diogu is only one example of a
new breed of big man in the college game, a shorter but no less
effective inside player who uses smarts, speed, brawn and
old-fashioned fundamentals to learn how to play taller in the
paint--yet still remains dangerous in the open floor. One look at
SI's preseason Top 20 reveals a slew of such postmodern postmen,
including Connecticut's 6'9" Emeka Okafor (page 74), Missouri's
6'8 1/2" Arthur Johnson, Gonzaga's 6'10" Ronny Turiaf, Texas's
6'8" James Thomas, North Carolina's 6'9" Sean May, Michigan
State's 6'10" Paul Davis, Notre Dame's 6'10" Torin Francis and
Kentucky's 6'6" Chuck Hayes. Together they are changing the face
of college hoops, circa 2003.

How did this happen? The evolution of Postus sixfooteightus is a
perfectly logical adaptation of the college game to the
decadelong flood of towering athletic specimens--Kevin Garnett,
Jermaine O'Neal, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh--who either skip
college entirely or use it as a quick pit stop on their way to
the pros. Since 1995 when Garnett turned pro straight out of high
school, 46 of the 91 NBA draftees who've entered the league with
a year or less of college experience have been 6'10" or taller.
"There aren't a lot of top-notch big guys left in the college
game, but you still have guys with size, and you have to coach
what you have," says North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who did
just fine at Kansas with such new-breed prototypes as 6'9" Nick
Collison, 6'10" Drew Gooden and 6'9" Wayne Simien.

Every coach in the country knows that next year's likely No. 1
NBA pick, Dwight Howard, a 6'11" senior at Southwest Atlanta
Christian Academy, won't be spending a minute on a college
campus. So, if you're a college coach, why bother recruiting
him--or, for that matter, the next dozen giants behind him? "If I
was advising somebody in recruiting big men, the first thing I
would say is, 'See those guys rated one through 20? Don't waste
your time recruiting them,'" says first-year Murray State coach
Mick Cronin, the former top recruiter for Louisville's Rick
Pitino and Cincinnati's Bob Huggins. "You have to be able to
recruit the guys ranked 20 through 60. Those are the guys who are
going to become the good to great college centers. You have to
project who is going to grow into that body, who is going to lose
that baby fat, who really does have good hands or footwork."

It's fashionable, of course, for hoops mavens to bemoan the
disappearance of 7-foot difference-makers from campuses
nationwide. But at a time when the criteria for success in the
NBA and NCAA have never been so divergent,
undersized-but-polished pivots like Okafor, Diogu and Johnson can
thrive in college as never before. "More people are looking for
better athletes and skill guys than they are just for size these
days," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "To me a 6'6" guy like
Chuck Hayes is dynamite. He can rebound, he's got a little shot,
he can take it to the hole, he's strong, he's tough. He's one of
my favorite players in the country."

Today's college game rewards coaches who have the patience to
teach the basics. Before he left to coach UCLA, Ben Howland
helped turn Pittsburgh into a national power by developing 6'6"
Ontario Lett and 6'7" Chevon Troutman into reliable inside
scorers. At Gonzaga, where Mark Few has built a Final Four
contender, his big men run through endless reps--in practice and
on their own--to perfect one go-to move and, equally important, a
countermove. It's nothing fancy, but it works. "If you look
around, not many guys know how to post or seal inside the right
way," says Bulldogs assistant Leon Rice, who's convinced that the
fundamentals don't get the respect they deserve. "The classic
high-low isn't going to be the play you see on SportsCenter."
Nevertheless solid post fundamentals are more likely to be
displayed by the top college teams than in the pros, where
players often get by on raw ability.

So which species make up this breed of collegiate big men? And
how do they compensate for their lack of height?

THE ARTIST Like offensive linemen, big men usually take longer
than other players to learn their positions. Not Diogu, who
arrived in Tempe last year not only with remarkable physical
tools--the hands of an ex-high school tight end, the nimble feet
of a fire-walker and the most dangerous booty since J. Lo's--but
also with a relentlessly curious mind. While other Sun Devils
slept during road trips last year, Diogu would stay up late to
study game tapes, and invariably he'd display what he'd learned
his next time out on the floor. The son of Nigerian immigrants,
both teachers, from the Dallas suburb of Garland, Diogu hopes to
design the next generation of dance-step video games. (We told
you he was a master of footwork.) "When I started playing
basketball in high school, all I could do was righthanded jump
hooks," he says. "But I kept working with my coaches as the years
went on, and I've got a variety of moves now."

His precocity stunned everyone in the Pac-10 last year, including
Sun Devils coach Rob Evans. "You don't see those skills in a
freshman," Evans says. "Ike's so intelligent, he just knows how
to play. Once you catch a ball inside, there's a small window
where you have to make a move. Ike can feel you and just go the
other way. If he pins you, the only way to get around him is to
foul him, and then he makes his free throws [73.5% last year]."
This year Evans plans on unleashing Diogu's face-up game, giving
him the green light on three-pointers. (He was 9 for 24 from
beyond the arc in 2002-03.) If he continues his quick-study ways,
Ikechukwa Somotochukwa Diogu will be the biggest name in college
hoops this season.

THE IMPORT Colleges have been tapping the international ranks for
decades, but the pipeline--especially from Europe--has dried up
considerably in recent years as federations concluded that their
future stars could be better developed in domestic pro leagues
than in the NCAA. So you can understand the grumbling Ronny
Turiaf heard when he told French basketball officials that he was
leaving Paris (where the Martinique native had spent three years
at the national sports school) to enroll at Gonzaga. As Turiaf
recalls, "They were like, 'Ronny, you're not going to get better.
And then you're going to come back here, and you won't make the
national team.'"

Au contraire. In schooling Turiaf, now a hulking 260-pound
junior, the Bulldogs' coaching staff has done its part to soothe
turbulent U.S.-French relations. Turiaf, who speaks five
languages, has listened well; Few calls him "the best learner
we've ever had in our program," and his production has leaped
accordingly, from 7.3 points and 5.0 boards a game as a 215-pound
freshman to 15.6 and 6.2 last year. The coup de grace came when
Turiaf beat out several pros to make France's roster for last
summer's European championships. "Everyone was surprised to see
how much better I got with my post moves, my confidence, my whole
game," Turiaf says. Few is now operating under the assumption
that Turiaf will be the first player in school history to leave
early for the NBA.

THE EX-DOUGHBOY The college landscape is littered with the
carcasses of talented but overfed big men who couldn't stay away
from the fast-food window long enough to develop. Such a fate
could have befallen Missouri's Arthur Johnson when he touched
down in Columbia three years ago weighing 308 pounds. "I had no
clue what it was going to take when I got to Missouri," says
Johnson, who was a star at Detroit's Pershing High. "I realized
pretty fast I had a lot of work to do."

With the help of a nutrition program and a daily locker room
chart called the A.J.-o-Meter, Johnson melted off the pounds and
now tips the scales at a svelte 255. "Losing the weight has
helped me in a lot of ways," says Johnson, who possesses a
gossamer-soft touch and an 85-inch wingspan that makes him seem
taller than 6'8 1/2". "I'm able to stay out there for longer
stretches. I jump better, run better and have much more energy."
Small wonder that Johnson is already Mizzou's alltime leader in
blocks, needs just 194 more boards to set the school rebounding
record and was selected (along with Okafor and Diogu) for last
summer's Pan American Games team. "He loves taking his shirt off
now," says Tigers coach Quin Snyder. "You know he's been working
hard when he walks around with his shirt off."

THE EX-PIP-SQUEAK "Playing taller" doesn't only involve creating
inside shots more easily. For 240-pound Texas senior James Thomas
it has meant adding 25 pounds of muscle--and an astonishing seven
inches on his vertical leap--to turn himself into a rebounding
machine who pulled down 11.0 boards a game last year. "I didn't
touch a weight in high school, but here I've been all business,"
says Thomas, who "started exploding" as soon as he began working
out three years ago, according to Longhorns strength and
conditioning coach Todd Wright.

"He's the only guy we've had since I've been here who has cleared
the little sticks on the Vertec [vertical-leap gauge]," says
Wright. Tales of Thomas's Bunyanesque feats are legion, like the
time he defied Kansas State wide-body Pervis Pasco's death grip
on his left arm, leaped to sweep a rebound with his right hand
and stuck the putback--drawing a foul on Pasco in the process. If
Thomas sticks as a pro, it won't be because of his scoring (he
averaged 11.1 points last season), but who cares? "I think I can
rebound even better this year and have a future in the game," he
says. He's already established himself as the kind of guy most
players would rather play with than against. It says so right
there in the tattoo on his right biceps: LOVED BY FEW, HATED BY
MANY.

THE JACK-OF-ALL-TRADES Just as undersized big men are finding a
home in the lane, taller centers are learning that it pays to be
dangerous on the perimeter. Michigan State sophomore Paul Davis
is one who is aiming for a breakout season by combining his
multiple skills as an inside scorer and passer with an efficient
three-point shot. "I'm trying to add another dimension or two to
my game that can create matchup problems," says Davis, who led
the U.S. team with 17.7 points and 8.7 rebounds a game at last
summer's Junior World Championships. "There are hundreds of 6'10"
guys out there, and somehow the great ones separate themselves
from everybody else."

What Davis doesn't want to be is the next Rick Rickert, the
former Minnesota big man who moved so far out from the basket
last year in an effort to impress NBA scouts that he abandoned
his inside game--and, not surprisingly, failed to make an
opening-day NBA roster after he left school following his
sophomore season. "What we're stressing to Paul is, if you're
going to be versatile, then be versatile," says Izzo. "You can
move outside, but part of being a big man is being physical and
playing inside. You've got to be able to do both."

In other words positioning yourself to play today's
little-big-man position has to begin with ... positioning. Where
is your base of operations? Ike Diogu certainly knows his. "It
all starts on the block. If you get good low-post position,
nobody can stop you," he says. "Well, maybe Shaq." And last we
checked, Shaq doesn't play college basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO IKE DIOGU ARIZONA STATE/Sophomore/6'7" "How good are his hands? They are unbelievable," says Sun Devils coach Rob Evans of his precocious pivotman. "You throw anything at him, he goes and gets it." COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO PAUL DAVIS MICHIGAN STATE/Sophomore/6'10" The Spartans center is too big to be bypassed on the defensive end (above), and on offense he has now added the threat of a three-pointer to his arsenal COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN RONNY TURIAF GONZAGA/Junior/6'10" The muscleman from Martinique has mastered post play so quickly in Spokane that his next address--perhaps a year from now--almost certainly will be an NBA city. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN JAMES THOMAS TEXAS/Senior/6'8" Because of his height, pro scouts may be doubting Thomas, but awed opponents have been won over by the burly Longhorn's take-no-prisoners pursuit of the ball.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER ARTHUR JOHNSON MISSOURI/Senior/6'8 1/2"Even though he's lost more than 50 pounds, the former fatty is still a load to contend with, thanks to his sure hands, fast feet and a nose for the right place at the right time.

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