Big is Back

After a decade in which the game grew smaller, faster and more guard-oriented, new rules and shifting priorities have revived a species on the verge of extinction: the low-post dinosaur
November 20, 2006

Some folks justdon't get it. In the past nine years, only one Final Four Most OutstandingPlayer has returned to college basketball the following season--and now he hasto justify himself, over and over, as if he had a screw loose. "People say,'You could have been the Number 1 pick in the [NBA] draft! Why did you comeback?'" says Florida junior forward Joakim Noah. "I'm not in asituation where I need money to put food on the table, and I just feel like itwould be that much more special for me and my teammates to stay as a group.There's nothing like a college environment. My stock might drop--and itprobably will with Greg Oden around--but it's not about that." ¶ On severallevels Noah is a refreshing phenomenon, the rare player who's not only tallerthan he says he is--open secret: he's a 7-footer, not 6'11"--but alsobetter than he thinks he is. (He says he'll play internationally for France,claiming he's not good enough for the U.S. national team.) But what once wasrare in the college game is suddenly a lot more common. A thousand miles northof Noah lurks another 7-foot giant, Ohio State's Oden, who's generatingstraight-faced comparisons with the young Lew Alcindor. "Greg Oden is asgood a prospect as I've seen in 15 years," says North Carolina coach RoyWilliams of the freshman, a two-time national high school player of the year."And he is a big man. He's not trying to be a three-point shooter or apoint guard. He's just dominating the inside area."

If you sweep yourfield glasses across the veldt of college hoops, you'll reach an inescapableconclusion: The low-post dinosaur is back. After a decade in which the gamegrew smaller, faster and more guard-oriented, new rules and shifted prioritieshave revived the campus big man, a species that was on the verge of extinction.Not since the 1980s heydays of Patrick Ewing, Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampsonhas SI's preseason Top 20 revealed such a post-heavy collection of skilled7-foot T-Rexes (Oden, Pittsburgh's Aaron Gray, Washington's Spencer Hawes,Georgetown's Roy Hibbert) and explosive all-court velociraptors (Florida's Noahand 6'10" Al Horford, Alabama's 6'10" Jermareo Davidson, LSU's 6'9"Glen [Big Baby] Davis, North Carolina's 6'81/2" Tyler Hansbrough, Duke's6'10" Josh McRoberts).

If this seasonwere, say, five years ago, the majority of those big men wouldn't be settingfoot in a college arena. But the landscape is being transformed. "Thelow-post game is returning," says Ohio State coach Thad Matta, "and Ithink you're going to see more and more of it. We had two of our recruits inthe other day, and Greg was smaller than both of them. Can you imaginethat?" Even though Oden isn't expected to play until January afterundergoing surgery in June on a torn ligament in his right wrist, the new-lookBuckeyes were picked to win the Big Ten in the league's preseason mediapoll.

Want moreevidence that big is back? Try filling out a preseason All-America ballot. Theexcess of fours and fives--and relative lack of worthy perimeter players--mighthave you inserting LSU's Big Baby where no sane college coach would: at smallforward. Or talk to Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who's relying this seasonon low-post strongmen Hawes and Jon Brockman, a 6'7" sophomore forward,after rebuilding the program on the bedrocks of speed and full-court pressuredefense. "We haven't played with anyone over 6'9" in four years,"Romar says, "and now we've got two 7-footers [freshmen Hawes and JoeWolfinger] on the roster."

Conventionalwisdom holds that perimeter play is the key to success in March, but recenthistory shows that canard is as passé as underestimating the mid-majors. Afteran eight-year span (1996 to 2003) in which the Final Four MVPs were all guardsor mid-sized swingmen, the last three MVPs have all been big men: Connecticut'sEmeka Okafor ('04), North Carolina's Sean May ('05) and Noah ('06).

If some coacheshave their way, Okafor, May and Noah will serve as poster boys--with anemphasis on the post--for a new generation. "I'm hoping this trend showskids that it's O.K. to be a big guy," says the Tar Heels' Williams."Big guys had gotten to the point where they thought they had to shoot thethree-point shot and be out 25 feet from the basket because that'd appeal toNBA teams. But in the last three Final Fours the most dominant players did themajority of their work around the basket. We can talk all we want about guardsand perimeter shooters, but when it gets to that level, having big guys who candominate is extremely important."

Why have collegebig men recovered their stature of old? Some reasons are obvious, while othersare more subtle. To wit:

The NBAminimum-age rule. As part of the new collective bargaining agreement signedlast year, the NBA no longer allows teams to draft players until a year aftertheir high school class has graduated. Most of the freshmen who could havejumped directly from high school to the pros are big men--see Oden, Texas's6'10" Kevin Durant and UConn's 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet--who now will beforced to wait. "I was told that Hasheem would have gone 15th [in thedraft]," says Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, "and Oden most likely wouldhave gone Number 1, and you go right down the list."

The result: Thisseason's college rookies (page 76) are "the best freshman class in 10years," says recruiting expert Bob Gibbons. That's due mostly to the newstandard, but not entirely. "The NBA rule is a factor," he adds,"but I think this is just a talented group of freshmen all across theboard."

Whether the newrule will be good for college basketball is a point of debate, yet Calhouninsists that natural forces will turn the one-year rule into a de facto twoyears or more for most players, big men included. "A lot of the topfreshmen are being exposed," he says. "[Former UConn forward] CharlieVillanueva tried to get drafted after high school, but he couldn't have afterhis freshman year of college. He was overwhelmed and overshadowed. But the nextyear he came into his own and got drafted seventh." As more players withNBA bodies but high school skill sets end up in college, Calhoun reasons,"you'll see the development of a lot more big guys, and that's a realpositive for the game."

The glut ofguarantees is over. While the minimum-age rule explains the presence ofoversized freshmen, a less-noticed provision of the new CBA may be keepingolder big men on campus--even if it means turning down the chance to be afirst-round draft pick. These days players drafted in the first round receivecontracts containing just two guaranteed seasons, with the next two years atthe team's option. (Players drafted before 2005 were given three guaranteedseasons with a team option for year four.) In other words, if you're an NBArookie, you'd better make an impact quickly, or you may soon be checking outjob prospects in Lithuania.

"These kidsare realizing they have to be ready to play right away in the NBA," saysFlorida coach Billy Donovan. "I think [Horford and Noah] felt they'd besitting around watching for a while." By staying another year inGainesville, Donovan argues, his frontcourt stars will gain even more size,strength and experience that could help them as NBA rookies. "The bigquestion is, What kind of second contract are you signing?" Donovan says."If I'm out of the NBA in two or three years, I can't sit there and say Idon't have to work for the rest of my life."

Besides, even asurefire first-rounder can improve. While Noah proved he could run the floorand block shots like few college big men in years, he needs to develop aback-to-the-basket inside game and correct an unsightly side-spinning jumpshot. While McRoberts possesses NBA-level athleticism, he'll only benefit fromhis new role as Duke's first offensive option. And while Big Baby has solidpost moves and a ballet dancer's feet, he needed another year in college toadjust to losing the extra 48 pounds that hindered him last season.

Of course, thosearen't the only reasons why big is back. Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon theorizesthat the success of the Phoenix Suns' high-speed style has reduced the NBA'sdemand for traditional centers. What's more, players like Noah (whose father,Yannick, is a tennis icon turned rock star) and Hansbrough (whose dad, Gene, isan orthopedic surgeon) don't have to provide immediate financial stability fortheir families. Nor is economics the only concern. Some players, believe it ornot, just happen to enjoy college. "The NCAA tournament was so excitinglast year," says Hansbrough. "I'd like to experience that again and seewhat we can do this year."

Who knows? NextApril 2, just before midnight in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, Hansbrough or Noah orOden could become the fourth straight post player to lead his team to an NCAAtitle. For now, at least, this much is clear: The return of the low-postdinosaur will change the way teams play. "The ball will go insidemore," says Alabama coach Mark Gottfried. "Coaches adapt to theirpersonnel: You emphasize what you have."

And what the gamehas is the best collection of size in two decades. Presenting the 2006--07college basketball season: The big man's back on campus.

REPORT CARD

Which schools have done the best jobs of landing thetop recruits from your state? Get the early signing period scoop atSI.com/collegebasketball.

PHOTOPhotograph by Rich Clarkson/ NCAA PhotosUP FOR GRABS After dispatching UCLA in the title game, Noah (13) and all the Gators starters have returned to seek another prize. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERTIMING HIS LEAP Rather than jumping to the NBA in June, Pitt's Gray stayed to spend his senior season improving his stamina. PHOTOBILL FRAKES BONUS BABY Davis (0) is back to prove his Final Four woes against Noah (13) and Horford (42) were a fluke.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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