Who's a Slam Dunk for the Brackets? Think Big
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if you think the big man is being phased out of basketball, you need to think again.
By Matt Foley
Ten minutes after his team dismantled Louisville in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, Virginia guard Ty Jerome leans back on his locker, assessing the damage. Behind a sharpshooting attack, the No. 1–ranked Cavaliers shot 52.5 percent and its four-headed monster of guards Kyle Guy, Devon Hall, De’Andre Hunter and Jerome scored 56 of the team’s 75 points. Still, the sophomore swears that Virginia — a program known for efficient guard play and the four-wide offense — depends on its big man in the middle.
“Isaiah [Wilkins] is our most valuable player, honestly,” Jerome tells OZY. “We pride ourselves on defense, and he covers for everyone.… He’s the [ACC] Defensive Player of the Year for a reason.”
No matter where this game goes, you give me a 7-footer who can post up and defend the lane, he has the advantage.
Steve Smith, Turner Sports analyst
Virginia’s plodding pace and ruthless defense are outliers in modern basketball, but its guard-driven play is not. Still, after seven consecutive 20-win seasons with no Final Four appearances, coach Tony Bennett realizes what the rest of college basketball is being forced to reckon with too: Great guards are important, but a deep run in March requires quality post play. “Coach Bennett has been stressing the need to score inside all season,” says Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite. “I’m not going to say this is a revolution, but it’s a way for Virginia to go to the next level.”
Exemplified best by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, “small-ball” motion offenses have spread throughout every level of the sport, forcing big men to adopt new skills such as outside shooting, passing and lateral quickness. And while today’s frontcourt players don’t look like Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell, physical bigs have the chance to dominate more than ever. The six highest-rated NBA prospects in college are big men — all versatile post players with both power and finesse — and the best teams in the country are anchored by game-changing bigs. Strong guard play will always be important, but the NCAA title will be decided by the baddest men in basketball. “Bigs have to do a lot of different things in today’s game,” says former North Carolina center Brendan Haywood, now a Turner Sports NCAA analyst. “A lot of them have had to develop guard skills, but at the end of the day, [basketball] is still about affecting the paint.”
The long list of March Madness heavyweights starts with Arizona’s Deandre Ayton and Duke’s Marvin Bagley III. Ayton, the likely top pick in June’s NBA draft, is a 7-foot-1 chiseled specimen who often seems more machine than man. Whether posterizing opponents, dribbling coast to coast or stepping out to drain a corner three, Ayton is what NBA scouts are looking for in a modern big man. Similarly, Bagley is a double-double machine with range to the arc and extraordinary athleticism. “Bagley tries to finish everything at the rim — that was a challenge,” says Diakite, recalling Virginia’s January matchup at Duke when Bagley posted 30 points and 14 rebounds. And the ACC Player of the Year is only one of a number of dominant bigs in his conference. Bagley’s teammate Wendell Carter Jr. has also blossomed into a likely NBA lottery pick, while Omer Yurtseven (No. 9 seed N.C. State) and Dewan Huell (No. 6 seed Miami) anchor teams that could make a run this week.
If you’re looking for an oversize Cinderella, Seton Hall is a dangerous No. 8 seed returning to the tournament largely because of the intimidating post presence of senior center Angel Delgado — who will bang with Yurtseven and N.C. State on Thursday. And the Big Ten, per usual, is a hefty bunch. Moritz Wagner was a force in third-seeded Michigan’s conference tournament title, as the two teams the Wolverines beat out — second-seeded Purdue and third-seeded Michigan State — are led by dynamic post players. At Purdue, 7-foot-2 senior center Isaac Haas is the most immovable human in the game. Haas is a traditional big, anchoring the defense and drawing double teams on offense that create open shots for his teammates. At first glance, he may seem like the type of unathletic post player being eradicated from the game, but fellow 7-footer Haywood contends that Haas’ size and strength will always have value. “Hass creates such a problem with how physical he is,” Haywood says. “Eventually that problem makes its way out to the 3-point line, when his teammates get open threes.”
Basketball, at large, is a long way from returning to the ground-and-pound offense, but even as coaches and scouts scour the world for the biggest, fastest hybrid stretch forward, players with traditional post fundamentals will remain essential to winning. “The game’s becoming more guard-oriented, but you still gotta defend,” says Turner analyst and NBA veteran Steve Smith. “But no matter where this game goes, you give me a 7-footer who can post up and defend the lane, he has the advantage.”
In other words, college basketball’s anchors won’t drift with the wind.