We always hear that college basketball is a guards' game. Of course that is until you need a rebound or someone to protect the rim. The truth is that both guards and big men are important for title-contending teams, and there has not been a Final Four team that lacked quality frontcourt play or couldn't defend and score in the post. We can quibble about which is more important, guards or big men, but there is no question that guards cannot win by themselves.
So, which squads measure up the best down low in 2012-13? Here is my ranking of the top five frontcourts, along with two more on the cusp.
After losing Anthony Davis, if seems crazy to believe that Kentucky could protect the rim as well as it did in its championship season. Yet, with Nerlens Noel, John Calipari has a rim protector and lane limiter who can be every bit as effective.
Noel is a freak shot-blocker with length, crazy athleticism and disciplined timing. He does not have the defensive range of Davis, nor does he have the offensive feel and potential of Davis, but Noel is jet-quick off the floor and a potential No. 1 overall selection in the NBA draft because he can control the lane. Another 7-footer, Willie Cauley-Stein, can play alongside Noel and also can clog the lane, finish plays and rebound. Cauley-Stein played wide receiver in high school, which had to make him the tallest receiver in football. He is a work in progress, but is making tremendous progress.
So, with two true big men leading the way, 6-8 freshman Alex Poythress will have even better opportunities to attack the rim and the glass. Poythress can wind up being the best frontcourt performer on this Kentucky team. And sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, a top recruit last year who couldn't crack the lineup, is as good a face-up shooter as you will find anywhere. Wiltjer has a low post game and deep shooting range. All these Wildcats are so young, but so good.
The Cardinals have size and effective scoring along the baseline, and also have really effective rebounding, shot-blocking and shot changing around the rim. Rick Pitino plays a different defense than most, going with a match-up zone that can change to man-to-man within a possession. Having a long-armed shot-blocker like Gorgui Dieng, who led the Big East in blocks per game in 2011-12, allows the perimeter players to take some chances and go for steals knowing that Dieng can erase some mistakes. Dieng is also a capable offensive player who has steadily improved over time, and is among the best centers in the nation who doesn't seem to get the credit.
Sophomore Chane Behanan is excellent on the baseline and is a powerful scorer and rebounder, despite being a bit undersized. Montrezl Harrell, originally headed to Virginia Tech until Seth Greenberg was fired, is an outstanding 6-8 athlete who will help, but probably will have to take some time to learn Pitino's system. A great addition for Louisville is George Mason transfer Luke Hancock, who is a smart, savvy forward who can really pass and shoot. Hancock is one of those players who, when I am watching him play, I write "KHTP" on my evaluation. That stands for "knows how to play."
A wild card in this frontcourt is freshman Mangok Mathiang. Another lengthy and athletic player from Africa through IMG Academy in Florida, it's unlikely he'll find much playing time this year. But he will get and provide challenges in practice all season long with an excellent frontcourt.
The Orange may not have the signature big man this season as opposed to last year with Fab Melo, but there is real quality there. The middle of Jim Boeheim's zone will continue to be patrolled by Rakeem Christmas, as it was toward the end of last year when Melo ran into eligibility problems. Christmas can play in the middle, or move to a wing because of his ability to move his feet. He is a good finisher, but still emerging as an offensive player. Freshman center DaJuan Coleman is a 6-9 load in the middle, has great feet and is an elite passer coming out of high school. Coleman has good hands and skills, and can be a factor right away.
C.J. Fair provides versatility along the frontline, but he does not have shooting range. Inside 17 feet, Fair is very effective, and he is a very good rebounder and midrange scorer who was very productive and reliable. The minutes he played are indicative of the trust his coaching staff placed in him. Baye Keita provides solid defense and rebounding, and has shown toughness playing through pain. James Southerland provides athleticism and streaky long-range shooting, and 6-9 DeMatha freshman Jerami Grant will provide another quality athlete who can change ends and make plays, but he is unlikely to crack the lineup right away.
4. UNLV Rebels
The Rebels had excellent guards last season, but the strength of this year's team is in the frontcourt. Dave Rice has an All-America candidate in UCLA transfer Mike Moser. Long-armed and bouncy, Moser is an elite rebounder and a versatile and unorthodox scorer who is very productive and energetic. Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch didn't stick around The Pete long enough to establish a track record, but he does have the ability to run the floor, block shots and rebound when he becomes eligible to play in December. Birch can change the game on the defensive end.
Anthony Bennett is the highest-rated recruit to suit up for the Rebels since Jerry Tarkanian was chewing on towels, and he is worthy of his press clippings. Bennett is an elite rebounder and talented scorer who will compete. Bennett will find a way onto the floor. Carlos Lopez-Sosa can come in and provide size and experience, and he has continued to improve. Former Kansas Jayhawk Quintrell Thomas is a physical post defender and capable rebounder who should be good in reserve minutes. UNLV will have more bulk and size this season, and all of them have the ability to run the court in Rice's system.
The Blue Devils, right or wrong, are known for guard play. This season may bring a different look and feel. Mike Krzyzewski will start the season looking more to play inside-out, and playing through his talented senior big men Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.
Plumlee is an outstanding rebounder and has improved his low post game to be a reliable post scorer. His free throw shooting has been an adventure, but Plumlee has matured into an outstanding and productive player who can step in and be Duke's star this season. Kelly can post, but he also can step away and knock in open 3-point shots. Both Plumlee and Kelly are excellent passers as big men, and both can control the glass. The addition who can really make a difference is a healthy Marshall Plumlee, a 7-footer who is strong, physical and a good athlete who works really hard. Marshall Plumlee, when healthy, is among Duke's first six players in the rotation. Alex Murphy is an athletic 6-8 face-up forward who can pass and shoot, and reminds you a bit of Mike Dunleavy. The 6-8 Amile Jefferson provides a versatile defender and scorer who will be effective finding opportunities around the goal. And 6-7 Josh Hairston is more confident and has shown the ability to guard effectively and knock down an open midrange shot.
On the cusp
Mark Gottfried runs a UCLA high-post offensive set, with several wrinkles and tweaks, that takes good advantage of his talented big men. The lead dog in the Wolfpack is the versatile C.J. Leslie, whom Gottfried tries to get the ball from the elbow to the mid-post and allow him to go to work. Leslie is as talented a forward as there is in the country, and he has the opportunity to be ACC Player of the Year.
The unsung performer in N.C. State's frontcourt is Richard Howell, who is an outstanding offensive rebounder. We tend to focus on his fouls, but Howell is a talented and relentless rebounder who goes after the ball and keeps it when he can grab it. Howell is a double-double guy for Gottfried. Those two, by themselves, place NC State on this list. But 6-8 freshman T.J. Warren is a talented scorer who has the chance to be very good, and 7-footer Jordan Vandenberg can clog the lane in limited reserve minutes.
Sean Miller brought in a recruiting class full of big men that will make Arizona a Pac-12 title threat from inside-out. The versatile Solomon Hill can play inside and step out and play some point forward, and had an excellent summer showing at the LeBron James Skills Academy. With the size Miller has brought in, Hill will not have to guard as many power forwards and should not take such a physical beating.
Angelo Chol can run, defend the post and provide energy. But the true strength of this frontcourt comes from the freshmen. Brandon Ashley (6-8) is a natural scorer who can run and rebound, and he should be able to step in and start. Seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski can really run the floor, and his mobility at his size sets him apart. With really good hands, Tarczewski will be one of the best big men in the Pac-12 as he matures. Finally, 6-10 Grant Jerrett is different from Tarczewski in that he can step away and knock in open shots from 3-point range, and he provides Miller with lineup flexibility in his frontcourt.