With an 82-77 loss at Iowa State on Monday, Oklahoma became the fifth team ranked No. 1 in the country to lose this season, the most before the month of February began since 1949. Coming into the season, many people expected it to be a year of parity in college basketball and that’s exactly how things have gone down. There doesn’t appear to be any great teams on the horizon and the road to the Final Four is as wide open as it has been in many years.
It’s a far cry from what happened in 2015, when Duke, Wisconsin and Kentucky dominated the landscape en route to a seemingly inevitable series of showdowns in the Final Four. The three teams started the year in the preseason Top 5 and combined for a 109-9 record (with three of those losses coming against each other) and they sent 12 players to the NBA. The biggest reason for their dominance came upfront, as each was built around an elite 7’0 - Karl Towns, Jahlil Okafor and Frank Kaminsky - who wound up going in the lottery.
It may be a long time before we ever see a teenage big man with as well-rounded a game as Towns, or whose as dominant in the low post as Okafor. The two were widely expected to be one-and-done players since their early days in high school and they did not disappoint once they made it to college. Towns didn’t put up huge individual numbers because of the amount of talent surrounding him at Kentucky, but he was the anchor on both sides of the ball of a team that started the season 38-0. Okafor averaged 17.3 points a game on 66.4% shooting at Duke, looking like a man among boys on most nights.
While Kaminsky didn’t have the same amount of physical ability as the two freshman phenoms, he was just as unique of a player. Even with more big men moving out to the perimeter in the modern game, very few 7’0 at the NCAA level have ever had Kaminsky’s ability to shoot, dribble and pass while also being able to go down into the post and score with his back to the basket. He would have been a Top 15 pick if he had declared for the draft as a junior and he elected to come back to school despite leading Wisconsin to a Final Four in 2014, something which you aren’t going to see very often.
Towns, Okafor and Kaminsky gave their teams an almost insurmountable advantage at the NCAA level. There’s just very little that the average college big man is going to be able to do to stop a 7’0 who can create his own shot from all over the floor. Maybe the most underrated aspect of all three of their games was that they were also able to pick apart a double team and find the open man. All you could do was double team them and pray their teammates would miss open shots. Since each was complemented by a bevy of future NBA players, that wasn’t going to happen too often.
You can look far and wide in college basketball this season and you aren’t going to find any big men who can have a similar impact on the game. Ben Simmons has gotten a ton of hype at LSU, but he isn’t nearly as good a shooter as Towns or Kaminsky and he has hardly played any defense at all. While Okafor struggled on that end of the floor at Duke, he still managed to have a positive impact just by the sheer amount of size and length he presented at the front of the rim.
There’s a reason there’s less excitement about the draft in NBA front offices than there has been in some time and it’s tied directly to the amount of parity in the NCAA. There aren’t any great big men out there and the returns on this year’s lottery don’t project to be nearly as high as they were a year ago. There doesn’t appear to be any 6’11+ player in the NCAA this season with as much upside as Myles Turner, who slipped all the way to the No. 11 pick thanks to an up and down season at Texas.
The guy who was supposed to be the next great big man was Skal Labissiere and he has been one of the most disappointing players in the country. As a freshman at Kentucky, he has looked a lot closer to Marcus Lee than guys like Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Towns. John Calipari’s best teams at Kentucky have all featured an All-NBA caliber big man and without a guy like that roaming the middle of the paint, the Wildcats have slipped to the middle of the pack in the SEC.
If you go around the country, none of the top teams have a dominant two-way 7’0 and that makes them a lot more vulnerable to being upset. People always talk about college basketball being a guard’s game, but the impact of a great big man can be a lot higher because there are a lot fewer players who can even match up with him physically. There are a lot of great guards out there and the difference between the best guards in the ACC and the best guards in the Atlantic 10 isn’t nearly as high as the difference between the best big men in each conference. This isn’t the NBA - even teams in the Top 10 struggle to have multiple 6’8+ guys who can play.
No. 1 Oklahoma - Ryan Spangler (6’8 234) and Khadeem Lattin (6’9 208)
No. 2 UNC - Kennedy Meeks (6’9 265) and Brice Johnson (6’9 228)
No. 3 Kansas - Hunter Mikkelson (6’10 245) and Perry Ellis (6’8 225)
No. 4 Villanova - Daniel Ochefu (6’11 245) and Kris Jenkins (6’6 240)
No. 5 Xavier - James Farr (6’10 247) and Trevon Bluett (6’6 207)
No. 6 West Virginia - Devin Williams (6’9 255) and Jonathan Holton (6’7 220)
No. 7 Maryland - Diamond Stone (6’11 250) and Robert Carter III (6’9 235)
(No. 8 SMU is ineligible for the postseason)
No. 9 Iowa - Adam Woodbury (7’1 245) and Jarrod Uthoff (6’9 210)
No. 10 Texas A&M - Tyler Davis (6’10 265) and Jaylen Jones (6’7 220)
Of all the guys on that list, only six - the two UNC and Maryland big men, Ochefu at Villanova and Uthoff at Iowa - are considered legitimate NBA prospects and all five of them have holes in their game. There’s no one out there who can raise the bar as high as Towns, Kaminsky and Okafor set it last season, which means there are a lot more teams with a legitimate chance of stringing together four wins in March.
The best teams in college basketball are generally going to have the best big men - that’s what separates them from the rest of the country. When those teams have an average sized frontline without a high level of skill or physicality, it levels the playing field. David can beat Goliath in the NCAA Tournament but it’s a lot easier when Goliath isn’t that big to begin with.