Some say that the true center is going the way of the dinosaur in college basketball. With the prevalence of the three-pointer and the athleticism and size of wing players, the days of offenses running inside out appear to be gone. Dominant big men like Akeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal no longer roam the paint, demand the ball in the low post with their backs to the basket and make their presence felt. Is the center as we once knew it on the way to extinction?
The players on this list will have something to say about that. Their size, strength and athleticism make them game-changers, poised to leave a mark on the national landscape in 2012. Even if they might step out for an occasional three-pointer.
The top centers in the land await.
1. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky - What does Kentucky do when it loses Anthony Davis, the National Player of the Year and No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft? Just plug in another McDonald's All-American. Coach John Calipari continues to shine in recruiting, this time with an elite shot blocker in Noel. The freshman is long and athletic, with great instincts to boot. A fierce rebounder, he uses his quickness and agility around the rim to clean the boards and dunk with authority. Noel's offensive game is a little raw, as his post moves are a work in progress. He could also use a few extra pounds of muscle. However, he is a willing passer with a solid work ethic, and his explosiveness around the basket gives him almost limitless upside.
2. Gorgui Dieng, Louisville - Dieng averaged 9.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per tilt last season, as the Cardinals won the Big East tournament and eventually made it to the Final Four, losing to the above-referenced Kentucky Wildcats. Dieng uses his frame to disrupt the passing lanes and protect the basket. He has gone from a project to a vital cog on the Louisville squad in a short time. If his shot selection and touch around the basket improve, he could turn out to be an imposing force on both ends of the floor.
3. Jeff Withey, Kansas - Withey set an NCAA record with 31 blocks in the NCAA Tournament last season, showing surprising quickness and athleticism. It remains to be seen how the loss of frontcourt mate Thomas Robinson to the NBA will hurt him. Point guard Tyshawn Taylor is gone too, leaving the Jayhawks with huge voids to fill on the offensive end. Withey has been more of a complementary player on offense, averaging 9.0 points per game and shooting 53.6 percent from the floor despite his 7-foot, 235, frame. His development of post moves will be the biggest factor in showing whether he can truly be a centerpiece for Kansas this season.
4. Reggie Johnson, Miami - Johnson had a difficult season last year, missing the first month or so with a torn meniscus, and he never seemed to fully regain his agility. The 6-10, 303, beast saw a dip in his production to 10.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per tilt, and he shot a career-low 49.2 percent from the field. A huge frame with surprising explosiveness when healthy, Johnson will be asked to shoulder much of the load on both ends with the graduation of backcourt leaders Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott. if Johnson can find his footing, he will be a nightmare for opposing squads to defend.
5. Alex Len, Maryland - Len came to Maryland from Ukraine and had an up-and-down freshman campaign. Struggling with the language as well as his role on the squad, the 7-1 center averaged 6.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 swats per game. A year older, wiser and stronger, Len has put on 20-25 pounds and will look to embrace more of a physical presence down low for the Terps. Still, he has excellent touch around the hoop, can step out and hit a jumper, and will block his share of shots on the defensive end as well. Len has huge upside and could develop into a dominant big man by season's end.
6. Joshua Smith, UCLA - Every year, it seems the same story with Smith. Massive body and huge upside to start the season, disappointment by the time March rolls around. Smith was out of shape last season, and it showed. He averaged 9.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, both down from his freshman numbers. Smith did manage to shoot 57.4 percent from the floor, showing that when he gets position, he's virtually impossible to move off the low block. Supposedly he has dedicated himself to getting in shape this offseason, so perhaps this is the year where he puts it all together. A dazzling supporting freshman cast won't hurt his cause, either.
7. Aaric Murray, West Virginia - A transfer from La Salle, Murray destroyed slightly lesser competition in his stint with the Explorers in the A-10, averaging 15.2 points, 7.7 boards and 2.3 blocks per contest as a sophomore in 2010-11. After sitting out a year, he returns with the Mountaineers and brings his polished low-post moves to a squad that will be without All-Big East Performer Kevin Jones. At 6-10, 250, Murray can shoot from the outside as well but often suffers with shot selection. His effort, hustle and strength have also been questioned, along with his defensive skills. Still, he has a knack for scoring and from a fantasy perspective should still be among the better centers in the country.
8. Alex Oriakhi, Missouri - The Connecticut transfer never quite lived up to his potential in Storrs. After averaging 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per contest as a sophomore, he had a down year as a junior with just 6.7 points and 4.8 boards per game. His immediate transfer to Mizzou due to sanctions at UConn puts him in an up-tempo, guard-oriented offense. Oriakhi has never been much of a scoring option, so he will be asked once again to play solid defense, rebound the ball and block the occasional shot. Still, his size and potential make him an intriguing player to watch.
9. Jared Berggren, Wisconsin - Berggren came out of virtual anonymity last season as a junior and sparked the Badgers, providing impact not only down low but from beyond the three-point arc as well. The 6-10 big man shot 37.2 percent from downtown en route to averaging 10.5 points per contest. With 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game as well, Berggren had an impact both inside and out for Wisconsin. Look for him to get even more scoring opportunities with point guard Jordan Taylor no longer in the picture.
10. Isaiah Austin, Baylor - The Bears lost a ton of frontcourt talent this offseason, with Perry Jones, Quincy Acy and Quincy Roberts all jetting to the NBA. Enter Austin, a lanky freshman with a huge wingspan. His agility and quickness give him an edge on many frontcourt players, though he certainly gives away some strength. An above-average shot-blocker, Austin has a high basketball IQ and can score both inside and out. He's still raw, but with such a void created by the above-mentioned departures, Austin should make an instant impact for Baylor.
11. Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse - 2.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg
12. Khem Birch, UNLV - 4.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg
13. Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona - freshman
14. Tony Parker, UCLA - freshman
15. Steven Adams, Pittsburgh - freshman
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