Top Recruits Entering College Basketball in 2011-2012

        Last week, we highlighted the top backcourts in the nation with North Carolina reigning supreme. This week, we've looking at returning talent, incoming prospects and the systems in which these teams play to analyze the top frontcourts in the country. With so much returning talent, these are the best ten frontcourts:

10) Michigan State Spartans

        The perennial power Spartans have a vastly talented frontcourt on paper, but were unable to win even with Draymond Green, one of the most versatile players in the Big Ten and the country. Green was the team's second-leading scorer with 12.5 points per game and nearly 9 rebounds per game to along with his 4 assists per game to lead the team. Playing mostly out of position at power forward, Green could do it all by scoring inside and outside, handling the ball as the primary distributor or banging down low on the glass. Next to Green has been Delvon Roe, a former top recruit for Tom Izzo, who has been plagued by injuries and inconsistencies to limit his minutes. Expect last's season top recruit, 6'10" and athletic big Adreian Payne to spell Roe and take on a much larger role as a sophomore, especially with Garrick Sherman transferring. Wide-bodied Derrick Nix won't get a ton of minutes, but he is more than capable of clearing out space offensively down low and hitting the glass.

9) Syracuse Orange

        Rick Jackson, the team's most consistent scorer (58.8 percent from the field) and rebounder (10.3 boards per game) is gone, but there are plenty of options to step up in his place. The bottom of that 2-3 zone will be highlighted by Kris Joseph, a tremendous athlete who can play the passing lanes, hit the glass and slash through the lane on offense. CJ Fair will be a candidate expected to take on a much larger role this season without Jackson. The rising sophomore is a workhorse on the defensive end with his length and athleticism and will only grow and develop more offensively. Two other rising sophomores we can expect contributions from are Baye Moussa Keita, a 6'10" shot-blocker and rebounder with a raw offensive game, and the 2010-11 Big East pick for pre-season rookie of the year, Fab Melo, who still needs time to grow into his body and mature, both on and off the court.

8) Gonzaga Bulldogs

        Out west, Coach Mark Few may have lost leading scorer and playmaker Steven Gray, but he has two stars primed for breakout seasons in his frontcourt. Led by 7-footer Robert Sacre and inside-outside Elias Harris at 6'8", the Bulldogs have two capable interior pieces. The best part about Sacre's and Harris' games is their ability to get great positioning in the paint, especially Sacre with his wide frame, and create scoring opportunities. These forwards would either convert around the rim or get to the foul line (nearly 12 free-throw attempts per game between the two) where they combined to make 80.4 percent of these shots. Rising junior Kelly Olynyk, a Canadian standout in high school and rising sophomore center Sam Dower offer terrific scoring and rebounding off of the bench.

7) Alabama Crimson Tide

Anthony Grant's Crimson Tide were just one game away from an NIT title behind the play of forwards JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell last season. The play of both of these athletic frontcourt players are critical reasons why Alabama ranked near the top of the country in 2-point field-goal percentage on offense and top-five in 2-point field-goal defense. The duo combined for 31 points and 15 rebounds per game on 51.5 percent shooting, mostly doing their damage on the inside, but Mitchell also showed a nice touch last season, ranking second on the team in 3-pointers made with 31. But these two also combined for 3 steals per game (where the Crimson Tide ranked tops in the country in steals percentage) and more than 3 blocks per game (ranking 12th in blocks percentage). With some four-star backcourt recruits entering the mix, expect Green and Mitchell's impact to grow even more as Alabama makes another postseason run, this time in the NCAA Tournament.

6) Vanderbilt Commodores

        The Commodores have all five starters back, including a pair of major contributors in the still-developing 6'11" Festus Ezeli in the middle and super-athletic Jeff Taylor on the wing. Inside, Ezeli was a strong rebounder, one of the best offensive rebounders in the country in fact, and his 2.6 blocks per game (10.6 blocks percentage) also ranked near the top of all of the country's best. Because he is so big, long and athletic, Ezeli was able to draw nearly 7.5 fouls per game banging around inside. Offensively, he'll be much more dangerous as he continues to refine his scoring moves and become more of a force this season. As Taylor plays along side of him, this duo is one of the best pair of defenders in the country; Taylor is widely considered one of the top two or three perimeter defenders. If he can continue to develop with Ezeli offensively, especially with his jumper, Vanderbilt won't be an upset candidate in this year's NCAA Tournament. Lance Goulbourne, the starting power forward, is a role player, but a great one at that. He provides steady rebounding on both ends of the floor with a team-best 7.3 boards last season.

5) UCLA Bruins

        Even though the Bruins lost Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt, they do bring back Reeves Nelson, the team's leading scorer and rebounder a year ago. But that's not even who fans are most excited about- that tribute would go 6'9", 300+ pound center Josh Smith. Smith is a load to mess with down low as he often got the best of his defenders and earned great low-post positioning for easy lay-ins or offensive rebounding opportunities, where Smith ranked second in the country in the percent of offensive rebounds he collected. However, he has only able to play in 52 percent of his team's minutes due to conditioning and foul issues. If Smith can harness his weight, Nelson will play well off of him as an inside scorer with the ability to knock down mid-range jumpers.

Smith and Nelson will be joined by former North Carolina forwards Travis and David Wear.

4) Ohio State Buckeyes

        First-team All-American forward Jared Sullinger is the basis for this Ohio State ranking with his dominance down low last season. When he gets the ball down low, Sullinger has enough strength to power the ball up to the rim through his man or a double team, or draw the attention of the defense with one or two dribbles and then kick the ball out to one of his many shooters on the wings. He's poised to continue to grow, and potentially do some special things as a sophomore, like lead the Buckeyes to a national title. As a freshman, he averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds per game, all while shooting better than 54 percent from the floor and 70 percent from the foul line.

    Getting the start next to Sullinger will be athletic, inside-outside scorer Deshaun Thomas. Thomas didn't play a ton of minutes last season, as not many Buckeyes do coming off the bench for Thad Matta, but his numbers rank right up there with Sullinger's if you were to average them out. He can get inside and score in the paint with his quickness and smooth athleticism or he has been improving his outside touch to become more of a threat. Another potential starter in the frontcourt is high school All-American Amir Williams, a long, athletic post player. He still needs to add strength, but his ability to run the court in transition, score in the low blocks and protect the rim on D will complement Sullinger and Thomas well.

3) Baylor Bears

        With Perry Jones raising a few eyebrows and returning to don a Baylor uniform again this season, the Bears have one of the top frontcourts in the nation yet again this year. Jones' length and athleticism allow him to play and defend up to four positions on the court and there's no doubt that he still has plenty of room to grow and fulfill his sky-high potential; he should be a top pick in the 2012 NBA Draft if he does so. Playing alongside Jones are two more fantastically gifted athletes in Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones. Both are long, lean and can jump through the roof. Jones, Acy and Jones have been threats in the halfcourt, but even more so in transition offensively and should be pushed even further by incoming top-recruit Quincy Miller; Miller stands at a long 6'10" with phenomenal athleticism and scream potential as a future lottery pick. He has the range on his jumper to be a face-up 4-man or create plays off the dribble and pull-up. Coming off of the bench is former UCLA big, J'Mison Morgan again, who, although talented, will find it difficult to earn minutes in a loaded frontcourt.

2) Kentucky Wildcats

        Kentucky is a team that should be rebuilding after losing three starters, but instead, they'll be reloading with Terrence Jones coming back to school and the nation's top recruiting class coming in. Jones has lottery-pick potential, gifted with size, strength, athleticism and the hard work to develop into an inside-outside scoring threat and defensive wiz, especially on the glass. He led the team early-on with some huge performances, but disappeared down the stretch in the postseason. Anthony Davis, our top prospect and early-favorite for the first overall pick in the 2012 Draft, has excellent size, length and athleticism and unique skills for a 6'10" guard/forward. With a ridiculous growth spurt, Davis is transitioning from a guard to unguardable.
Kentucky brings in another top player at this position, Michael Gilchrist, this year's top-ranked small forward; a true competitor, Gilchrist is aided by top-notch athleticism and toughness who can not only be the top scorer on this year's team, but the top defender as well. And backing Jones, Davis and Gilchrist up will be yet another freshman- Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer's skill set is the perfect fit for this offense because he adds yet more size and efficient scoring around the rim and on the perimeter. He's a finesse player, who doesn't need to score to make an impact on the game.

1) North Carolina Tar Heels

        UNC has three of the best players in all of college basketball returning to the team and all three are frontcourt starters. Harrison Barnes, a likely candidate for the 2012 top overall pick, didn't show his tremendous talents until later in the season when he started to shoot the ball better, like his 40-point efforts against Clemson in the ACC Tournament. He came through in the clutch last season, hitting game-winners, go-ahead buckets and coming down with the big rebound to help UNC rally in the second-half of the season. But the credit can't all be given to Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller deserve lots of praise too. The 7-foot center Zeller and 6'10" Henson give two big-time rebounders and shot-blockers to protect UNC's goal, but both came long ways offensively last season, scoring in the low blocks and adding a mid-range jumper to the mix.

        All of the above starters will be joined by McDonald's All-American James McAdoo, a highly skilled throwback talent to come off of the bench.
Connecticut (Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith, Charles Okwandu, DeAndre Daniels), Florida State (Okaro White, Xavier Gibson, Jon Kreft, Bernard James, Terrence Shannon), Kansas (Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey, Ben McLemore, Jamari Traylor, Braeden Anderson), Memphis (Wesley Witherspoon, Tarik Black, Adonis Thomas), Minnesota (Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson, Rodney Williams), Missouri (Laurence Bowers, Ricardo Ratliffe), Nevada (Dario Hunt, Olek Czyz, Jerry Evans)

By President Corey Ruff - 6-16-11