5 college basketball big men to watch work in the paint this season

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Not all dominant big men are created equally. There are supreme athletes, throwback types who do their damage in the low post, and those who can do a little bit of everything.

Here are five guys we can’t wait to watch this season.

Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

Happ is an artist on the low block. His game probably would have been better suited for the 1990s, but he’s so good and skilled that it works just fine in 2018. Well, more than fine.

He averaged 17.9 points and eight rebounds last season on 52.8 percent shooting while making a grand total of one 3-ponter. Happ is essentially a non-shooter, but the rest of his game shines: he also averaged 3.7 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.5 steals. Those are all huge clips for a center.

2-pointer by Ethan Happ

Happ knows every trick in the book. His footwork is outstanding and he’s sturdier than he looks at first glance. Happ is a master at getting opponents to bite on pump fakes; he got to the free-throw line 5.8 times per game last season. Happ is able either to finish with either hand, and when opponents double team him, he’s an exquisite passer. If Wisconsin’s outside shooting improves this season, it will be extremely hard to guard.

Enjoy Happ while he’s still playing at the college level.

Udoka Azubuike, Kansas

As mentioned before, dominant big men come in all forms. And Azubuike operates in a much different manner than Happ.

He’s the most powerful force in college basketball. Azubuike shot a whopping 77 percent from the floor last season and averaged 13 points per game, so he took enough shots to make that number matter. At 7-1, 270 pounds, he overwhelms foes. Once Azubike establishes position down low, it’s game over for the opponent. They have two choices: watch him dunk or foul him.

Dunk by Udoka Azubuike

The latter is usually the wise choice. Azubuike is just a 41.3 percent free-throw shooter. But that creates an interesting dynamic in any Kansas game: how much is an opposing coach willing to disrupt game flow by fouling Azubuike, even if the math says you should?

MORE: Breaking down Andy Katz’s preseason bracket

Azubuike isn’t just some plodding giant, either. Any guy his size will struggle to defend ball screens, but he’s mobile for his stature. He’s a good athlete. An Azubuike shot attempt is among the most efficient looks in college basketball.

Nick Ward, Michigan State

Ward isn’t a leaper, but he’s extremely strong and plays angles as well as anyone while possessing great touch near the basket.

He’s only 6-8, but Ward’s long arms help him in the trenches. Playing with Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson in a crowded Michigan State frontcourt last season, he averaged 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Those seem like fairly modest numbers. But then you look and see he only played 18.9 minutes per game; Ward’s per 40 minute averages were 26.3 points and 15 rebounds.

There’s a good argument to be made that Ward should have played more, but there are concerns with his defense. He doesn’t defend ball screens particularly well and doesn’t provide much rim protection.

But Ward is just such a powerhouse on offense and should have more room to operate this season. Expect some monster numbers.

Tacko Fall, UCF

Fall is 7-6 and 310 pounds. He adds an intriguing element to any game he’s playing in.

UCF should be solid this year; there’s an argument to be made that it could win the AAC. And Fall will be the Knights’ centerpiece. He averaged 11.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season on 76.6 percent shooting. Fall has never shot below 70 percent during his three-year college career.

MORE: AAC predictions

Conditioning is a bit of an issue, which is to be expected from someone Fall’s size. He only averaged 21.9 minutes last year. But he’s most fun to watch on defense. Fall isn’t an explosive rim protector, but his size alone makes him extremely hard to score against, and he has good defensive instincts. He knows where to be and when to be there, allowing his size and length to take over from there.

If gigantic centers are your thing, Fall is worth the watch.

Bol Bol, Oregon

Watch this clip, and it’s hard not to get fired up about Bol:

Just nasty. Bol, at 7-2, hits a contested turnaround 3-pointer and skies for a ridiculous alley-oop in the first two plays of the clip. He’s a unicorn: Bol is the rare breed who’s capable of protecting the rim on one end and making 3s on the other. Of course, Bol will also be utilized heavily as a roll threat; that’s going to make him lethal as a screener in pick-and-rolls.

Bol’s athleticism is ahead of his skill level and intuition at this point, but those are emerging rapidly. And there are shots to be had on this Oregon team. Duke’s three-headed freshman monster gets a lot of hype, but Bol might appear on as many highlight reels as anyone this season.

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