College basketball: Big man spotlight focuses on efficiency, post-up savvy
These days, college basketball is dominated by guards. They come in all shapes and sizes, they love to get out in the open court, and boy do they like to shoot the rock.
It may be an unfortunate truth in some fans’ eyes, but gone is the day and age when back-to-the-basket play reigned supreme. And given the trends at play, it may recede even further from view before it makes a resurgence. That’s the impact that the lure of the 3-point arc has had on both the collegiate and professional ranks, but C’est la vie.
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So dive on in and chew things over from NCAA.com’s weekly tasting menu of big men samplings.
John Collins, sophomore, 6’10”, 235 lbs, Wake Forest Demon Deacons (9-3)
23.8 minutes, 17.3 pts, 10.4 reb, 0.3 ast, 1.7 blk; 59.7 FG percentage
The appetizer on this week's menu is anything but light and refreshing — in fact, Collins is more like a bold digestif of sorts. That's a complicated way of saying that this big boy can play, and he gets a little extra seasoning from one of college basketball's all-time greats in head coach and former Kansas standout Danny Manning. Beyond the fact that the underclassmen leads his team in scoring (17.3 points), rebounding (10.4 rebounds) and field goal percentage (59.7 percent), Wake Forest's top man is also leading the country in player efficiency rating (PER). Collins may still be adjusting to his defensive role, but his head coach sure has him humming on the offensive end. Wake Forest fans were treated to glimpses of Collins and his varied skill set a year ago, but that shouldn't belie the work that he put in during the offseason to double his scoring and rebounding averages (7.3 pts --> 17.3; 3.9 reb --> 10.4). The Florida native has topped double figures in each of the Deacs' 12 games, including seven double-doubles in that span of a dozen games.
A few things that set this big man apart from the rest are his balance around the rim and his understanding of movement throughout the painted area. Some players prefer to operate strictly with their back to the basket, but Collins' ability to gain and regain an advantage in the post allows him to do damage from wherever he catches the ball. Good potential to connect from the mid-range area, a mixed bag of post-up moves, and deft use of the off hand have allowed him to post solid numbers without demanding an undue number of touches. And to Collins' credit, he has managed to stay away from the 3-point line (only one attempt), which has been dragging capable post-up players away from the hoop for years. Add in some explosive athleticism for the 6'10" forward and a world of possiblities open up, including the favorite delivery method du jour — the alley oop. With conference play set to kick off in the near future, Collins' entire arsenal will be needed.
Thoughts when he has the rock: Microwave popcorn — Set it, forget it and let it go to work
Caleb Swanigan, sophomore, 6’9”, 250 lbs, Purdue Boilermakers (11-2)
30.4 minutes, 18.3 pts, 12.5 reb, 3.0 ast, 0.8 blk; 59.0 FG percentage
It's unclear if there has been a stretch this season better than the current two-game run that Purdue's Caleb Swanigan is on right now. And with a stat line that includes 53 points and 41 rebounds in those contests, fans and pundits alike would be hardpressed to find a pair of games that can even hold a candle to his performance right now (though it's always worth trying). Some believed that with the departure of former Purdue center AJ Hammons to the NBA that it would be time for Purdue's 7'2" junior center Isaac Haas to shoulder the load, but it has actually been the smaller of the two frontcourt stars who has stepped into the national limelight. Some may even consider Swanigan in the running for the Naismith Award.
Few have been able to match the dominance on the backboards that the 6'9" forward has displayed so far this season, as he currently ranks second in Division I basketball with 12.5 rebounds a night. But rebounding is not the only stat he has seen improve from his freshman season. Swanigan is also shooting far better from the field, improving his defensive tendencies and creating more scoring opportunities for teammates, all while playing an extra five minutes a night for head coach Matt Painter. Here's an interesting tidbit: Swanigan has three 20-point, 20-rebound efforts on the year, joining Blake Griffin as the only other Power 5 player to do so in the last 15 years, according to data from ESPN's Stats & Information group. The difference from a year ago is tangible. This is no longer just a high-impact freshman; this is a legitimate candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year. Other accolades might not be far off either.
Thoughts when he has the rock: Like good buffalo wings, the heat brings you back for more.
Tacko Fall, sophomore, 7’6”, 300 lbs, UCF Knights (9-3)
27.9 minutes, 15.9 pts, 12.3 reb, 0.9 ast, 2.6 blk; 83.8 FG percentage
If the second-year performance from Swanigan is impressive, then the rise of Tacko Fall for the Knights has been downright unbelievable. Players over 7'0" are a rarity in college basketball, as many struggle to keep up with the pace of play. That makes the bigs that can play at this level even more unique. The problems that poke up with that type of size are all at play for Fall, the native of Dakar, Senegal, but he has worked to improve his footwork and toughness around the rim. Teams and coaches alike are beginning to read the scouting report and Fall is garnering much more attention from opposing defenses. Perhaps the best moment of the season so far for Fall came in UCF's win over Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 18. Fall posted a career-high of 31 points to go along with 10 boards, but the most impressive part of his evening was a 9-of-12 performance at the free-throw line — an area where he has struggled.
Nonetheless, the stat that stands out for the big man and UCF head coach Johnny Dawkins — Fall's 83.8 percent shooting from the field (tops in the nation). If he stays anywhere near that number Fall would shatter the previous record for field goal percentage in a single season (71.2 percent, set by Belmont's Evan Bradds in the 2015-16 season). Herein lies the key aspect of Fall's game, he knows his spots and he does the hard work to get his touches in the paint. His size commands a double team, which often means that there is an open teammate who will benefit. In a day and age where players are doing everything they can to add range to their game, Fall is turning back the clock. No 20-20 games yet for Fall this year but a two-game stretch with 51 points and 22 rebounds gives UCF fans plenty of reason to be satisfied.
Thoughts when he has the rock: Like a good grilled cheese — straightforward and no frills