Some of the players listed in this section are not true centers. They are really power forwards who are forced to play the 5 on their team, usually alongside another power forward. On some teams it doesn’t matter on the offensive end who is designated the 4 and who the 5 since the roles are pretty much interchangeable. The distinction between the two roles comes into play on the defensive end as one of the two will primarily defend the opponent’s center while the other matches up with the other team’s power forward. Anyway, here are 12 returning players that I envision as likely starting at the 5 – at least defensively – this season.
1 – Roy Hibbert (Georgetown): 11.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg. The consensus choice for top center in the conference is Pittsburgh’s Aaron Gray, who is the logical leading candidate. However, I think Hibbert could surpass Gray this year as he possesses a greater "upside." He’s not only taller than Gray and has a longer reach, but he is more mobile. I see Hibbert making significant strides in 2006-2007 compared to moderate strides for Gray. Hibbert may not score as much as Gray, partially due to the relatively slow tempo of Georgetown’s Princeton-style offense and partially because teammate Jeff Green may well be the primary option on offense. I think Hibbert will add one or two moves to his repertoire this season, which will make him even more dangerous. Defensively, Hibbert will also be a major force, more so than Gray, especially in terms of blocking and altering shots. There are two high-quality centers in the conference, but I’d put Hibbert first. I know this is a minority opinion, but we can check back at the end of the season and see how both players’ seasons turned out.
P-5 score = .900
2 – Aaron Gray (Pittsburgh): 13.6 ppg, 10.3 rpg. It’s hard not to go with a player who averaged a double-double last year and will probably do so again. Gray is a force around the basket. He’s not quick or mobile, but he’s so big and so strong, it’s nearly impossible to stop him from getting to the hoop. Gray does have to improve his touch around the basket as last year he missed numerous shots, many of them uncontested, from inside five feet. In fact, his rebounding figure is inflated a bit by the number of times he followed up his own misses. His field goal percentage (53%) is lower than it should be for someone with his size and strength. Gray also has to take better care of the ball when he is double-teamed. His average of 2.6 turnovers per game is considerably higher than any other post player in the league. That problem, however, is counter-balanced somewhat by the fact that he also averaged more assists per game (1.9 apg) than any other big man in the conference. Any team in the country would love to have Gray. He’s talented enough to be a likely first round draft choice next spring. Still, unless he improves his touch and adds a signature move or two on offense, I see him becoming Avis to Hibbert’s Hertz.
P-5 score = .986
3 – Darryl Watkins (Syracuse): 7.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg. Obviously, Watkins has not been much of a force on offense, though his offensive production did improve last year from the beginning of the season to the end. Only three times did he score in double figures during the first 22 games last year, a span during which he averaged 5.7 ppg. However, he scored 10 or more points seven times in the remaining 13 games, averaging 9.6 ppg during that period. Given that trend, Watkins could average in double digits his senior year. If he can, the Orange would be considerably more difficult to defend since each of the other prospective starters is almost a cinch to average in double figures as well. However, Watkins’ primary value still lies on defense. He is an excellent athlete with impressive quickness for a player his size. He averaged 2.8 blocks per game last season, tops among returning Big East players, and when he couldn’t actually block the shot, he often caused the opponent to alter it. The 6’11" senior ranks fourth among returning rebounders in the league with an average of 7.7 rpg in conference games. Watkins needs to improve numerous areas of his game. However, he’s shown progress each year he’s been at Syracuse, and I see no reason why that trend should change.
P-5 score = .604
4 – Randall Hanke (Providence): 13.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg. Hanke managed to accumulate fairly impressive stats in only 21.6 mpg. If his figures were extrapolated to 30 mpg, they’d be 18.2 ppg and 7.0 rpg. However, in spite of his obvious ability to score, Hanke split time at the 5 with Herbert Hill primarily because of his performance on the defensive end. Friar fans have been critical of the 6’11" junior’s level of effort both on defense and on the boards, and apparently Coach Tim Welsh must have agreed as there were games in which Hanke spent a majority of his time on the bench watching Hill. In other games, Hanke played major minutes, like 29 against Marquette, 30 versus UConn, and 36 against Georgetown. Hanke is in a very unusual situation. On one hand, he could land a spot on one of the all-conference teams. On the proverbial other hand, however, he might not even start on his own team. One has to wonder if Welsh will play Hanke and Hill in tandem at times, though that almost never occurred last season. If not, they will compete for playing time. I think the odds favor Hanke’s getting 24-25 mpg, which should be enough for 15.0 ppg and 5.8 rpg.
P-5 score = .885
5 – David Padgett (Louisville): 11.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg. Padgett missed 10 games last season due to injury. There is concern among Cardinal fans that he might not be ready for the start of the season and that even if he plays, he won’t be nearly 100%. At his best, Padgett can be very, very good. He can score, he can rebound, and he can block shots. However, like numerous other big men who came out of high school with tremendous hype, Padgett has not yet lived up to the expectations that go along with being ranked #7 on RSCI coming into college. At Kansas he gained a reputation for being soft, preferring to stay on the perimeter rather than mix it up underneath. Last season he did little to change that image. There is no question Padgett’s game relies more on finesse than on power, but he can still be a force on both ends of the court. Coach Rick Pitino’s team doesn’t need a great year from Padgett, but the Cardinals do need a solid year from him if they are to contend for the conference title. Whether he has that “solid year” will likely depend on how healthy he is.
P-5 score = .807
6 – Aaron Spears (St. John’s): 7.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg. Spears comes in at #6 almost by default as none of the other remaining six centers has shown consistent production to this point in their careers. Spears is capable of scoring as he hit double figures in five of 15 conference games last season. However, he also had games when he scored one point, two points (twice), three points, and four points. The major problem with the 6’10" senior’s game last year, however, was a lack of productivity on the boards. In fact, many guards had better rebounding stats than he did. I wouldn’t be surprised if this season Spears ends up with fewer minutes that the 21.3 mpg he received last year. Even without Rob Thomas, who was not cleared for this season by the NCAA Clearinghouse, the Red Storm has added super athletic freshman forward Qa’rraan Calhoun to its roster. His presence will allow power forward Lamont Hamilton to move to the 5 for major portions of games if necessary, thereby relegating Spears to the bench. If Spears can average close to 10 ppg and snare even five rpg, he will have earned this #6 ranking. If not, then he should have been ranked lower.
P-5 score = .479
7 - Rob Kurz (Notre Dame): 6.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg. Kurz is more of a natural 4 than a 5, but he will probably have to play the 5 this year, especially if the Irish go with a small lineup. Like many of the other players on this list, Kurz’s numbers are pedestrian to say the least. Yet, he has shown a willingness to mix it up in the paint and battle for rebounds. Kurz’s play in the NIT has to be encouraging to Irish fans. In three games he averaged 9.7 ppg and 8.0 rpg in 29.7 mpg. If he can approach those averages this year, Coach Mike Brey and the Irish faithful should have no complaints. However, it’s not a given that Kurz will even earn a spot in the starting lineup as freshman Luke Harangody could challenge for playing time in the middle, though they could find themselves on the court at the same time. If neither Kurz nor Harangody steps up, it could be a long, cold winter in South Bend.
P-5 score = .614
8 – Ousmane Barro (Marquette): 4.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg. The 6’9" junior from Senegal didn’t put up impressive numbers last year, but he could come close to doubling the 13.5 mpg he received in 2005-2006. Over the last 10 games of the season, Barro showed flashes of what the future might hold when he shot 71% from the field (25 of 35). Plus, he scored 13 points apiece in two of his last three games. After having not played at all during his junior and senior years of high school, Barro came in as the quintessential "project." He practically redefined the term "raw," especially on the offensive end. However, the second half of last season he showed the ability to hit the 12-15 foot jumper as well as make an occasional strong move to the hoop. More important than providing offensive punch, however, Barro needs to show he can rebound and play tough interior defense without getting into foul trouble. In a recent talk to Marquette alumni in Chicago, Coach Tom Crean stated that Barro is the most improved player on the team since the end of last season. If that’s true, then his stats this year could easily double those he put up last year.
P-5 score = .604
9 - Dante Cunningham (Villanova): 2.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg. Cunningham is not a legitimate center. However, unless one of the Wildcat freshmen matures quickly enough to take over one of the two interior slots, this 6'9" sophomore could well find himself playing the 5, at least on defense. He’s not as strong as teammate Will Sheridan, but he’s longer and quicker, which makes him a better bet to cope with the taller, lankier centers in the conference. Offensively, whether he’s at the 5 and Sheridan at the 4, or vice versa, he will likely be the fifth option on offense. It’s not that he’s incapable of putting up points; it’s just that seniors Curtis Sumpter, Mike Nardi, and Sheridan - as well as freshman sharpshooter Scottie Reynolds - will get first crack at taking shots. Most Big East fans probably don’t realize that Cunningham averaged 19.1 mpg last season because he played a complementary role when he was on the court, which is what he’ll be asked to do again.
P-5 score = .434
10 – Byron Joynes (Rutgers): 3.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg. Joynes was slowed by a shoulder injury last year, which almost certainly affected his shooting. Still, he has never been much of a scorer, so it’s hard to predict a major rise in his points per game. Joynes has shown the ability to get rebounds. Extrapolated to 25 mpg, his rebounding average would have been a very respectable 7.2 rpg. The problem is the 6’9”, 265 pound senior may not get 25 mpg. By the start of the conference season, he may not even get the 19.8 mpg he received last year because of the addition of Top 100, 6’10” freshman center Hamady N’Diaye, who is, reportedly, raw offensively but a potential force on the defensive end. Still, if Joynes can provide even moderate scoring on the interior, he may see quite a bit of court time since the Knights could have trouble putting points on the board this year.
P-5 score = .476
11 - Grant Billmeier (Seton Hall): 3.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg. Billmeier would be a decent back-up center, but unless red-shirt freshman John Garcia heals sufficiently from his seemingly unending battle with bad knees, Billmeier will man the middle for the Pirates as there is no real alternative. The 6'11" senior is limited on both ends of the court, but he’s smart enough to try to play within those limitations. He certainly won’t lack in terms of effort, which is the primary reason I have him at #11 and not #12. Because of his lack of mobility, one of Billmeier’s major challenges will be to stay out of foul trouble guarding the likes of Gray, Hibbert, Hanke, and Padgett since Coach Bobby Gonzalez doesn’t have anyone else on the roster to hold down the fort in the middle. The bottom line is that Seton Hall is better served with him in the game instead of on the bench.
P-5 score = .523
12 - Wesley Green (De Paul): 4.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg. In terms of talent and potential, Green could easily be ranked among the top six at this position. However, I have him ranked 12th primarily because he has yet to get through an entire season at De Paul without considerable drama. This is Green’s fourth year on campus (one as a medical redshirt), and he has done virtually nothing to this point in his career. Last year he played in only 16 games and scored a total of 69 points, and that was his best showing to date. He has battled weight problems his entire career, and, despite reports that he has shed some of his former 290-300 pounds, I find it hard to shed my skepticism about his upcoming season. If he ever gets his act together, he could be a legitimate force for Coach Jerry Wainwright. Maybe Green will have a solid season, but I doubt many De Paul fans would bet the mortgage on it. They will probably see flashes when Green looks unstoppable around the hoop and is active and effective on the boards. Time will tell if the 6'9" former Top 100 recruit can play hard and stay healthy for more than a portion of the season.
P-5 score = .665
Non-returning player note: I expect highly-publicized freshman Hasheem Thabeet to start at center for Connecticut, first-team junior college all-American Hernol Hall to start at center for Cincinnati, and transfers Jamie Smalligan (West Virginia) and Kentrell Gransberry (South Florida) to man the middle for their teams.
* A P-5 score (Potential Point Production & Prevention Profile), which I devised, is calculated by adding a player’s points, rebounds, assists (times 2), steals, and blocks, then subtracting the number of turnovers. This total is then divided by the number of minutes the individual played. The higher the P-5 score, the more productive statistically the player was. Of course, like all statistical analyses, the P-5 score does not present the entire picture of a player’s contributions to his team