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Posted: Tuesday January 20, 2009 4:27PM; Updated: Tuesday January 20, 2009 4:27PM

Mythbusters: College basketball's big man

By Jacob E. Osterhout

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Georgetown doesn't need Greg Monroe to be Patrick Ewing in order to win a national title.
Jeremy Brevard/Icon SMI

Size doesn't matter. The saying is just as valid in college basketball arenas as it is in the bedroom.

Every time a tall recruit comes along, zealous fans and sports writers can't resist referring to him as "the next great big man." Based on size alone, they expect the young center to lead his team to a national championship, just like Lew Alcindor did at UCLA, Bill Russell did at San Francisco and Patrick Ewing did at Georgetown.

The most recent example of this is Georgetown center Greg Monroe. Hoya fans envision the 6-foot-10 freshman carrying on the program's tradition of dominant big men, started by Ewing. But the idea that a team needs a "traditional big man" -- one who spends most of his time posting up three feet from the basket -- to win a national championship is nothing more than a myth nowadays.

After all, if having a traditional big man is so necessary to success, wouldn't Stanford, which has had two sets of twin 7-footers, have won at least one title since 1942?

Since 2000, no team with an offense that revolves around its center has won a NCAA National Championship. Sure, all the champions, especially the 2004 Connecticut team and 2006 and 2007 Florida teams, had an inside presence, but their big men were never the primary scoring threats.

Here's a more telling stat. Out of the last 20 NCAA Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Players, only two can be considered centers -- Emeka Okafor and Christian Laettner -- and neither would ever be labeled a traditional big man.

There's no doubt the role of the oversized center has diminished significantly in modern day college basketball. This is due to three factors. First off, most college basketball teams will quickly switch to a zone if an opposing big man is dominating them down low. Secondly, with more teams playing zone, more guards are looking at open three-point shots. And thirdly, and most important, all the other players on the court are getting bigger -- or should I say, centers are improving their versatility and turning themselves into forwards.

Nowadays, it's not surprising to see a 7-footer step back and drain a shot from the top of the key. Last season, Ohio State's Kosta Koufos was a great example of a big man playing a small game. The 7-footer shot a silky smooth jumper while only grabbing 6.7 rebounds per game.

It has become almost cliché, but the truth is that if a team wins a national championship, it's because of its guards and forwards. Coaches can't replace the ball handling, lane penetration or game management of a versatile ball player that can play both inside and out. But a severe size differential can be overcome in a variety of ways: speed up the tempo, double team, pack in the zone, foul, and, for God's sake, deny the entry pass.

Even when it comes to rebounding, size is less important than positioning. Just look at Syracuse forward Paul Harris, who is averaging 8.6 rebounds per game even though he is only 6-foot-4 (when wearing stilettos...)

For an individual example of size's limitations, let's take a look at Duke center Brian Zoubek, a back-to-the-basket big man whose college career up until this season has largely been an injury-plagued disappointment. At 7-foot-1, Zoubek is not fast or quick or agile. He is tall. That's it. And even though he is almost always the largest man on the floor, he rarely asserts himself. This season has been the best of his college career and he is still only averaging 6.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Without the ability to face up and shoot an outside jumper, Zoubek is a limited threat to opposing teams and his impact can be minimized fairly easily.

Ohio State center Greg Oden, the 7-foot manchild who dominated opponents for one season in Columbus, came the closest to keeping the big man myth alive when he led the Buckeyes to the NCAA Finals in 2007. But even this "once in a decade" big man couldn't parlay his size and skill into a national championship.

And yes, Oklahoma center Blake Griffin is currently leading the race for player of the year and could reestablish the importance of a big man in the post season, but I'll be shocked if he can lead the Sooners to their first title ever. If North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough hasn't been able to do it with his supporting cast, then Griffin has a slim chance.

The good news for Georgetown fans is that, after watching the Hoyas lose to Duke on Saturday, it's obvious that Monroe isn't your traditional big man. In fact, he's a better passer than he is a rebounder and that bodes well for Hoyas' chances at winning a national championship.

 
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