The finest low-post scorer in college basketball has a confession to make. When he's asked how he can be so adept around the basket at just 6'8", Arizona State sophomore Ike Diogu breaks into an impish smile. "To be honest with you," he says, sotto voce, "I'm 6'7"." � Not that he doesn't sometimes fantasize about being bigger. For a recent project in his 3-D design class, which required Diogu to sew, shape and stuff a life-sized alter ego, the digital-arts major created a Franken-Ike version of himself—as a 7-footer. "Sometimes I wish I were 7 feet, but that's just the way it is," says Diogu, whose 19.0 points and 7.8 rebounds a game last year made him the top freshman in the land not named Carmelo Anthony. "Besides, if you get good low-post position, it doesn't really matter how tall you are." � In fact Diogu's skills are so outsized, his moves so fully fashioned, it only seems as if he's a 7-footer. "Look at this," says Sun Devils assistant Tony Benford, popping a tape into his VCR. There's Ike mesmerizing USC with right-and lefthanded reverse layups; herculean and-ones; and a breathtaking, 360-degree, spinning drive from the top of the key. There's Ike beguiling Memphis with jump hooks, up-and-unders and turnarounds, then moving outside to nail two straight three-pointers. And there's Ike walking Oregon's 6'11" Ian Crosswhite up the lane, then using his 250-pound bulk to seal him off and explode to the basket for a catch-and-release bank shot. "Ike got double-and triple-teamed all year," Benford says. "It didn't matter."
Who says you can't teach height? Diogu is only one example of a new breed of big man in the college game, a shorter but no less effective inside player who uses smarts, speed, brawn and old-fashioned fundamentals to learn how to play taller in the paint—yet still remains dangerous in the open floor. One look at SI's preseason Top 20 reveals a slew of such postmodern postmen, including Connecticut's 6'9" Emeka Okafor (page 74), Missouri's 6'8�" Arthur Johnson, Gonzaga's 6'10" Ronny Turiaf, Texas's 6'8" James Thomas, North Carolina's 6'9" Sean May, Michigan State's 6'10" Paul Davis, Notre Dame's 6'10" Torin Francis and Kentucky's 6'6" Chuck Hayes. Together they are changing the face of college hoops, circa 2003.
How did this happen? The evolution of Postus sixfooteightus is a perfectly logical adaptation of the college game to the decadelong flood of towering athletic specimens—Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal, Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh—who either skip college entirely or use it as a quick pit stop on their way to the pros. Since 1995 when Garnett turned pro straight out of high school, 46 of the 91 NBA draftees who've entered the league with a year or less of college experience have been 6'10" or taller. "There aren't a lot of top-notch big guys left in the college game, but you still have guys with size, and you have to coach what you have," says North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who did just fine at Kansas with such new-breed prototypes as 6'9" Nick Collison, 6'10" Drew Gooden and 6'9" Wayne Simien.
Every coach in the country knows that next year's likely No. 1 NBA pick, Dwight Howard, a 6'11" senior at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, won't be spending a minute on a college campus. So, if you're a college coach, why bother recruiting him—or, for that matter, the next dozen giants behind him? "If I was advising somebody in recruiting big men, the first thing I would say is, 'See those guys rated one through 20? Don't waste your time recruiting them,' " says first-year Murray State coach Mick Cronin, the former top recruiter for Louisville's Rick Pitino and Cincinnati's Bob Huggins. "You have to be able to recruit the guys ranked 20 through 60. Those are the guys who are going to become the good to great college centers. You have to project who is going to grow into that body, who is going to lose that baby fat, who really does have good hands or footwork."
It's fashionable, of course, for hoops mavens to bemoan the disappearance of 7-foot difference-makers from campuses nationwide. But at a time when the criteria for success in the NBA and NCAA have never been so divergent, undersized-but-polished pivots like Okafor, Diogu and Johnson can thrive in college as never before. "More people are looking for better athletes and skill guys than they are just for size these days," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "To me a 6'6" guy like Chuck Hayes is dynamite. He can rebound, he's got a little shot, he can take it to the hole, he's strong, he's tough. He's one of my favorite players in the country."
Today's college game rewards coaches who have the patience to teach the basics. Before he left to coach UCLA, Ben Howland helped turn Pittsburgh into a national power by developing 6'6" Ontario Lett and 6'7" Chevon Troutman into reliable inside scorers. At Gonzaga, where Mark Few has built a Final Four contender, his big men run through endless reps—in practice and on their own—to perfect one go-to move and, equally important, a countermove. It's nothing fancy, but it works. "If you look around, not many guys know how to post or seal inside the right way," says Bulldogs assistant Leon Rice, who's convinced that the fundamentals don't get the respect they deserve. "The classic high-low isn't going to be the play you see on SportsCenter." Nevertheless solid post fundamentals are more likely to be displayed by the top college teams than in the pros, where players often get by on raw ability.
So which species make up this breed of collegiate big men? And how do they compensate for their lack of height?
Like offensive linemen, big men usually take longer than other players to learn their positions. Not Diogu, who arrived in Tempe last year not only with remarkable physical tools—the hands of an ex-high school tight end, the nimble feet of a fire-walker and the most dangerous booty since J. Lo's—but also with a relentlessly curious mind. While other Sun Devils slept during road trips last year, Diogu would stay up late to study game tapes, and invariably he'd display what he'd learned his next time out on the floor. The son of Nigerian immigrants, both teachers, from the Dallas suburb of Garland, Diogu hopes to design the next generation of dance-step video games. (We told you he was a master of footwork.) "When I started playing basketball in high school, all I could do was righthanded jump hooks," he says. "But I kept working with my coaches as the years went on, and I've got a variety of moves now."
His precocity stunned everyone in the Pac-10 last year, including Sun Devils coach Rob Evans. "You don't see those skills in a freshman," Evans says. "Ike's so intelligent, he just knows how to play. Once you catch a ball inside, there's a small window where you have to make a move. Ike can feel you and just go the other way. If he pins you, the only way to get around him is to foul him, and then he makes his free throws [73.5% last year]." This year Evans plans on unleashing Diogu's face-up game, giving him the green light on three-pointers. (He was 9 for 24 from beyond the arc in 2002-03.) If he continues his quick-study ways, Ikechukwa Somotochukwa Diogu will be the biggest name in college hoops this season.