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Some folks just don't get it. In the past nine years, only one Final Four Most Outstanding Player has returned to college basketball the following season--and now he has to justify himself, over and over, as if he had a screw loose. "People say, 'You could have been the Number 1 pick in the [ NBA] draft! Why did you come back?'" says Florida junior forward Joakim Noah. "I'm not in a situation where I need money to put food on the table, and I just feel like it would be that much more special for me and my teammates to stay as a group. There's nothing like a college environment. My stock might drop--and it probably will with Greg Oden around--but it's not about that." � On several levels Noah is a refreshing phenomenon, the rare player who's not only taller than he says he is--open secret: he's a 7-footer, not 6'11"--but also better than he thinks he is. (He says he'll play internationally for France, claiming he's not good enough for the U.S. national team.) But what once was rare in the college game is suddenly a lot more common. A thousand miles north of Noah lurks another 7-foot giant, Ohio State's Oden, who's generating straight-faced comparisons with the young Lew Alcindor. " Greg Oden is as good a prospect as I've seen in 15 years," says North Carolina coach Roy Williams of the freshman, a two-time national high school player of the year. "And he is a big man. He's not trying to be a three-point shooter or a point guard. He's just dominating the inside area."
If you sweep your field glasses across the veldt of college hoops, you'll reach an inescapable conclusion: The low-post dinosaur is back. After a decade in which the game grew smaller, faster and more guard-oriented, new rules and shifted priorities have revived the campus big man, a species that was on the verge of extinction. Not since the 1980s heydays of Patrick Ewing, Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson has SI's preseason Top 20 revealed such a post-heavy collection of skilled 7-foot T-Rexes ( Oden, Pittsburgh's Aaron Gray, Washington's Spencer Hawes, Georgetown's Roy Hibbert) and explosive all-court velociraptors ( Florida's Noah and 6'10" Al Horford, Alabama's 6'10" Jermareo Davidson, LSU's 6'9" Glen [Big Baby] Davis, North Carolina's 6'81/2" Tyler Hansbrough, Duke's 6'10" Josh McRoberts).
If this season were, say, five years ago, the majority of those big men wouldn't be setting foot in a college arena. But the landscape is being transformed. "The low-post game is returning," says Ohio State coach Thad Matta, "and I think you're going to see more and more of it. We had two of our recruits in the other day, and Greg was smaller than both of them. Can you imagine that?" Even though Oden isn't expected to play until January after undergoing surgery in June on a torn ligament in his right wrist, the new-look Buckeyes were picked to win the Big Ten in the league's preseason media poll.
Want more evidence that big is back? Try filling out a preseason All-America ballot. The excess of fours and fives--and relative lack of worthy perimeter players--might have you inserting LSU's Big Baby where no sane college coach would: at small forward. Or talk to Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who's relying this season on low-post strongmen Hawes and Jon Brockman, a 6'7" sophomore forward, after rebuilding the program on the bedrocks of speed and full-court pressure defense. "We haven't played with anyone over 6'9" in four years," Romar says, "and now we've got two 7-footers [freshmen Hawes and Joe Wolfinger] on the roster."
Conventional wisdom holds that perimeter play is the key to success in March, but recent history shows that canard is as pass� as underestimating the mid-majors. After an eight-year span (1996 to 2003) in which the Final Four MVPs were all guards or mid-sized swingmen, the last three MVPs have all been big men: Connecticut's Emeka Okafor ('04), North Carolina's Sean May ('05) and Noah ('06).
If some coaches have their way, Okafor, May and Noah will serve as poster boys--with an emphasis on the post--for a new generation. "I'm hoping this trend shows kids that it's O.K. to be a big guy," says the Tar Heels' Williams. "Big guys had gotten to the point where they thought they had to shoot the three-point shot and be out 25 feet from the basket because that'd appeal to NBA teams. But in the last three Final Fours the most dominant players did the majority of their work around the basket. We can talk all we want about guards and perimeter shooters, but when it gets to that level, having big guys who can dominate is extremely important."
Why have college big men recovered their stature of old? Some reasons are obvious, while others are more subtle. To wit:
The NBA minimum-age rule. As part of the new collective bargaining agreement signed last year, the NBA no longer allows teams to draft players until a year after their high school class has graduated. Most of the freshmen who could have jumped directly from high school to the pros are big men--see Oden, Texas's 6'10" Kevin Durant and UConn's 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet--who now will be forced to wait. "I was told that Hasheem would have gone 15th [in the draft]," says Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, "and Oden most likely would have gone Number 1, and you go right down the list."
The result: This season's college rookies (page 76) are "the best freshman class in 10 years," says recruiting expert Bob Gibbons. That's due mostly to the new standard, but not entirely. "The NBA rule is a factor," he adds, "but I think this is just a talented group of freshmen all across the board."
Whether the new rule will be good for college basketball is a point of debate, yet Calhoun insists that natural forces will turn the one-year rule into a de facto two years or more for most players, big men included. "A lot of the top freshmen are being exposed," he says. "[Former UConn forward] Charlie Villanueva tried to get drafted after high school, but he couldn't have after his freshman year of college. He was overwhelmed and overshadowed. But the next year he came into his own and got drafted seventh." As more players with NBA bodies but high school skill sets end up in college, Calhoun reasons, "you'll see the development of a lot more big guys, and that's a real positive for the game."