Stuck in the Middle

by Kelly Schneiter | 11/18/99 6:00am

Mateen Cleaves. Scoonie Penn. Chris Porter. Quentin Richardson. Ed Cota. Khalid El-Amin. Those are the names everyone will be hearing about in college basketball this year.

It's a new season and, for the most part, the names are new. So, what makes this year's top players different than any other year's?

At a distance, not much. They all have multi-dimensional games, they're good leaders, and they command the respect of their opponents, just as all great players do.

Looking closer, however, this group differs greatly from the groups of top players in past years. At a mere 6'7", Chris Porter is the tallest amongst this group. There is not one truly dominating center in college basketball. There is no big guy who, like Shaquille O'Neal, will make an immediate impact when he hits the NBA.

Admittedly, there is not a dominant 280-pound, seven-feet tall player in every crop of college basketball players, but this has been true in recent years more than ever. Last year, the best center in college basketball was Elton Brand, who now plays forward in the NBA because, at only 6-8, he isn't nearly tall enough to man the middle.

A few years before this, Tim Duncan and Marcus Camby were the best college basketball players in the country. They both stand close to seven-feet tall, but they're built like small forwards rather than centers.

The lack of talented big men exiting the college ranks in recent years has NBA teams in a virtual frenzy trying to find the next Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson.

In the 1998 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Clippers used the number one pick to draft unproven and undeveloped Michael Olowokandi with the hopes that he might someday be a great center. They're still waiting. More frequently, and more successfully, NBA teams have been looking overseas to Europe to find a big player with quality skills.

College basketball as a whole is so weak at the center position that even the prospect of having a decent center makes a team an immediate contender. For instance, look at the University of Arizona. One of the main reasons they are considered to be a top team is the addition of junior center Loren Woods, who transferred there from Wake Forest last year.

What is so special about Woods? Well, he is injury-prone, is rumored to have an attitude problem, and as a sophomore averaged 8.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, disappointing numbers for a player with his potential. His potential, however, makes him a valuable player to have.

It's surprising, in my opinion, that colleges place so much stock in the value of a great center. When was last time the NCAA champion had a dominating big man? There surely hasn't been one in the 1990s. Recent champions have been led by the likes of Larry Johnson, Grant Hill, Antoine Walker, and Richard Hamilton, not Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan. In the '80s? Georgetown had Patrick Ewing, but he was only good for ten points in the title game.

Teams that succeed in the end seem to be those with a solid, if not spectacular, point guard surrounded by two or three explosive scorers. The teams in last year's Final Four all had great point guards: Michigan State had Cleaves, Ohio State had Penn, Connecticut had El-Amin, and Duke had William Avery, a first round selection in the 1999 NBA Draft. It is no coincidence that Duke, who lost their point guard, has lost its first two games this year, while the other three teams are ranked in the top 10.

While top-flight point guards seem to lead their team to the top ten and further, this does not appear to be the case with the best centers. Chris Mihm of the University of Texas is widely considered to be the best true center in college basketball.

Where is his team ranked? They were ranked 21st in the latest AP poll and 22nd in the latest Coaches' poll. In other words, a talented center can make a team good, but not great.

National championships simply are not won in college basketball anymore by giving the ball to a dominating inside player. LSU couldn't do it with Shaquille O'Neal and Wake Forest couldn't do it with Tim Duncan. Even in their glory days with Lew Alcindor and then Bill Walton, UCLA had a slew of talented guards and forwards.

Don't look for this to change anytime soon. The team that wins it all this year will no doubt have a future NBA point guard, but most likely will not have a future NBA center.