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Fri., Nov. 5, 2010

Big expectations for Michigan State juniors Draymond Green, left, and Delvon Roe. (Associated Press)
Big expectations for Michigan State juniors Draymond Green, left, and Delvon Roe. (Associated Press)

Predicting the best frontcourts in the nation before a season can be tougher than correctly forecasting the stock market.

Most of college basketball’s top big men turn pro after only a year or two, so it’s tough to find frontcourts that combine experience and star power. You have to try to decide which freshmen will live up to expectations or which long-range projects will show the greatest improvement.

Just as our list of the top backcourts didn’t include Kansas because of Josh Selby’s uncertain eligibility status, we also decided against putting Kentucky on this list while Enes Kanter remains in NCAA limbo.

With no further ado, here’s our list of the top 12 frontcourts in college basketball:

1. Michigan State

Key performers: Draymond Green (6-6/230, Jr.), Derrick Nix (6-9/270, Soph.), Adreian Payne (6-10/225, Fr.), Delvon Roe (6-8/230, Jr.), Garrick Sherman (6-10/240, Soph.)

The buzz: Michigan State must replace four-year starter Raymar Morgan, but it returns everyone else from a frontcourt that helped the Spartans lead the nation in rebound margin last season. The Spartans have one of the game’s most versatile big men in Green, who averaged 9.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists last season. Roe is a former five-star prospect who could emerge as a big-time player if he can stay healthy for a full season. Nix and Sherman are former top-100 recruits who each averaged less than eight minutes per game last season, but they should have greater roles as sophomores.

2. Kansas State

Key performers: Freddy Asprilla (6-10/280, Jr.), Jordan Henriquez-Roberts (7-0/245, Soph.), Wally Judge (6-9/248, Soph.), Curtis Kelly (6-8/239, Sr.), Jamar Samuels (6-7/220, Jr.), Nino Williams (6-5/190, Fr.)

The buzz: The return of guard Jacob Pullen is the biggest reason Kansas State heads into the season as the Big 12 favorite, but Kelly and Samuels also offer plenty of cause for optimism. Kelly averaged 11.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks last season, and he played particularly well in the NCAA tournament. Samuels averaged 11.0 points and 4.9 rebounds per game last season, when he was the Big 12’s top sixth man. The Wildcats also should get a boost from Asprilla, a Florida International transfer and former Sun Belt freshman of the year.

3. North Carolina

Key performers: Harrison Barnes (6-8/210, Fr.), John Henson (6-10/210, Soph.), Justin Knox (6-9/240, Sr.), Tyler Zeller (7-0/250, Jr.)

The buzz: This ranking is contingent on Barnes living up to the hype and Zeller staying healthy for an entire season. Barnes, the No. 2 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, has the potential to emerge as one of the nation’s top players as soon as he begins his college career. Zeller has shown plenty of promise on the rare occasions when he has been healthy enough to play for the Tar Heels the past two seasons.

4. Duke

Key performers: Josh Hairston (6-7/210, Fr.), Mason Plumlee (6-10/240, Soph.), Miles Plumlee (6-10/245, Jr.), Kyle Singler (6-8/230, Sr.), Ryan Kelly (6-11/235, Soph.)

The buzz: Singler arguably is the nation’s top returning player. The big man with perimeter skills was named the most outstanding performer in last season’s Final Four. He’s a fourth-year starter who has averaged 15.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 steals over the course of his career. Miles Plumlee made 24 starts last season and averaged 5.2 points and 4.9 rebounds.

5. Illinois

Key performers: Bill Cole (6-9/215, Sr.), Mike Davis (6-9/225, Sr.), Tyler Griffey (6-8/235, Soph.), Meyers Leonard (7-0/240, Fr.), Jereme Richmond (6-7/205, Fr.), Mike Tisdale (7-1/250, Sr.)

The buzz: In this era of early entries, it’s rare for a program to have two senior big men like Davis and Tisdale. Davis led the Big Ten with 9.2 rebounds and also averaged 10.7 points last season. Tisdale made 58.5 of his field-goal attempts and 83.9 percent of his free throws while averaging 11.9 points, 6.0 boards and 1.6 blocks.

6. Kansas

Key performers: Marcus Morris (6-9/235, Jr.), Markieff Morris (6-10/245, Jr.), Thomas Robinson (6-9/237, Soph.), Jeff Withey (7-0/235, Soph.)

The buzz: Marcus Morris was overshadowed by Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich last season even though he actually may have outplayed them. Now that Collins and Aldrich have completed their college careers, Morris should start receiving more acclaim. Morris averaged 12.8 points and 6.1 rebounds as one of the nation’s most improved players. His twin, Markieff, added 6.8 points and 5.3 rebounds off the bench last season.

7. Syracuse

Key performers: C.J. Fair (6-8/203, Fr.), Rick Jackson (6-9/240, Sr.), Kris Joseph (6-7/210, Jr.), Fab Melo (7-0/244, Fr.)

The buzz: Syracuse lost a couple of key components in NBA lottery pick Wes Johnson and Arinze Onuaku, but the Orange still have plenty of talent in the frontcourt. Joseph was the Big East’s sixth man of the year last season and seems ready to make the leap to stardom. Jackson averaged 9.7 points and 7.0 rebounds as Syracuse’s starting power forward. Syracuse might rank even higher on this list if 7-footer DaShonte Riley hadn’t suffered a stress fracture in his right foot that likely will keep him out for the season.

8. Florida

Key performers: Vernon Macklin (6-10/240, Sr.), Erik Murphy (6-10/229, Soph.), Chandler Parsons (6-10/215, Sr.), Casey Prather (6-6/195, Fr.), Alex Tyus (6-8/220, Sr.), Patric Young (6-9/245, Fr.)

The buzz: Parsons showed a flair for the dramatic last season by hitting buzzer-beaters against North Carolina State and South Carolina. After averaging 12.4 points and 6.9 rebounds last season, he heads into his senior year as one of the nation’s top returning wings. Tyus averaged 11.8 points and 6.9 rebounds last season, while Macklin averaged 10.6 points and 5.5 boards in his first season after transferring from Georgetown.

9. San Diego State

Key performers: Brian Carlwell (6-11/300, Sr.), Kawhi Leonard (6-7/225, Soph.), Tim Shelton (6-7/245, Jr.), Malcolm Thomas (6-9/220, Sr.), Billy White (6-8/235, Sr.)

The buzz: San Diego State returns just about everybody who helped them rank 10th in the nation in rebound margin last season. Leonard earned first-team All-Mountain West honors as a freshman and averaged 12.7 points and 9.9 rebounds to lead the Aztecs in both categories. Thomas was a second-team All-MWC performer who averaged 10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 blocks.

10. Ohio State

Key performers: Dallas Lauderdale (6-8/255, Sr.), Jared Sullinger (6-9/280, Fr.), Deshaun Thomas (6-6/230, Fr.), J.D. Weatherspoon (6-7/210, Fr.)

The buzz: We admittedly are putting plenty of faith in the upside of a freshman-laden frontcourt, but we just can’t overlook the Buckeyes’ wealth of talent, even if it’s unproven. Sullinger is the No. 5 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class and already has enough bulk to deal with the physical grind of Big Ten competition. Sullinger’s a probable lottery pick in next year’s draft if he chooses to turn pro. Thomas, the No. 22 prospect in the 2010 class, gives the Buckeyes another physical presence who can crash the boards.

11. North Carolina State

Key performers: Richard Howell (6-8/261, Soph.), C.J. Leslie (6-8/206, Fr.), DeShawn Painter (6-9/227, Soph.), Tracy Smith (6-8/255, Sr.), Scott Wood (6-6/177, Soph.)

The buzz: Leslie and Smith could carry the Wolfpack into the NCAA tournament for the first time in Sidney Lowe’s five-year coaching tenure. Smith ranked seventh in the ACC in scoring (16.5) and ninth in rebounding (7.3) to earn second-team All-ACC honors last season. He led the ACC in field-goal percentage (.524). Leslie, the No. 14 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, brings extraordinary athleticism.

12. Wisconsin

Key performers: Jared Berggren (6-10/235, Soph.), Mike Bruesewitz (6-6/220, Soph.), Ryan Evans (6-6/210, Soph.), Tim Jarmusz (6-6/205, Sr.), Jon Leuer (6-10/228, Sr.), Keaton Nankivil (6-8/240, Sr.)

The buzz: Leuer averaged 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while shooting 52.2 percent from the floor last season despite missing nine games with a fractured left wrist. Leuer played guard before a late growth spurt moved him to the frontcourt, and his perimeter background is evident in his multifaceted game. He is underrated nationally. Nankivil is a returning starter who made major strides last season to average 8.1 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Jarmusz is a swingman who played solid defense while making 27 starts last season.

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