After being loaded with high-end college talent for the better part of the last decade, the gauntlet of bigs in the Big Ten Conference has waned a bit heading into the 2023-2024 men’s basketball season.
With the departures of Trayce Jackson-Davis to the NBA and Hunter Dickinson’s transfer to Kansas, outside of returning National Player of the Year Zach Edey, there’s more “solid” centers in the league this year than nationally recognizable terrors. That’s not to say that the position is devoid of talent, but rather a large majority of the rosters lean toward their big being a defensive anchor and clean-up guy around the rim, rather than a clear-cut featured option in the offense.
The five-spot has long dominated the conversation in the Big Ten, but after flopping as a whole conference in the NCAA Tournament over the last few years, perhaps the more guard-focused rosters will FINALLY show out better in March for 2024.
So without further ado, let’s take a peek at the top-seven bigs heading in the Big Ten this season.
Tier 1-National Player of the Year Returnee
Zach Edey was a force of nature last year. To be as big as he is and yet have the footwork and lateral mobility with his size and strength is a cheat code. Yes, Purdue got popped early last year in the tournament in frustrating fashion, losing to No. 16-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson as a No. 1-seed, but none of that had to do with Edey’s ability to dominate the interior of the paint on both sides of the ball.
He scored 25-plus points in 12 different games, including seven games where he scored 30 or more points. Until proven otherwise, he is both the Big Ten Player of the Year as well as the National Player of the Year frontrunner once again. He would have likely been drafted this past summer but returns to anchor a top-five Purdue team that is seeking to break through the stain of recent March failures and make it to Phoenix this season.
Tier 2-All-Big Ten Upside
Cliff Omoruyi’s return to Rutgers was a huge boon after the graduation of Caleb McConnell and transfers of Cam Spencer and Paul Mulcahy. He’s been the heart and soul of the interior defense for this recent iteration of Rutgers that has seen head coach Steve Pikiell gaining serious recruiting momentum recently.
A bring your hard hat to work in the paint kind of player, Omoruyi averaged a career-best 9.6 rebounds per game (RPG) and 2.1 blocks per game (BPG) last season. Although his efficiency inside the arc took over a 10 percent dip from his sophomore year to junior year, with Rutgers showing a propensity to shoot a higher volume of 3-point shots on its tour abroad, perhaps the potential shift in style will create more room for Omoruyi to operate down low.
At his best as a pick-and-roll rim-runner and offensive rebounder (3.1 ORB per game last year), Omoruyi is a two-way force around the basket that feels comfortably like the second-best big in the conference.
Tier 3-Best of the Rest
Probably the most difficult person to place on this list, Kel’el Ware’s ceiling has him as one of the few players in the conference being discussed as a potential first-round NBA Draft pick heading into the season. The upside is tantalizing, but after being widely viewed as a one-and-done type prospect in 2022-2023, Ware rarely found himself on the floor last season, averaging about 9.0 minutes per game (MPG), over his last eleven regular-season appearances for an Oregon team that failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
A rim finisher and mid-range face-up guy more than a traditional back-to-the-basket post player, Ware has an intriguing blend of size, length, mobility and shooting touch that NBA franchises covet. The problem is that questions of his motor and overall desire to play hard, have negated the overall impact he has brought thus far to the college game. That said, a change of scenery may be just what he needs to revive his NBA draft stock, and in a league more familiar with scouting big, bruising centers, Ware’s ability to play away from the block and move fluidly around the court should present a unique challenge for the rest of the centers in the conference.
His position on this list is a guess that he returns closer to high school form and proves to be both an anchor defensively, as well as a competent secondary/tertiary option offensively for an Indiana team in desperate need of consistent supplementary scoring around point guard Xavier Johnson. It’s fair to pin him as the player on this list that may have the widest range of outcomes given expectations and pedigree, but I’m betting the overall talent rises to the top this season.
There’s nothing sexy about Steven Crowl, but the 7-footer just consistently goes about his business and provides one of the most steady options in the conference at the center spot. Over the last two years he has taken 80-plus 3-pointers per season and has shot 31.2% collectively, a commodity lacking in all other centers on this list. While he isn’t a prolific shot blocker (0.5 BPG), he has good positional size, keeps his feet and walls up well defensively.
He has nice touch in the post where he is a classic, patient Wisconsin big and is also one of the better passing centers that the conference has to offer (2.5 assist per game to 1.6 turnovers per game last season). Overall, he’s a well-rounded, solid player who doesn’t have massive upside, but also sets one of the safest floors at the position in the Big Ten heading into the 2023-2024 campaign.
If Dain Dainja was on a roster surrounded by a bit more shooting, he could very well be in the conversation as the second-best offensive big in the conference behind Edey. Built similarly to former Spartan Derrick Nix, Dainja has worked hard on dropping weight and becoming more mobile while maintaining the bull strength in the paint that makes him a load both on the glass and scoring around the rim. Playing just 20.5 minutes per game last year, he averaged 9.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 0.8 steals per game.
A very solid two-way player who is capable of banging with most bigs in the conference, his positioning on the list would be higher if Illinois could ever find a way to get three or four shooters on the floor around him at one time. Alas, it appears that again may be difficult to find with Ty Rodgers as the currently presumed point guard for the roster and Coleman Hawkins slotted beside him to play a large chunk of minutes at the four-spot as well as instead of him in spots as the small ball five. It may be difficult to have a significant boost in production as a result, although he is one of the more underrated options at the position the conference has to offer.
Entering into his upperclassman years, second-year head coach Kevin Williard needs Julian Reese to dial in his consistency. The frame, the mobility and the motor to be a really good energy big are all there, but in order to really impact both sides of the ball Reese needs to stem the turnovers (1.9 TOV per game), return back to form at the free-throw line (his FT% plummeted from 80% as a freshman to 53.3% as a sophomore), and stay out of foul trouble (3.3 FPG).
With the guard-driven rim pressure of Jahmir Young and Deshawn Harris-Smith stirring the drink for the rest of the roster, Reese should find easier opportunities this season around the rim and less overall pressure to be a secondary driving force for the offense.
He has the size and skill set to solidify himself as one of the better dual-way bigs in the conference if he can put it all together this season, and Maryland will need him to do just that if the Terrapins intend to once again finish in the top-five of the Big Ten standings.
This last spot I could have gone a few different ways, but ultimately I chose Pharrell Payne due to his overall ceiling being perhaps as high as anyone not named Ware in this third and final tier. In 22 MPG, Payne averaged 8.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.1 BPG 0.5 SPG, and shot an incredible 69.3% (97/140) inside the arc, which was almost 9% points better than Edey did (albeit with substantially less volume).
Payne is an above-the-rim athlete, who excels as a screen-setter and pick-and-roll rim-runner, as well as a physical, deep post threat capable of burying defenders beneath the basket. He has good passing instincts, does a nice job of balancing walling up and blocking shots, and with more playing time and another year of growth, Payne may be the most underrated two-way interior presence heading into the conference this season.
The sad thing is the combination of Payne and Dawson Garcia, despite making an argument for being in the top-three to four front-courts in the entire conference, are likely to be buried in the cellar due to Minnesota’s inability to roster even a middling Big Ten-level back-court once again.
Don’t hate me Minnesota fans, but if the Ben Johnson era was to end after this season (not wishing it upon him, but he clearly has the warmest seat anywhere in the league), don’t be surprised to see Pharrell Payne transfer up and become a major piece in his upperclassmen years on a winning program’s roster.
The two players who I expect to take reasonably substantial leaps and just missed the top-seven of this list are Tarris Reed of Michigan and Felix Okpara of Ohio State. Although built physically much differently, both Reed and Okpara appear to have solidified roles defensively, with the need to develop more refined offensive skill sets to jump into the top-half of the league’s bigs.
Reed is built wide and strong, but moves surprisingly well for his size, and projects long term as one of the better defenders at the center position for years to come. With Dickinson’s departure, he should see a significant leap in playing time, but will need to develop a consistent low post move to really break out as a scorer. He also needs to continue to work at the free-throw line where he shot just 26-for-65 (40%) as a freshman.
Okpara, meanwhile, is built long and lean, and has the capability of becoming a serious rim protector. He was put through a trial by fire with Zed Key’s injury midway through the season with mixed results last year, but ultimately should take real strides as a bona fide anchor of the defense, and lob threat offensively for an OSU team that is young, but has the talent to be a top-25 team this season.
As mentioned from the top, the tier one talent outside of Edey is not as good as it has been in past years by Big Ten standards, but the overall floor setting depth is as strong as it’s been top to bottom in a while. There are just a lot of really solid players (a few with some higher upside), who will be asked to provide more complementary roles to their respective squads.
The exciting thing is that with the mix of both veteran guards as well as the young crop of up-and-coming sophomores looking to make a leap, the need to be so interior-dominant has lessened across the board in the conference. For a league whose majority of teams have long been stuck playing through the post as its main offensive focus, a likely trend this season (outside of Purdue) toward more perimeter-based offenses with supplementary post scoring will be a welcome sight. It will be fascinating to see if the conference as a whole fares better in March as a result.