Jared Sullinger's surprising decision to return to Ohio State for his sophomore season instantly upgraded the center position for the 2011-12 season.
Talented big men are in such shortly supply across basketball that most post players who perform as well as Sullinger did in his freshman season waste no time launching their pro careers. Sullinger opted to come back even after averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds as a freshman.
Sullinger's big season made him the clear-cut choice as the nation's No. 1 center in the preseason edition of the Rivals.com College Basketball Power Rankings, which measure the nation's top performers at each position.
Center once again is the weakest of the five positions across the nation, but there actually are more quality big men than usual this season. The additions of Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis and Connecticut freshman Andre Drummond plus the return of North Carolina senior Tyler Zeller give college basketball three more potentially dominant centers to join Sullinger.
But there isn't a whole lot of depth at this position. Because there aren't many elite centers, our list of the top 20 players at this position includes a few guys who technically are listed as forwards on the rosters of their respective teams. If they're listed as forwards but are filling the roles generally expected of centers, we figured it would be all right to include them.
Our unveiling of the preseason power rankings continues Thursday with a look at the nation's top 20 freshmen.
The top 20 centers
1. Jared Sullinger (6-9/264, Soph.), Ohio State
Sullinger was a finalist for the Naismith and Wooden national player of the year awards as a freshman. He averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds while recording 18 double-doubles in 37 games. He has dropped almost 25 pounds since the end of his freshman season.
2. Anthony Davis (6-10/220, Fr.), Kentucky
Davis averaged 32 points, 22 rebounds and 7 blocks as a senior at Chicago's Perspectives Charter. He was a finalist for the Naismith and Morgan Wootten national high school player of the year awards. He could provide the same type of impact Sullinger made in his freshman season.
3. Tyler Zeller (7-0/250, Sr.), North Carolina
Zeller averaged 15.7 points and 7.2 rebounds last season while leading the ACC in field-goal percentage (.547). He averaged 25.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in the NCAA tournament. He also has a knack for getting to the foul line: Last season, Zeller made 19 more free throws than any of his teammates attempted.
4. Andre Drummond (6-10/270, Fr.), Connecticut
The Huskies received a huge boost in August when Drummond signed rather than entering college a year from now. Drummond helped St. Thomas More of Oakdale, Conn., to a national prep championship last season. He should team with Alex Oriakhi to give Connecticut a formidable frontcourt duo.
Ezeli delivered a breakthrough season as a junior by averaging 13 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks to earn second-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches. He sprained ligaments in his right knee last week and will be out for the next five to seven weeks.
When he stays out of foul trouble, Smith can cause plenty of headaches with the matchup problems created by his size. Smith averaged 10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as a freshman. He averaged 15 points in 25.5 minutes in two NCAA tournament games.
This fifth-year senior is entering his third season as Gonzaga's starting center. He averaged 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season. He had 17 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in an NCAA tournament loss to BYU, which this season becomes a West Coast Conference rival.
Gates, a four-year starter, led Cincinnati in scoring (11.9 ppg), rebounds (6.9 rpg), blocks (1.5 bpg) and field-goal percentage (.511) last season. He ranked 10th in the Big East in rebounds and eighth in field-goal percentage.
Johnson shot 59.1 percent last season and averaged 11.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. His 347 total rebounds were the most by a Miami player since Rick Barry had 475 boards in 1964-65. Johnson is recovering from a knee injury that likely will prevent him from playing until January.
Sidney struggled through a suspension, weight issues and inconsistency last season, yet he still averaged 14.2 points and 7.6 rebounds. If Sidney can ever put it all together, he has All-America potential.
Black averaged 9.1 points and 5.0 rebounds as a freshman, even though he didn't become a permanent starter until the middle of January. If he can do a better job of avoiding foul trouble, Black should improve his production quite a bit this season.
After primarily serving as a shot-blocker and rebounder in backup duty last season, Young takes over a featured role this season as Florida attempts to replace departed big men Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus. Young, who is extremely athletic for a guy his size, played for Team USA at the U19 World Championships this summer.
Plumlee made 24 starts for Duke's 2010 national championship team and was a part-time starter again last season. He collected 14 offensive rebounds in three ACC tournament games last season. We believe he also could emerge as more of a scorer this season.
Yarou has struggled with health problems for much of his career, but he still managed to average 8.5 points and 6.3 rebounds last season despite breaking his left wrist in the Big East tournament. If he stays healthy, Yarou could have a big season for a team looking for secondary scorers.
This Rutgers transfer led the Missouri Valley in field-goal percentage (.609) and blocks (1.8 per game) last season, his first with Creighton. He also averaged 10.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. He spent this summer as the starting center for the Venezuelan National Team.
After struggling with conditioning earlier in his career, Frease lost 25 pounds before his junior season and had a breakthrough year by averaging 11.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Frease was reinstated to the team last week after a brief suspension.
The son of former All-America C Ralph Sampson has made a name for himself at Minnesota. He averaged 10.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks last season, but must become more consistent and more assertive this season. He has averaged at least 1.5 blocks per game in each of his first three seasons.
Rated as the No. 15 prospect in the 2011 recruiting class, Zeller could move up this list in a hurry if he lives up to expectations. He averaged 24.6 points, 13.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists as a senior at Washington (Ind.) High. Time will tell whether Zeller's a true center or he fills more of a power forward role at Indiana.
The younger brother of former Clemson star Trevor Booker averaged 8.1 points and 5.5 rebounds and also developed a 3-point shot last season. He should have bigger responsibilities this season as Clemson attempts to replace Jerai Grant in the frontcourt.
O'Quinn doesn't get much attention because he plays in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, but he ranked fourth nationally in blocks (3.4 per game), fifth in rebounds (11.1 per game) and eighth in double-doubles (19) last season. He also averaged 16.4 points and made 55.6 percent of his shots.