North Carolina coach Roy Williams went on a safari to Africa this offseason. He spent most of his time in a jeep, riding dirt roads and observing wild animals in their natural habitat.
He said one of the highlights of the trip was one dark night when the jeep slowed and stopped unexpectedly.
"It was pitch black, and we weren't sure what was going on," Williams recalled at ACC Media Day on Sunday. "You have to be quiet, but just as I was about to ask someone why we stopped … we were in the middle of a herd of water buffalo. I think they were so close I could have reached out of the jeep and touched one."
Speaking of a herd of water buffalo, Rivals.com's top 10 post players for the 2008-09 season are some large loads themselves. You don't want to get caught under the basket if anyone in this herd is stampeding.
You know all of the players in the same conference will match up at least once, sometimes twice. The most anticipated matchup of bigs, though, will happen only if North Carolina and Notre Dame reach the Nov. 26 final of the Maui Invitational.
1. Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina, Sr., 6-9/250
Hansbrough begins his assault on the NCAA and UNC record books in his final season in Chapel Hill. It's a testament to his desire and work ethic that his career is measured against the game's all-time benchmarks. He's the first player to win The Associated Press National Player of the Year award, then return to school since LSU's Shaquille O'Neal for the 1991-92 season. Hansbrough is a three-time first-team All-American. He'll pass Phil Ford as the Tar Heels' leading career scorer with his 123rd point this season, and he'll pass Duke's J.J. Redick as the ACC's leading career scorer with his 602nd point. He scored 882 points last season en route to averaging 22.6 points and 10.2 rebounds.
2. Blake Griffin, Oklahoma, Soph., 6-10/251
The Sooners' manchild delivered on his five-star promise, leading OU in scoring (14.7 ppg), rebounding (9.1 rpg) and field-goal percentage (56.8). All three averages easily ranked in the top 10 in the Big 12, and Griffin was named first-team all-conference. The last OU freshman to average as many points and rebounds was Wayman Tisdale. Griffin battled knee injuries during conference play, including missing two games, but still averaged 15.7 points and 9.7 boards. He chose not to enter the NBA draft despite almost assuredly being a lottery pick. To say big things are expected of Griffin and the Sooners is an understatement.
3. Luke Harangody, Notre Dame, Jr., 6-8/255
Few players in history have raised their game from their freshman to sophomore season like Harangody. He went from averaging 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds to 20.4 points and 10.6 rebounds. He went from the Big East All-Rookie Team to the Big East Player of the Year. Only four players in the Big Six conferences averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. Two of them – Kansas State's Michael Beasley and California's Ryan Anderson – left early for the NBA. The other two were Harangody and Hansbrough. So what has he done in preparation for an encore? He has remade his body in the weight room, and he has extended his range on the court. If his perimeter game really has progressed, the Big East is in big trouble.
4. Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut, Jr., 7-3/263
He's one of the tallest players in the country, his wingspan is 7 feet 7, and yet he still has remarkable athleticism. Few 7-footers jump as well as Thabeet. He was third in the nation in blocks (4.5 bpg) last season, and he blocked at least three shots in 26 of UConn's 33 games. The Huskies ranked sixth nationally in field-goal percentage defense, thanks in large part to Thabeet. For every shot he blocks, he probably alters three more. "He takes up the whole lane," said UConn forward Jeff Adrien, who just missed this list. "He's two people in one. That is just scary. I'm happy I don't have to go against him."
5. Patrick Patterson, kentucky, So., 6-9, 235
Patterson carried the Wildcats for much of last season. He was as consistent a performer as there was in the SEC, a remarkable accomplishment for a freshman. He averaged 16.4 ppg and 7.7 rpg, reaching double figures in all but two games but never scoring more than 24 points. He also shot 57 percent to finish fifth in the SEC. Patterson posted six double-doubles before a stress fracture in his left ankle forced him to miss Kentucky's final five games, costing him a good chance at Rex Chapman's school freshman scoring record.
6. Jon Brockman, Washington, Sr., 6-7/255
Brockman plays as though every rebound is his and his alone. He's not nearly as big or freakishly athletic as some of the players on this list, but he's a relentless worker with great hands and excellent timing when working the glass. Consequently, he is the leading returning rebounder (11.6 rpg) in the nation. He was sixth in the Pac-10 in scoring (17.8 ppg) and third in field-goal percentage (53.6 percent). His points come from working the glass and running the floor. Brockman may be underpublicized because the Huskies struggled last season, but coaches in the Pac-10 know he brings it every night.
7. A.J. Ogilvy, Vanderbilt, Soph., 6-11/250
The Aussie big man proved in his first season that he could score (17 ppg, tops among SEC freshmen), run the floor and get to the free-throw line (his 229 attempts led the SEC by a wide margin). His ability to draw fouls is a huge plus because he gets opposition big men in foul trouble and he's excellent at the stripe (fourth in the SEC at 76.9 percent). He has great footwork and excellent hands, and he can score with his left or right. Coach Kevin Stallings would like to see him turn up his rebounding (6.7) and defense. With each step Ogilvy takes, his draft stock rises.
8. Earl Clark, Louisville, Jr., 6-9/220
Clark, like some others on this list, strongly considered making the jump to the NBA, and he probably would have been a first-round pick. The New Jersey native was superb in the NCAA tournament, averaging 14.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks and shooting 62.2 percent as the Cardinals advanced to the Elite Eight. For the season, he averaged 11.1 points, 8.1 rebounds (seventh in the Big East) and 1.7 blocks (fourth in the league). He's a smooth athlete with a great first step, and he also is a solid defender. Clark could be a breakout player this season.
9. Damion James, Texas, Jr., 6-7/222
Is he a wing? An undersized power forward? With his athletic ability, he's pretty much whatever he wants to be. He's the leading returning rebounder (10.3 rpg) in the Big 12, an average that ranked 15th nationally. James also averaged 13.2 points and 1.3 blocks. His motor always is running, and he gets out and fills the lane. James possesses excellent strength, and he has improved his perimeter range in his first two years by leaps and bounds. The Longhorns need him to score more this season but still hit the boards with his typical tenacity.
T-10. DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh, Soph., 6-7/265
Blair burst on the scene and was Big East Co-Rookie of the Year after averaging 11.6 points, 9.1 rebounds (fourth in the conference) and 1.7 steals. He led the Big East in offensive rebounding, showing his determination to be around the ball. His 7-2 wingspan and strength more than make up for his relative lack of height. He also has surprisingly quick hands. His steals average ranked 11th in the league and was far and away the most by a post player.
T-10. Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State, Jr., 6-9/210
Varnado came out of nowhere to lead the nation in blocks (4.6 per game). He also ranked near the top of the SEC in rebounding (his 7.8 rpg ranked sixth). His scoring average (7.9 ppg) was modest and will have to increase significantly this season if the Bulldogs are to come close to matching last season's success. Mississippi State lost most of its scoring and rebounding from last season and was picked fourth in the SEC West in the media preseason poll, but Varnado makes the Bulldogs a big-time threat on the defensive end.