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Big men are back as Final Four focus centers on centers

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Only days after Kansas was ousted from the NCAA Tournament, Bill Self hopped on a plane to see Charlotte center Mick Throne Jr. The 7-footer is transferring for his senior season, and Self can just picture him patrolling the paint in Allen Fieldhouse.

He isn’t alone: Pittsburgh and Illinois are trying to land him, too.

The frenzy of big-name programs trying to land big bodies should come as no surprise, given the composition of this year’s Final Four. All the teams that have made it to Indianapolis relied heavily on one of the best collections of back-to-the-basket post players in history.

There’s Jahlil Okafor of Duke, the polished 6-11 freshman whose name could be called first in June’s NBA Draft. Wisconsin has 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, the AP Player of the Year. And a pair of Kentucky towers, Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, has the Wildcats two wins away from the first undefeated season in nearly four decades.

“Look, I know how important big guys are,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, needing to look no farther than last weekend’s Elite Eight for an example. “We scored against Notre Dame for nine straight minutes because we threw it to the post every time.”

The undersized Irish simply couldn’t match the Wildcats’ collection of redwoods.

In many ways, this year’s tournament is a throwback to yesteryear, when centers were the dominant players on the floor. Guys such as Patrick Ewing of Georgetown and Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston were game-changers with their blocked shots and baby hooks.

That started to change in the 1990s. The game became more physical in the post. Taller kids coming up through the AAU ranks scoffed at the swinging elbows. Absorbing bloody noses and broken teeth? There was no sex appeal in a shiner.

No, they wanted to shoot 3-pointers. They wanted to dribble and drive and dunk. They wanted to “be like Mike,” even if they looked more like Mutombo.

“It’s hard to get a kid comfortable with his back to the basket,” said Bill Raftery, who has broadcast the NCAA Tournament on radio and television for more than two decades. “They grow up as guards or small forwards and that’s what they want to play.”

The result? The Timberwolves’ Kevin Garnett, a 6-11 forward, is just as comfortable bringing the ball up as posting up. Or the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki, a 7-footer who shoots nearly as well beyond the arc as within it. Or the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, a high school point guard who later starred as a 6-10 shot-blocker for Calipari at Kentucky.

“The NBA has become a perimeter game because there’s no dominant big guy,” Raftery said.

Perhaps that will changed with the latest collection of college big men.

Nobody will confuse Cauley-Stein, a former prep wide receiver, for a wannabe point guard. Towns knows he’ll make his millions in the paint. Okafor actually embraces the idea of playing with his back to the basket, a rarity these days.

“I was always comfortable in the post,” he told The Associated Press. “I’ve always been the biggest guy in my age group, so that’s where I developed, got really comfortable, and I just never really moved from there. That’s where I’m comfortable at.”

No desire to pop 3s? No fancy dribbling or killer crossovers?

“That’s just who he is,” said Duke guard Tyus Jones, who has played with Okafor since they were kids. “He’s comfortable in his skin, and he’s just a competitor. He knows his strengths and he works extremely hard on the parts of his game that he feels aren’t as strong. He just tries to polish and be sharp as possible. He tries to be as dominant as he can be.”

That dominance has helped usher the Blue Devils into Saturday night’s national semifinals against Michigan State, just like the dominance of Cauley-Stein and Towns have set up a showdown with Kaminsky and the Badgers in the other game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Call it the return of the big man, if not an outright renaissance.

“You have a great collection of big men,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged. “I mean, Jah is just an amazing talent who is only getting better. In Frank, I think it’s one of those great collegiate stories. … Towns is a little bit more like Jah. He’s an amazing talent, great kid. Willie Cauley-Stein is the gifted athlete at 7-foot that was playing a different sport.

“I’m sure all four of those guys are looked upon very highly by the NBA.”