A dominant big man can paper over a number of cracks a college basketball team might have, especially when the NCAA Tournament rolls around and squads need someone who can lead them to victory by sheer force of will. If the 2020 edition of March Madness hadn’t been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re willing to bet that two bigs, in particular, would have made quite the impact for their teams.
When Maryland was at its best this year, second-year big man Jalen Smith was usually at the center of everything. Smith can do it all on the basketball court and is a legitimately unguardable frontcourt player on his best days. If the Terps were going to be at their best in the tourney, it was going to be because Smith did an admirable impression of Danny Manning, the former Kansas star who led the Jayhawks to a national title and went down as one of the best players in the sport’s history. Even if Smith never becomes the No. 1 pick like Manning, Maryland just needed him to have a Manning-like impact for six games to win the NCAA Tournament, something he very well could have ended up doing.
USC had its ups and downs this year, but through everything, there was no denying that Onyeka Okongwu could just do things on the court to make the Trojans better. Like former UConn big man Emeka Okafor, Okongwu was a tenacious rebounder and defender whose ability to obliterate opposing big men in the paint brought his team to another level. The Trojans were a bubble squad this year — ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had them as the last team to get a first-round bye in his most recent Bracketology update — and if Okongwu could have played like Okafor, they had the potential to be a pleasant surprise come the second weekend.
It’s unclear what the future holds for Smith, who has not yet declared for the 2020 NBA Draft, while Okongwu is expected to be a lottery pick. Missing out on them doing their things during the tournament was unfortunate, but in a bit of good news, both of these big men should be household names in the world of basketball for a while.