North Carolina State center Cedric Simmons had such a negligible impact on the ACC last year that when Duke forward Shelden Williams was recently asked about Simmons, he responded, "Who's that?" Here's a quick primer for the No. 1 Dukies, who were scheduled to play the 6'9", 233-pound Simmons and the No. 14 Wolfpack on Wednesday: Simmons, who averaged just 3.5 points and 1.8 rebounds last year as a freshman, was leading his team in scoring (12.2), rebounding (6.9) and blocked shots (2.94) at week's end. In a 78-60 win over Boston College on Jan. 10, he outplayed Eagles big man Craig Smith, a preseason All-America, hitting all six of his field goals and scoring a game-high 17 points with seven rebounds. (Smith missed 12 of 18 shots and finished with 14 points and five boards.) Even so, says Simmons, "I think I am still under the radar a little bit."
He is not alone. There is a slew of big men who, despite their size and productivity, have yet to achieve widespread notice. Here are four others who are starting to make names for themselves.
Tyrus Thomas, LSU A neck injury forced the 6'9", 215-pound Baton Rouge native to sit out his freshman year in 2004-05, so no one got to see his pogo-stick hops and 7'5" wingspan-which have led to comparisons with former Tigers center Stromile Swift-in action. This season, on a team loaded with more-heralded forwards (Glen Davis, Tasmin Mitchell), Thomas has surprised everyone by becoming LSU's do-everything star. Through Sunday he led the SEC in rebounding (10.1), field goal percentage (63.8%), blocked shots (3.27) and double doubles (nine), and he was the conference's top freshmen scorer at 14.1 points a game. His most eye-opening performance to date came on Jan. 7 at Connecticut, when he had 15 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks against the Huskies in a 67-66 loss. During that game CBS analyst Clark Kellogg said, "There is no one like him in college basketball."
Yemi Nicholson, Denver It's difficult to overlook a 6'11", 260-pound guy who averaged 18.1 points and 8.4 rebounds for a 20-win team last season, but you will not find the name of this senior on the preseason watch lists for the Naismith or Wooden awards. It could be that Nicholson just hasn't had enough time to build a rep. At Overland High in Aurora, Colo., where he played only one season, he displayed more virtuosity on the saxophone than on the hardwood. A music scholarship took him to Division II Fort Lewis (Colo.) College, where he walked on to the team and played three minutes of one game in the 2001-02 season. At the encouragement of former Denver guard Rodney Billups, who saw him play in a pickup game that summer, Nicholson transferred and has developed into an NBA prospect, averaging 19.2 points and 11.1 rebounds at week's end.
Kenny Adeleke, Hartford After three productive seasons at Hofstra the 6'9", 250-pound Queens, N.Y., native was dismissed for breaking team rules. He landed at Hartford, sat out last season and is now dominating the America East, averaging a league-high 20.5 points and 12.1 rebounds (second in the nation). In a 65-63 loss to Vermont on Jan. 12 he had 20 points and 14 rebounds for his seventh straight double double, and 11th overall, surpassing Vin Baker's 14-year-old school record for consecutive double doubles.
Rashad Jones-Jennings, Arkansas-Little Rock The Trojans' 6'8", 232-pound forward was the No. 2 rebounder in junior college basketball last season, and after transferring to a four-year school he is still one of the chairmen of the boards: He was the country's No. 3 rebounder with 11.7 a game (while averaging 13.0 points), and he set a Sun Belt record with 30 rebounds in a Dec. 13 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Blue Days in Bluegrass State
How awful has Kentucky been this season? Let's review. In December the team, which was ranked ninth in the AP's preseason poll, lost by 26 points to then No. 18 Indiana. That was the worst loss of coach Tubby Smith's nine-year tenure in Lexington-until Jan. 7, when the Wildcats were blown out 73-46 in Lawrence by a young and unranked Kansas team. Three days later Kentucky lost 57-52 to Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena, the Commodores' first win in that building. That defeat dropped Kentucky out of the Top 25, ending the nation's second-longest active streak of poll appearances at 88 weeks. Then last Saturday, Alabama (9-6, 2-1 in the SEC) had its turn in Lexington, beating the Wildcats 68-64. It was the first time since '89 that Kentucky (10-6, 0-2) lost back-to-back home games and the first time in six seasons that it lost three straight.
"We didn't really execute, and we didn't play very smart," Smith said afterward. "When a team shoots 72 percent against you [as Alabama did in the second half], you're really not doing much defensively."
The same might be said of the Wildcats on offense. Through Sunday they were 11th in the SEC in scoring (67.5 points per game), 12th in field goal percentage (42.4%) and 10th in assists (13.4). The Jan. 10 return of 6'10" sophomore center Randolph Morris, who was suspended for 14 games for improper contact with an agent, has given a boost to an otherwise weak front line (Morris had 29 points and 13 rebounds in his first two games), but it hasn't solved all the team's troubles. While some fans blame Kentucky's woes on spotty recruiting, others point to an offensive scheme that this group can't seem to execute.
After the Vanderbilt loss, senior guard Ravi Moss, a walk-on, called the team "immature." If the Wildcats don't grow up soon, they will end another significant streak: Kentucky hasn't missed the NCAA tournament since '91.
• More from Kelli Anderson at SI.com/collegebasketball.
1 ¬†Mustafa Shakur is really hurting Arizona. Through the Wildcats' first six Pac-10 games, the junior point guard had 20 turnovers to 25 assists. Shakur had zero assists in 38 minutes in last Saturday's 73-68 loss at Oregon, as Arizona (10-6) fell to 3-3 in league play.
2 ¬†Ronald Steele is college basketball's iron man. Alabama's 6'2" sophomore point guard played all 40 minutes in Saturday's 68-64 win at Kentucky, his fifth-straight game without a rest.
3 ¬†North Carolina has trouble defending athletic teams. In Saturday's 81-70 home loss to Miami, the Tar Heels (10-3) gave up 21 offensive rebounds to the quicker Hurricanes. Further, all three of Carolina's defeats have come against squads with lots of quick guards-on Saturday, Miami's trio of Guillermo Diaz, Robert Hite and Anthony Harris burned the Heels for 65 points.
MANNY MILLAN (THOMAS); DAMIAN STROHMEYER (SIMMONS)
MIDDLE MEN Thomas and Simmons (inset) have both come a long way in a year.
NO ANSWERS Smith and his charges have not been able to solve their shortcomings.