Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The position of center is one that is becoming less and less important in the college game. More frequently, big men with the ability to stretch the floor and play multiple positions are more coveted.
However, that does not mean that an elite center cannot make a major difference to a team. The issue is that finding such players is an extremely difficult task.
With that said, here are the best players in the college game that still call themselves centers and are some of the best players in the country at any spot.
FRANK KAMINSKY (Wisconsin) - A year ago at this time nobody outside of Madison, and perhaps even the Badgers' locker room, had heard of Kaminsky. Fast forward to March and the 7-foot dynamo had become a household name. Well, at least in households that followed the NCAA Tournament closely. Kaminsky's big coming-out party came in the Elite Eight against Arizona when he scored 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to cement his selection as NCAA Tournament West Region Most Outstanding Player. Of course the coaches and players of the Big Ten already knew how outstanding Kaminsky was, considering he secured all- conference first-team honors. Over the entire season Kaminsky averaged 13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He was also one of the best shot-blockers in the league, swatting 1.7 shots per game. Kaminsky's greatest strength, though, is his offensive ability. He possesses a soft touch around the rim and can even shoot from long range. He will certainly be on everyone's radar when the upcoming season gets underway.
CAMERON RIDLEY (Texas) - A former McDonald's All-American, Ridley isn't built like the prototypical center. The junior from Houston stands at just 6-foot-9, but his lack of vertical size compared to others at the position is not really a weakness. The reason for that is Ridley is such a sturdy and imposing force at 285 pounds that it is difficult to move him off his spot on the floor. Following a limited freshman season, Ridley was a monster in the paint for the Longhorns as a sophomore. He provided a reliable scoring source near the basket (11.2 ppg), while ranking third in the Big 12 in blocks (2.2 pg) and fifth in rebounds (8.2 pg). Ridley's rebounding ability is especially critical on the offensive end of the floor. Using his strong frame he is able to position himself well to make sure his team gets plenty of second-chance opportunities. He led the Big 12 in offensive rebounds (3.3 pg) and helped Texas rank third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (.391). His return to campus should help Texas reach the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season after its absence in 2013.
WILLIE CAULEY-STEIN (Kentucky) - Thinking 'what if' at the end of a season is always a demoralizing feeling. However, for John Calipari and fans of Kentucky basketball, last year was one of those seasons. Although the Wildcats' surprising run to the national title game was certainly a wonderful surprise, coming up short was a bitter pill to swallow, especially with one of the top players on the roster sidelined. Cauley-Stein missed the last three games of the NCAA Tournament due to an ankle injury. While his absence certainly wasn't the sole reason for Kentucky's loss to Connecticut, it was definitely one of them. The 7-footer was a defensive force all season and was named to the All-SEC Defensive team. His area of expertise is protecting the rim, as he ranked second in the SEC in blocked shots. While his defense was phenomenal, his offensive game was not as pronounced, but that was more a symptom of the multitude of scoring options around him. In fact, Cauley-Stein led the SEC in shooting percentage (.628) despite scoring just under seven points per game. He will be surrounded by plenty of talent yet again, so expect similar numbers, but no less skill from him.
A.J. HAMMONS (Purdue) - He might be one of the only players on this list not to have made it to the NCAA Tournament last season, but Hammons could very well be the best of the group, at least in terms of production. Following an All-Big Ten Freshman team selection, Hammons did just about everything for the Boilermakers in his sophomore campaign. He led the team in rebounds (7.4 pg) and blocks (3.1 pg), while tying for second in scoring (10.8 ppg). He was also one of only two players to connect on better than 50 percent from the floor. Considering his 7-foot stature it should come as no surprise that Hammons is able to block shots easily, but he does so at a spectacular level not just a pedestrian one. His 3.1 per game average was an entire block better than the next best player in the Big Ten. Just like Ridley, Hammons also excels in creating second chances, ranking fourth in the league in offensive rebounds (2.4 pg). Hammons is definitely one of the best NBA Draft prospects for next year, but for now he can settle with a spot as one of the best centers in college basketball.
CHRIS OBEKPA (St. John's) - Since very few teams run their offenses through the center spot, having incredible skill in another area, be it rebounding, shot blocking or even passing, can really separate just another body on the floor and a center of note. Obekpa is definitely not a scorer, but very few players in the country can block shots quite like he can. Despite starting in only 17 games last season, Obekpa was a frightening player to go up against in the paint. He led the Big East in blocked shots (2.9 bpg). On seven different occasions he had at least five blocks in a game, including an incredible nine during a 64-54 win over Monmouth. What is holding Obekpa back is his skills in other parts of the game. He averaged just 3.8 points per game last season, scoring in double figures only four times. He also doesn't rebound as well as is expected of someone his size, pulling in only 4.8 caroms per game. If he can take some steps forward this year in those areas, while continuing his reign of terror around the rim, then there is no question that he can be one of the best centers in the country.
HONORABLE MENTION: Amida Brimah (Connecticut), Przemek Karnowski (Gonzaga), Dakari Johnson (Kentucky), Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona) and Mike Tobey (Virginia).