Witches. Ghouls. Monsters. Stephen King. … Jeff Withey?
The following defenders make every night feel like Halloween -- for opposing teams -- when they’re on the floor. Here’s my list of the scariest defenders in America:
1. Aaron Craft (Ohio State): It’s simple. Craft, the Big Ten’s reigning defensive player of the year, is America’s best on-the-ball defender. Save the arguments. The 6-foot-2 guard’s ability to stick elite perimeter players every night justifies that distinction for the young man who had 16 steals in five NCAA tournament games last season. He’s also credible off the ball. He’s active on every defensive possession regardless of position. Plus, he’s effective in transition situations. He displayed that versatility throughout Ohio State’s run to the Final Four, and he wasn’t completely healthy. Craft had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle. Now that’s he’s healed, the havoc will continue. Be afraid.
2. Jeff Withey (Kansas): The former beach volleyball player set an NCAA record with 31 blocks in the 2012 NCAA tournament. He had 10 alone against North Carolina State, a top-10 team entering this season. He had seven in a come-from-behind win against Ohio State in the Final Four. Deshaun Thomas and Jared Sullinger went 8-for-33 combined in that game. Blame Withey, No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s block percentage ratings last season. He consistently alters shots. Kansas’ Final Four hopes are tied to Withey’s continued dominance inside.
3. Gorgui Dieng (Louisville): Dieng’s performance during March Madness was overshadowed by the accomplishments of Withey and former Kentucky star Anthony Davis. But Dieng had a similar impact. He had 17 blocks, seven steals and 44 rebounds in five NCAA tournament games. Louisville coaches claim the 6-11 big man from Senegal expanded his game during the offseason. That’s a plus for the Cardinals’ offense, but his defense didn’t need any tweaks. He’s one of the most fearless interior defenders in the country, a key component in Louisville’s status as the top defensive team in the nation, per Pomeroy.
4. Nerlens Noel (Kentucky): Does a freshman belong on this list? Have you see him play? Noel, much like Anthony Davis a year ago, is an easy projection. He was equally dominant at the prep level. The 6-10 freshman should be a force at the collegiate level, too. It’s too early to call him a Davis clone. Davis was a well-rounded defender who blocked and changed shots outside of the post, too. Noel, however, has Davis’ defensive tools. He’s long, extremely athletic and displays perfect timing on the defensive end in his shot-blocking. Within a few weeks, he’ll prove that he belongs here.
5. Victor Oladipo (Indiana): Oladipo, a 6-5 forward, can match up against multiple positions. With his speed, he can lock up perimeter players. With his strength, he can defend post players when necessary. With his agility and athleticism, he can cover everything in between. He gives Tom Crean’s program defensive options. Crean knows he has a guy who can get a stop against a playmaker. Every team covets a player like that, and few have it. Oladipo (1.4 spg), a member of last season’s Big Ten all-defensive team, is vital for the No. 1 team in the country.
6. C.J. Aiken (Saint Joseph’s): Aiken, the Atlantic 10’s defensive player of the year last season, is a talented 6-9 forward whose defense will help St. Joe's compete for the conference crown as newcomers Butler and VCU enter the league. Aiken was fourth nationally in blocked shots per game (3.61). He was No. 16 in Pomeroy’s block percentage ratings. But it’s more difficult to track the plays he disrupted because he challenged an offensive player or altered a shot. That’s what his coaches praise most about his talents.
7. Michael Snaer (Florida State): The Florida State star guard talks a good game. The 6-5 guard plays one, too. Yes, he’s one of the most confident players in the country (Snaer told ESPN.com in August that “I can’t be guarded”). But his defensive skills are legit. After Snaer recorded 16 points, two blocks and two steals in a win against Duke in the ACC tournament last season, Mike Krzyzewski told reporters, "I love Snaer. He's just a … good player. I think he's the best competitor in our league." A member of the ACC’s all-defensive team, Snaer’s presence increases the likelihood that Florida State will be one of America’s top defensive squads again this season.
8. Zeke Marshall (Akron): Foul trouble has plagued Marshall (2.8 blocks per game last season) throughout his career. He was disqualified in six games last season. Teams in the MAC attacked the paint to draw fouls and limit his time on the floor. Of the top-15 shot-blockers in the country in 2011-12, only three played fewer minutes per game than Marshall (26.1). If he can stay on the floor, however, and consistently avoid foul trouble, Akron will compete for another MAC crown. Akron defended the 3-point line better than any squad in the conference (29.7 percent for opposing teams). Opponents are cautious in the paint with Marshall standing there. So they take the more difficult shot. That’s how talented defenders affect every opposing player on the court.
9. C.J. McCollum (Lehigh): McCollum, an Associated Press preseason All-American, might be the top all-around player in the country. He was sixth in the nation in scoring (21.9 ppg) last season. Plus, he was fifth in steals (2.64 spg) and No. 16 in steal percentage, per Pomeroy. He can slice you up with his offensive game (see 30 points in upset against Duke in the NCAA tournament). But the 6-3 guard can also hold his own on defense, too.
10. Briante Weber (VCU): Shaka Smart’s squad is expected to compete for the Atlantic 10 crown during its debut because of the gritty defense that has become his program’s identity. Weber, a sophomore, led the CAA with 77 steals last season, despite averaging just 18 minutes per game. He was first in Pomeroy’s steal percentage ratings (6.99), too. So he’s not just an effective component for a defense that was ranked No. 22 in adjusted defense. He’s more efficient than any player in the country.
Honorable Mention: Russ Smith (Louisville), Chaz Williams (UMass), Isaiah Austin (Baylor), Andre Roberson (Colorado), Mike Moser (UNLV), Rhamel Brown (Manhattan), Alec Brown (UW-Green Bay), Jamelle Hagins (Delaware), D.J. Cooper (Ohio)