Bruno Fernando, Maryland
Fernando flashed potential as a freshman, but we didn’t know if he’d ever become a star. Eleven games into his sophomore year, it looks like he will. Fernando has been a two-way stud all season.
He’s averaging 13.7 points and 9.4 rebounds, but his 2.5 block average is what really stands out. Fernando is only playing 26.9 minutes per game, so he’s blocking 3.8 shots and grabbing 13.9 rebounds per 40 minutes. He’s one of the best centers in the country.
Fernando is an elite vertical athlete who is quickly learning the nuances of interior defense. Maryland, which is 9-2, has the No. 31 defense in the country. And the Terrapins are significantly better with Fernando in the game. Maryland allows 93.1 points per 100 possessions; with Fernando in the lineup, that figure dips to 86.2. No other rotation player has a number below 90. Fernando is the common denominator in every good Maryland defensive lineup.
He’s at his best near the hoop, redirecting drives and swatting shots into the stands. But he’s a solid ball screen defender, too, and a versatile chess piece for head coach Mark Turgeon.
Matt Mooney, Texas Tech
Texas Tech was expected to fall off after losing Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith, but it hasn’t in the slightest. The Red Raiders have the best defense in the country right now and have Jarrett Culver spearheading the offense. They’re a legitimate threat to beat Duke on Thursday.
Mooney has been a defensive cog for them all season, interrupting passing lanes and being a general pest to opposing teams’ best players. A transfer, Mooney had averaged more than two steals twice in his career before getting to Lubbock. He’s averaging 2.2 thefts this year while only fouling 1.9 times per game. His technique is so sound that he can get away with playing aggressively; most guys can’t do that.
Culver is a good defender, too, but Mooney’s competence on that end eases his burden so he can carry the offense. He’s also developed into a terrific 3-and-D player; Mooney is canning 44.4 percent of his 3s.
Zion Williamson, Duke
Williamson’s dunks and surprising gracefulness get all of the attention, and both of those things are remarkable. But he’s an incredible defensive player, too, and opponents feel his impact.
Williamson is averaging 2.1 steals and two blocks per game, and can guard all five positions effectively. He’s agile enough to scoot with guards, and obviously big enough to stonewall centers in the post. Williamson is the rare defender who can protect the rim and handle just about anyone on a switch. Mike Krzyzewski hasn’t used him much at center yet, but if he did, Williamson would thrive.
Duke’s defense is scary good with Williamson in the game. Opponents score 79.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s in there, which leads Blue Devil starters and is about six points lower than the team mark. He’s a regular on highlight reels, of course, but Williamson isn’t all style. There’s plenty of substance to his game.
The next time you watch Duke, pay attention to what Williamson does on both ends of the floor. You’ll come away awfully impressed.
De’Andre Hunter, Virginia
Hunter looks like he was created in a lab to play smothering defense. At 6-7, 225 pounds of muscle, he’s in the mold of Williamson in the sense that he can guard just about anyone effectively. Virginia barely switches, so he’s usually slotted on the same guy for the entirety of a possession.
RELATED: Breaking down the NET rankings
But there are few guys Hunter’s size who move as fluidly as he does. It’s a little surprising that Hunter is averaging less than a block and a steal per game, but a lot of that has to do with Virginia’s scheme. It doesn’t force many turnovers and Hunter is rarely in a position to block shots.
That said, he’s the prototypical wing in today’s era of basketball. Playing in Tony Bennett’s system, that’s a scary thought for opponents.
Keyontae Johnson, Florida
Johnson doesn’t play as much as most of these guys, but he’s a rising star on the defensive end. The freshman has a good build at 6-5, 225 pounds, and plays much bigger than his size.
Johnson averages 1.2 steals in just 17.4 minutes per game and plays physically while rarely fouling. He has a steal rate of 4.1, which means 4.1 percent of the possessions in which Johnson plays end up in a steal by him. That ranks 55th in the country. Proof of Johnson’s physicality lies in his rebounding numbers, too. He averages 4.1 per game, a heck of a total for a guard who averages less than 20 minutes. Johnson is also known to stick his nose in on the offensive glass.
He figures to have a heck of a defensive career in Gainesville.
Sagaba Konate, West Virginia
Konate is capable of straight up embarrassing an opponent:
His two-handed volleyball blocks are a trademark, and Konate is among the most feared rim protectors in the sport. His block average is actually down this year, but he’s still swatting 2.8 shots per game. And Konate does so with authority. It’s been a bit of a disappointing year for West Virginia in general, but Konate is still playing well.
The Mountaineers allow about 10 fewer points per 100 possessions with Konate in the game than they do overall. In other words, they struggle spectacularly when he’s on the bench, and are solid when he’s in the game. Konate allows Mountaineer perimeter players to gamble for steals that they otherwise shouldn’t, because he’s there to clean up the mess. That’s essential in Bob Huggins’ system.
He’ll be missed when he’s gone.
Barry Brown, Kansas State
Brown is experienced, fast, and has excellent defensive technique. He’s outstanding at containing dribble penetration and knows when to disrupt passing lanes and when to stick to his man.
Brown has the lowest defensive rating among Kansas State starters and is averaging 1.9 steals per game. Perhaps more importantly: he’s the best defender on the No. 2 defense in the country while carrying a heavy offensive load. Brown has a unique ability to scurry around screens without losing a step, and the rest Kansas State’s defense follows his lead.
The Wildcats aren’t may not have a ton of star power, but they’re one of the top teams in the Big 12. Brown’s elite defense is a big reason why.