Who’s No. 1? Okafor, Towns are rivals — and pals

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Karl-Anthony Towns, at practice Friday with fellow Kentucky big man Willie Cauley-Stein. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS — You can’t turn around at this year’s Final Four without bumping into a superstar big man. There are worse things than that, right? Like home-run hitters and heavyweights, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns really move the needle.

How far back do we have to reach to find a Final Four with as much long-legged greatness as this one? Some might say 2007, when Florida’s Joakim Noah and Al Horford were joined by Ohio State’s Greg Oden and Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert in Atlanta. I’m thinking more along the lines of 1984, when Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, Houston’s Akeem Olajuwon, and Kentucky’s Mel Turpin and — what was the name of that guy drafted one spot ahead of Michael Jordan? — Sam Bowie met in Seattle.

What a group this is. Kaminsky is wrapping his never-ending arms around all the national player of the year awards. Cauley-Stein is the most dazzling and feared defender in the land. Okafor has spent most of the season as the presumptive No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. All three are first-team All-Americans.

And then there’s Towns, who just might be better than any of them.

This is where we say goodbye for now to Kaminsky and Cauley-Stein, because the most fascinating subplot of this tournament — and of the weeks to come until the June 25 draft — is Okafor vs. Towns or, if you prefer, Towns vs. Okafor. That’ll be true even if their teams don’t meet in Indy for the title, because the question no one can get enough of is: Which 6-11 freshman is better than the other?

More and more mock drafts are turning up with Towns in the top spot. Towns, who averages just 10.1 points and 6.6 rebounds a game. Towns, who has six Wildcats teammates — including three freshmen — averaging more minutes played. Ask Notre Dame, which Towns destroyed with 25 points in 25 minutes in the Elite 8, how much any of that matters. 

“The day we declare [for the draft] is when we can worry about No. 1 picks,” Towns said on Friday. “Right now, I’m just a freshman at the University of Kentucky looking to finish out strong and get ready for my sophomore year.”

It would be nice if Towns and Okafor were throwing verbal bombs at each other or even just bragging more. That’s the sort of stuff that makes us in the media feel warm and fuzzy inside. Instead, each is full of compliments about the other — Okafor calling Towns “amazing” and Towns calling Okafor a “great human being.” Geez, you almost get the feeling they like each other.

Which, of course, they do. The two players vying for the eternal glory of going No. 1 in the draft have been acquainted for years, as all super-recruits seem to be nowadays, and have become excellent friends.

“I always root for him,” Towns said. “You want him to do well. He’s having an outstanding year, and I’ve always wished him the best. We talk to each other on each other’s birthdays. I’m just always wishing him the best.”

They have much in common — old-school post moves, impending wealth — but what binds them is the really good stuff. Big hearts. Bright minds. Towns and Okafor are the baddest heavyweights in college basketball. Also, a couple of nice kids. If that last part doesn’t exactly move the needle, so be it.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg

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