Thanks to declining interest in them from the NBA and soaring value of them in name, image and likeness deals, big men are enjoying a renaissance in college basketball. The best back-to-the-basket post players are sticking around long enough to become dominant, household names at the (sort of) amateur level. For the first time since 2008 and only the second time since 1982, the consensus national player of the year, Kentucky center Oscar Tshiebwe, came back to school. So did two-time All-American Drew Timme at Gonzaga. So did NCAA double-double record holder Armando Bacot at North Carolina.

Which is to say, meet The Athletic’s big, old preseason men’s All-America teams. Three traditional bigs made the first team and two more made the second team. All five of them are at least 21 years old — four of them are 22 — at an average size of 6-foot-10 1/2, 247 pounds. Tshiebwe, the only player to get a first-team nod from all 15 of our voters, has never even attempted a 3-pointer in a college game. Our five All-America bigs have grabbed 3,777 career rebounds and made a grand total of 37 3s. That might make NBA scouts cringe, but it makes college coaches who get to keep a superstar rejoice.

“I’m trying to get him to come back next year, too,” John Calipari joked last week about Tshiebwe. Or is he joking? “The issue became where he was projected to be drafted — that’s part of the reason — and NIL, which I’ve said will keep kids in school who would have left. That’s what has happened in men’s basketball. With him, if that didn’t happen, he would have been gone.”

Like Tshiebwe, Timme told our Dana O’Neil this summer that NIL opportunities “definitely made coming back more attractive,” adding, “I’m not sure I would come back without it.”

And here people thought putting a little money in these guy’s pockets was going to be a bad thing. All five players on our first team are at least 21. Nine of our 10 All-Americans are at least 20. There’s just one (electric) freshman on the list. He’s a guard with every skill an NBA team could want, though, so don’t expect a repeat appearance for him next year. Then again, when it comes to predicting stardom, prepare to be surprised. This time last year, 25 players got at least one vote for our All-America teams — and Tshiebwe wasn’t one of them. Oops.

Undaunted, we took another crack at this thing. Here now, The Athletic preseason All-Americans for 2021-22. (One note: Baylor freshman Keyonte George narrowly missed the cut, landing on seven total ballots, same as the 10th man on this list, but with one fewer first-team vote).

First team

Oscar Tshiebwe, senior center, Kentucky

What could he possibly do for an encore? In his first season with the Wildcats — after a year and a half at West Virginia — Tshiebwe swept all the national player of the year awards. He became the first major-conference player since Bill Walton in 1972-73 to average at least 15 points and 15 rebounds. He joined Anthony Davis as the only players to lead Kentucky in points (17.4), rebounds (15.2), steals (1.8), blocks (1.6) and field-goal percentage (.606). He set a school record with 28 double-doubles, including 16 straight to end the season, in arguably the greatest rebounding season of the modern era.

So what’s left to accomplish?

“The name on my trophies is only my name,” he told The Athletic this summer. “The name on the national championship trophy is everybody’s. My trophies, nobody will probably remember those. A trophy for the school, it’s going to be talked about forever. That’s what I want, for everybody to be remembered.”

That’s a lovely sentiment, but he’d also like to solidify himself as a first-round pick in the NBA Draft. It just so happens, both goals can work together.

Calipari’s message to him since his decision to come back: “You’ve got to be a better basketball player. We know you rebound, but you’ve got to be able to guard multiple positions. You’ve got to be able to pass and dribble.” So far, the reviews are good. “We had pro day, and everyone left saying he’s way better than he was. That’s why you come back. Or, are you ready? You don’t come back. If you’re coming back for a redo, you shouldn’t come back.”

Because there is risk involved, which Tshiebwe knows too well after having what Calipari called a “minor, 15-minute procedure” on his right knee that has kept him out of practice since Oct. 10. Everyone insists he’ll be just fine and back in time for the season opener, but that’s a situation worth monitoring.

Drew Timme, senior forward, Gonzaga

He won the Karl Malone Award as the nation’s top power forward as a sophomore and was a finalist for the Wooden Award last season. He’s a two-time consensus All-American and the 2022 West Coast Conference Player of the Year after averaging 18.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists. The Zags are 90-7 in his career, which included a run to the 2021 NCAA championship game and an upset loss to Arkansas as a No. 1 seed in last year’s Sweet 16. Like Tshiebwe, there’s not a whole lot left to accomplish in college except to win it all — nine games of tournament experience should help — and prove he can play in the modern NBA. While he’s made just 15 3-pointers in his career (at a 28.8 percent clip), he sank four in a single five-on-five scrimmage at the NBA Draft Combine this summer. The Athletic’s draft expert, Sam Vecenie, described Timme as “the most skilled offensive player in the country.”

He’s not as active on social media as one might expect from an NIL darling. His last tweet was June 1, just before the draft-withdrawal deadline, and it said simply: “I’m back.” But why?

“Everyone says college is the best years of your life, right?” he told O’Neil. “I know I’m living my best life up here. I love Gonzaga. This makes me happy.”

And that makes those of us who love college basketball happy, too. Almost as happy as the fact that the two preseason frontrunners for national player of the year — Tshiebwe and Timme — will square off in Spokane on Nov. 20.

Marcus Sasser was playing like an All-American last year before getting hurt. Now he’s back to lead a Houston team that could contend for a title. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

Our third-leading vote-getter has become a better shooter and scorer every season under Kelvin Sampson, improving his 3-point percentage from 36.3 to 38.0 to 43.7 percent (on 8.6 attempts). After averaging 13.7 points as a sophomore on Houston’s Final Four team, he was up to 17.7 through 12 games last season before a foot injury shut him down in December.

When he came back to light up a G League Elite Camp and earn his invitation to the NBA combine this summer, Sampson got nervous. “Jesus Christ, Marcus, slow down,” he told our CJ Moore. But Sampson laughed as he said that, knowing he wouldn’t lose his star unless it was certain he’d be selected in the top two-thirds of the draft. It wasn’t.

“Marcus was the perfect storm for a kid that would make the right decision,” Sampson said. “He wasn’t going to get sucked in by a shyster who was going to tell him what he wanted to hear.”

Sasser’s uncles, Jeryl and Jason, were All-Americans at SMU and Texas Tech, respectively, and NBA Draft picks themselves. So he got sound advice that he trusted. Sure, he’s the same guy who hit 10 of 22 3-pointers and scored at least a dozen points in four of five games during the 2021 tournament run, including 20 apiece in the Elite Eight and Final Four. But after averaging 13.2 shots and just 2.6 assists (to 2.2 turnovers) last season, he knows he needs to prove himself as Sasser the passer this season.

“He doesn’t need to show anybody he can score,” Sampson said. “Although, let’s not over-interpret that. I expect Marcus to be our leading scorer.”

What’s not to love? He’s got size, shooting and toughness at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, having hit 39.4 percent of his 3-pointers as a sophomore and played on two bad ankles as a junior. He’s a two-time All-Pac-12 and All-Defensive selection, a finalist for the Julius Erving Award as the nation’s top small forward, has started 85 games for the Bruins and been a key cog on Final Four and Sweet 16 teams. If the ankles are OK now — he wore braces most of last season and limped to the finish after tweaking one in the second round of the NCAA Tournament — and his dip in 3-point percentage as a junior (27.6 percent) was mostly health-related, Jaquez should be a star.

He outperformed his season numbers (13.9 points, 5.7 rebounds) late last season, averaging 20.5 points over an eight-game stretch before struggling on a bum wheel in the season-ending loss to North Carolina.

“I believe when I’m healthy,” Jaquez told our Seth Davis this summer, “I can be one of the best players in the country.”

Armando Bacot, senior center, North Carolina

Had the Tar Heels not been so bad for most of last season before catching fire when it mattered, it might’ve been Bacot, not Tshiebwe, who got all the national love. He led UNC in points (16.3), rebounds (13.1), field-goal percentage (.569) and blocks (65), becoming the first in school history to lead the team in all those categories in consecutive seasons. He recorded a double-double in all six NCAA Tournament games, which no player had ever done, during a shocking run to the title game. He tied David Robinson’s record for most double-doubles in a season (31) and became the first ACC player with 500-plus rebounds in a season since 1956.

After he bullied Saint Peter’s with 20 and 22 in the Elite Eight, Bacot said he was glad to “cement myself.” After he grabbed 21 boards in a Final Four win over rival Duke, the Hall of Fame coach he’d just put out to pasture, Mike Krzyzewski, interrupted the media scrum to shake Bacot’s hand and say, “You were my player of the year.”

If Bacot is as good as he was all last season and Carolina is as good as it was at the end of last season, he might be everybody’s player of the year this time. If he can lead the Heels to a championship, he’ll further cement a legacy that should soon include the school’s career rebounding record.

Second team

The only rookie on this list (appearing on 12 of 15 ballots) doesn’t play like one. A 6-foot-5 McDonald’s All-American, arguably the No. 1 high school player in the 2022 class, Smith is an absolute bucket — and so much more. Our C.J. Moore broke down his film this summer and declared simply, “Nick Smith Jr. is going to be a star.” Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman told Moore, “He makes the right pass. He’s wired to be a scorer, but he also has vision and willingness.”

Smith is an elite finisher around the rim, has an uncanny floater and is a capable 3-point shooter. He’s also a clutch performer.

“His maturity late game is at a high level,” Musselman said. “Number one, you gotta want the ball in those situations, and then you gotta deliver. He’s got the mindset to take on the responsibility. And then two, he’s got the gift to make plays and he’s got good shot-clock awareness.”

Smith, the jewel of a No. 2-ranked recruiting class that features two other All-Americans at Arkansas, averaged 19.3 points in his first three games on the Hogs’ summer trip to Europe before a minor injury limited him in the fourth game. He scored 59 points in 78 minutes on that trip, shot 49 percent from the floor and hit 39.1 percent from 3.

Last week, Musselman said Smith “moves on the floor effortlessly, almost like he is on skates. He is cosmetically pleasing to watch.” Indeed, it should be a treat for all of us.

Caleb Love, junior guard, North Carolina

The former McDonald’s All-American had a frustrating freshman season. He’d come in as the consensus No. 2 point guard in the 2020 high school class, behind only Cade Cunningham, then shot 31.6 percent from the field for a flailing UNC team his first year. But as a sophomore, Love averaged 15.9 points, 3.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds, improving his field-goal, 3-point and free-throw percentages by at least five percent apiece. He had a terrific NCAA Tournament, helping the Tar Heels reach the title game by scoring 23 against Marquette, 30 against UCLA in the Sweet 16 and 28 points against rival Duke in the Final Four.

This summer, Love was named MVP of NBA star Damian Lillard’s camp which also featured high-end college guards Marcus Sasser, Keyonte George, Terrence Shannon and Jalen Wilson. Love told our Brendan Marks that he looks up to Lillard because “I know how any obstacle he’s had, he’s bounced back from. His background isn’t all sweet. It’s not all perfect.” Likewise, “My biggest motivator is just knowing where I was. My freshman year, I was probably at my lowest point in my life as far as basketball.”

He thought he’d be in the NBA by now, surely, but there’s still time for that, among other gigantic goals.

“I just feel like this is a very pivotal year,” Love said. To prove he’s a pro and: “I want to win that national championship.”

Vecenie calls Dickinson “one of the players I most enjoy watching right now,” because although he looks (and sometimes acts) like Rocky antagonist Ivan Drago, he’s developed into more than just a sledgehammer in the paint. Not a plodder, but a passer, a pick-and-popper. His evolution from 7-foot-1, 260-pound bully on the block to skilled big man showed up last season in the win over Tennessee to reach the Sweet 16. Dickinson had 27 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and hit 3 of 5 3s. He only attempted four 3s and made none when he was Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a consensus second-team All-American in 2021. Last year, he increased his averages to 18.6 points and 8.6 rebounds while making 21 of 64 from 3-point range.

Things are never boring when Hunter Dickinson is involved. (Robert Goddin / USA Today)

Vecenie predicts that he will be “options Nos. 1, 2 and 3 for Michigan this season,” and that starring role will lead to Big Ten Player of the Year honors. He’ll certainly want to show off the ever-expanding bag of tricks, but don’t expect Dickinson to lose the edge that got him here either. The flexing and strutting that burrows under an opponent’s skin, like when he hung 33 and nine on Michigan State in March and mean-mugged the Spartans’ bench so many times that Tom Izzo nearly lost his mind.

“If it does not work out in basketball, I dare any of you to deny me this fact: He will be a WWE villain,” Wolverines assistant Phil Martelli said after that game. “He won’t be a good guy. He’ll be a villain. He will sell a lot of tickets for WWE.”

Another delightful throwback, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound destroyer of worlds in the paint. He made 200 shots around the rim (on 286 attempts) last season and zero 3-pointers (on three attempts). He can do other things, and the former McDonald’s All-American has certainly added skills throughout a college career that has seen him start all 94 games since arriving in Bloomington, but make no mistake: If possible, he wants to dunk on you.

Jackson-Davis has averaged at least 18 points and eight boards each of the last two seasons, earning All-Big Ten honors both years and third-team All-America in 2021. He’s grown into a solid stopper, too, averaging 2.3 blocks as a junior to make the league’s All-Defense team. As one Indiana assistant told our Eamonn Brennan this summer, pro scouts want to see him do all of that gritty, tough, athletic stuff — and “there is not a team in the NBA that wants Trayce to shoot 3-point shots.”

Since 2019-20, when Jackson-Davis got to Bloomington, he ranks first or second among Big Ten players in points, rebounds, blocks, field goals made and free throws made and attempted. If he could shoot 3s, if it even seemed feasible that he one day might, he’d already be in the NBA and college basketball would be worse for it. Mike Woodson and Indiana would be much worse. Jackson-Davis giving the Hoosiers one more year, fresh off their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2016, is a gift the program must not waste.

When he was in fourth grade, Yahoo Sports called Miles “the elementary school Allen Iverson.” That might’ve been a tad too much hype, but he does have a slick handle and is now a preseason All-American after earning Big 12 All-Freshman honors in 2021, second-team All-Big 12 in 2022 and the coaches’ vote for preseason player of the year at Big 12 Media Day last week. He is the league’s top returning scorer and one of the craftiest bucket-getters in the country.

MIles has been on a steady climb. He led USA Basketball to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Cup after his freshman season, starting every game delivering 11 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals in the championship game. Then last season, despite playing with two bad wrists, he went for 15.4 points, 3.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals, scored 25-plus against three high-major opponents and dropped 20-plus in both of the Horned Frogs’ NCAA Tournament games. His field-goal, 3-point and free-throw percentages all dipped in Year 2, but being banged up likely contributed there.

Now he just needs to dial the shot back in and prove he can make players around him better as a lead guard and maybe Elementary School AI will make a return appearance. “The straw that stirs the drink for Jamie Dixon’s best team in Fort Worth,” as Vecenie puts it.

Others receiving votes: Keyonte George, Baylor; Adama Sanogo, Connecticut; Adam Flagler, Baylor; Kendric Davis, Memphis; Isaiah Wong, Miami; Baylor Scheierman, Creighton; RJ Davis, UNC; Tyrese Hunter, Texas; Max Abmas, Oral Roberts; Zach Edey, Purdue; Hunter Maldonado, Wyoming; Tyger Campbell, UCLA; Julian Strawther, Gonzaga; Jalen Wilson, Kansas.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Jamie Squire, Jayne Kamin-Oncea, Staph Chambers and Ethan Miller / Getty Images, Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire)