Quality big men in college basketball - it's such a small group and that comes from strict guidelines on quality and quantity.

To be included you have to be good and big. The two don't often go together.Ask for a list of swingmen with strong moves or point guards who can also stick the three and the names come flowing - Augmon, Johnson, Owens, Cheaney, Anderson, Smith, Murdock.

Ask for big men who make an impact and will in the future and the pace slows to a familiar few - Shaquille, Dikembe and Alonzo.

Coaches don't often get to coach a good big man and players don't often get to play with or against one. Things change when a big man is around and sometimes it takes time to adjust.

"Last year while we got to play two big men we had never been blessed before with a big man," LSU's Dale Brown said. "There was a time that I frankly questioned and I more or less resigned myself to the fact that I would never have a top center. We had always been forced to play our strongest 6-7 or 6-8 man there.

"I had to find things out about coaching big men and that meant a new experience for me. I was able to talk with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, probably the two best centers to ever play the game, and I was able to get Coach Wooden's drills and see how big men could still have mobility and not be as restrictive to an offense or defense."

Brown started last season with two 7-footers and it just didn't work as 7-0 Stanley Roberts and 7-1 Shaquille O'Neal had trouble adjusting to each other on the court. Roberts has since had academic problems at LSU and is playing professionally in Europe. O'Neal, who received individual tutoring from both Abdul-Jabbar and Walton this season, stayed around to become the dominant big man today despite having just turned 19.

"The best way I heard it explained was that the thumb is the most useful and forceful of your fingers, but you don't want two of them. The hand won't function as well," Brown said.

The thumb which is still around has allowed the Tigers to hitch their way to the NCAA tournament and is averaging 28 points, 14.5 rebounds and 5 blocked shots while becoming a highlight tape staple with thunderous dunks that often end with a sly smile.

"A lot of great players don't breathe life into a team, but he does," Brown said of O'Neal whose possible early NBA plans are guarded as closely as he is.

When O'Neal played his final home game of the season, the LSU students chanted "2 more years" every time he dunked or threw a shot away. It wasn't enough to get a rise from the quiet O'Neal.

"It was kind of neat. I guess they want me around," he said.

But should O'Neal stay? Defenses collapse around him and there have been allegations that some conference opponents have ordered players to foul him rather than risk the wrath of another power dunk.

O'Neal's father and Brown have both complained publicly about the treatment he receives from opponents.

O'Neal won't complain about the collapsing defenses or what happens when he has the ball. He does smile when the NBA's man-to-man only edict is brought up.

"That would be kind of nice, having just one man on you. But that's not the way they play the game so there's no sense thinking about it," O'Neal said. "There's only one rule I would change and that's when you're up in the air and someone comes under you and takes your legs out and is not going for the ball. Throw that guy out of the game. He's just trying to hurt someone and that's lame. Otherwise, that's it. I'll play by what they have now. I'm not a complainer."

John Thompson was a pretty fair big man when he played in college and he has coached one of the best ever at Georgetown in Patrick Ewing. He now has 7-2 Dikembe Mutombo and 6-10 Alonzo Mourning, before the emergence of O'Neal, the player considered the prototype collegiate center.

"I personally don't disagree at all with Shaquille O'Neal's father and I had said it before," Thompson said. "I don't think my guards can be as aggressive as my post men are guarded. The NBA's far more conducive for them and if we don't do something about the college game we'll discourage a post player from staying in college.

"People ask me if Alonzo Mourning should stay in college. Well, from an educational standpoint and for his psychological and mental development standpoint, yes, he should stay in college. From an athletic standpoint, it's insane. Because it's a technical foul if four people guard you in the NBA. It's not a technical foul in college for four people to guard you. In that regard Dikembe Mutombo, and remember I told you this, will exhibit a lot of offensive skills you will be surprised at. I know he can't make those moves with four people on him."

There are some other quality big men such as seniors Luc Longley of New Mexico and Rich King of Nebraska, both 7-2, and freshmen Eric Montross of North Carolina, a 7-footer, and Shawn Bradley of Brigham Young, at 7-6 the biggest of the big and headed for a 2-year church mission.

The best of the rest of collegiate centers aren't really big men. They're quality power forwards playing in the post. Players like Christian Laettner of Duke, Anthony Avent of Seton Hall, Mark Randall of Kansas and Doug Smith of Missouri.

Thompson has come under criticism for playing both big men at once with Mourning obviously the one to suffer as he moves to power forward.

"Next year for certain he'll be free," Thompson said of Mourning. "He's tried to do everything we've asked him to do this year and he's worked like hell. He's gotten himself to a point where he's got himself so damn tight about things when they go wrong for him now because he was hurt. Physically, he's fine. It's more what happens mentally that got to him, really."

Mourning missed nine games with a strained arch in his left foot and the slow coming-around of three freshmen starters has meant a rare struggling year for the Hoyas.

O'Neal grows even quieter when asked about playing with another big man as he did as a freshman.

"That depends on the coach and at this university with the 7-footers it had that was not a good idea," he said. "Now one big guy, I think that's a good idea."