College Basketball: 1 Thing to Worry About for Each Top 25 Team

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2012

College Basketball: 1 Thing to Worry About for Each Top 25 Team

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    Now that football has mercifully returned, the beginning of the college basketball season is right around the corner.

    Those final months of the offseason after a long summer are always filled with optimism. Maybe your team is a perennial powerhouse that has reloaded with top recruits and is ready to go. Or maybe your team is a scrappy underdog that draws inspiration from the countless Cinderella runs we have seen the past few Marches.

    Either way, programs are feeling good right about now.

    Well, I’m here to play devil’s advocate. Sorry, but someone’s got to do it.

    Chances are there is at least one concern that your team’s coach or fanbase has heading into the 2012-13 season. Read on to discover something worrying each of ESPN’s preseason Top 25 teams.

No. 25: Minnesota

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    Assuming Trevor Mbakwe will stay healthy is a big assumption

    The 2012-13 season will be Trevor Mbakwe’s sixth season of eligibility. That’s right, his sixth.

    When healthy, Mbakwe is one of the most dominant forces in the Big Ten. He rattles the rim with dunks, inhales rebounds and blocks everything in sight.

    But there is a reason this is his sixth season of eligibility. He just can’t seem to stay healthy.

    Another concern for Minnesota is the fact that there is no guarantee that Mbakwe will still play with the same dynamic athleticism that fueled him before his ACL tear.

    The Gophers have a formidable core surrounding their big man, including Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams. If Mbakwe is healthy, they could be playing deep into March.

    That’s a big if.

No. 24: Missouri

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    No guarantee all those transfers will mesh

    Missouri is loaded and is probably a bit underrated in ESPN’s preseason predictions.

    However, one of the primary reasons the Tigers are so talented is because of a slew of transfers that will be taking their collective talents to Columbia this season, including center Alex Oriakhi from Connecticut, Keion Bell from Pepperdine and Earnest Ross from Auburn.

    While I am not saying this will happen, it is natural to be somewhat concerned that these transfers will not mesh right away. After all, they were not recruited together and come from various playing backgrounds and conferences, so there may be somewhat of a transition period.

    Frank Haith will have his work cut out for him, but fortunately for Tiger fans, he will have the help of lightning-quick guards Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey.

No. 23: UNLV

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    Overconfidence may become an issue

    Despite placing 23rd in ESPN’s preseason poll, UNLV has power conference talent in a mid-major league (although calling the Mountain West mid-major at this point may be a disservice to a conference that has been arguably stronger top to bottom than the Pac-12 the past few years).

    That is in large part due to the impressive recruiting efforts of second year head coach Dave Rice, who landed top-ten prospect Anthony Bennett and Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch (one of 2011’s top prospects) among others.

    Throw in the depth brought on by Mike Moser, Carlos Lopez and seniors Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins, and suddenly UNLV looks very formidable on paper.

    The only real concern, outside of all this talent coming together as expected, for the Rebels this season is a dash of overconfidence. After all, it’s not unrealistic to expect this team to run rampant over the vast majority of its Mountain West competition.

    If UNLV remains humble enough and all the talent can mesh (a big if, but not unrealistic), a surprise Final Four run is not out of the question.

No. 22: Wisconsin

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    No more Jordan Taylor to bail Wisconsin out

    Wisconsin should once again be very competitive under Bo Ryan. In fact, the program almost always is.

    The Badgers will play better fundamental basketball than the vast majority of the nation, limit their turnovers and hit around 80 percent of their free throws. With most of last season’s contributors returning, and star freshman Sam Dekker joining the fold, Wisconsin will win much more than it loses.

    But don’t underestimate the value of Jordan Taylor.

    Yes, he was the best player on the Badgers’ roster, but he meant much more than that.

    With Wisconsin’s grind-it-out style of play, it often relied on the floor general to simply make something happen in the final five seconds of the shot clock.

    He was also counted on late in games to bail the Badgers out on both sides of the floor and bring them to victory.

    For instance, Taylor put Wisconsin on his back in the final five minutes in an upset win over Ohio State in Columbus and the Badgers’ heart-stopping three point victory over Vanderbilt in the NCAA tournament.

    Jordan Taylor took every big shot for Wisconsin. Bo Ryan is going to need to find someone else to fill that role this year.

No. 21: Texas

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    A lot of points leave with J’Covan Brown

    By Texas standards, the Longhorns, who were knocked out in their first NCAA tournament game by Cincinnati, didn’t have the best season last year.

    Rick Barnes did his best to atone for it by bringing in an impressive recruiting class that should help Texas in 2012-13 and into the future.

    However, despite this infusion of youth, a Longhorn team that was already disappointing as it was lost its most productive player from a season ago. If anything else, that provides a reason for concern for the fans in Austin.

    J’Covan Brown poured in points last year from his guard position, to the tune of 20.1 per game.

    With Brown now departed, questioning where the lion share of the offense will come from this year in Texas is a legitimate inquiry.

    It will be up to Barnes to answer it.

No. 20: Gonzaga

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    Schedule, especially for a WCC team, is no cakewalk

    Gonzaga was the original Cinderella story, even though other underdog teams have advanced deeper into the NCAA tournament in recent years (Butler, George Mason and VCU come to mind).

    Nevertheless, there’s a reason many college basketball fans still think of the Gonzaga Bulldogs when discussing the merits of non-power conference teams. They find a way to keep themselves in the spotlight.

    Outside of playing deep into March, the best way for a smaller program to do that is consistently schedule marquee games that the worldwide leader in sports may just catch wind of. Gonzaga does that every year.

    The 2012-13 season will be no different. While this represents an opportunity for the Zags, it also presents a sobering reality. If you fall flat on your face in these marquee contests, the rest of the nation will quickly forget about you and divert its attention elsewhere.

    Such is the life of a mid-major program, even one as consistently formidable as Gonzaga.

    Games against West Virginia, Baylor, Illinois, Butler, Kansas State, BYU and Saint Mary’s (yes, I know BYU and Saint Mary’s are conference games) will be critical for the Bulldogs when it comes to seeding in March.

    They need to win at least a few.

No. 19: Notre Dame

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    Possibility of falling into a pattern of average

    While Notre Dame basketball does not have the historical tradition of its football program, the hoopsters want to avoid being seen as just an average program.

    Unfortunately, for the Irish faithful, this is a stigma that could possibly be associated with Notre Dame’s recent performances. In the past few seasons the Irish have made a habit out of falling early in the NCAA tournament (usually with a middle of the road seed even).

    Want more proof the Irish were average in 2011-12? They ranked 45th in pace-adjusted offense and 59th in pace-adjusted defense. Again, these are not terrible numbers, but there is no other way besides average to describe them.

    Much of the responsibility for rising above other Big East programs will fall on the shoulders of Jack Cooley, who has the ability to challenge for conference player of the year.

    However, even with a great season from Cooley, it’s hard to say Notre Dame’s ceiling is much higher than average this year either.

No. 18: Creighton

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    Defense, defense and defense

    If you are looking for the best offensive player in the nation, the discussion has to at least include Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

    In McDermott’s sophomore campaign last season, he averaged nearly 23 points and eight rebounds a game, while shooting an astounding 60 percent from the field and nearly 50 percent from three-point range.

    He returns as the critical cog on a dangerous Bluejay squad that ranked an impressive fifth in the nation in pace-adjusted offense last season.

    However, there are two sides of the ball, and Creighton was only good at one of them in 2011-12.

    When it came to stopping the other team, the Bluejays ranked an abysmal 178th in pace-adjusted defense, which was the major reason why Creighton did not advance nearly as deep as it would have liked in the NCAA tournament.

    Another disappointing March will be the result if McDermott and company do not tap into their inner-Aaron Crafts and start preventing the opposition from scoring at will.

No. 17: Arizona

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    Mark Lyons could be perfect for the Wildcats—or not

    Arizona had almost everything heading into the 2012-13 season. Sean Miller got three marquee big-men recruits to commit to the Wildcats, and there was enough shooting guard depth to compete in the Pac-12.

    Arizona had everything that is, except a point guard.

    And then Xavier transfer Mark Lyons fell straight into the Wildcats’ lap.

    Lyons is incredibly talented. He can score, set up his teammates and plays solid defense.  

    But he also earned somewhat of a reputation as a questionable teammate during his days as a Musketeer. Not to mention a certain brawl you may or may not remember between Lyons and his Xavier teammates and the Cincinnati Bearcats.

    If I had to venture a guess, I would say Lyons works out perfectly with Sean Miller, especially since he was the coach who recruited Lyons to Xavier. But that doesn’t mean Arizona fans shouldn’t at least be somewhat concerned.

No. 16: San Diego State

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    Could be very average on offense

    If overconfidence may be an issue for UNLV, it will have conference counterparts San Diego State right there to help keep it in check.

    The Aztecs are another talented Mountain West squad that will look to challenge some power conference foes come March. However, before they do that, they may need to improve on an offense that was very average (at best) last season.

    In fact, San Diego State ranked a mere 94th in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted offense last season, which won’t exactly be the correct formula for sneaking up on a powerhouse or two in the NCAA tournament this year if repeated.

    The fact that freshmen will play a large role in this season’s ultimate outcome means that these offensive numbers will either change for the better or worse. Either Winston Shepard and/or Matt Shrigley will provide a boost to the scoring or they will not quite be ready to make the difference.

    Either way, it should be an interesting season for the Aztecs.

No. 15: Duke

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    Suspect on defense and rebounding

    It’s weird seeing Duke ranked as low as 15th in ESPN’s preseason poll, especially for a company that counts Dick Vitale among its employees.

    However, much like last season, this Duke team is not without its problems. After all, an ACC powerhouse wouldn’t lose to Lehigh in the NCAA tournament if it didn’t have issues.

    Blue Devil fans can argue until they are blue in the face (pun embarrassingly intended) that the departure of Austin Rivers will improve the chemistry of the team and, consequently, the win total. But the fact of the matter is this Duke team had other problems last year.

    The Blue Devils finished a very un-Duke like 65th in the nation in total rebounding in 2011-12 and lose one of their best rebounders in Miles Plumlee.

    Furthermore, Coach K’s team was 70th in pace-adjusted defensive ratings, something that may not be bettered through the subtraction of Rivers (who averaged a steal per game).

    If Duke improves its rebounding and defense, it should once again contend in the ACC. But those are two big ifs.

No. 14: Memphis

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    Will someone fill Will Barton’s shoes?

    While Memphis may not be quite as dominant of a force in the Conference USA as it was during the days of Derrick Rose and John Calipari, it is still by far the class of the league.

    Head coach Josh Pastner has brought in formidable recruiting classes the past two years, and there is absolutely no reason the Tigers won’t run away with the conference crown.

    However, Memphis will certainly feel the absence of Will Barton, even with all the young talent stocking its roster.

    Barton didn’t get the publicity that other stat sheet stuffers, such as Draymond Green of Michigan State, received last season, but there is a reason he is now in the NBA.

    Barton averaged 18 points, eight rebounds, 1.4 steals, nearly three assists and one block per contest last year, all while shooting at a better than 50 percent clip.

    A Conference USA team just doesn’t lose that kind of production and not notice the next season, even if that team is as talented as Memphis.

    Nevertheless, expect the Tigers to put together a great season. But sooner or later, they will wish they still had Barton lacing it up.

No. 13: North Carolina

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    Possibly just lost too much talent to replace

    So if it was weird to see Duke at 15, how do you feel about North Carolina at 13?

    But the fact of the matter is, the Tar Heels lost almost an entire NBA team worth of talent in this year's draft. Even for one of the best programs in the history of the game, that is not easy to replace.

    Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall were all drafted in the top 17 picks of the 2012 NBA Draft. I would say Roy Williams has his work cut out for him trying to make up for that production.

    But if anyone can simply reload, it’s the Tar Heels. There is still plenty of talent left in the cupboard, including potential star James Michael McAdoo and a formidable 2012 recruiting class.

    Nevertheless, the goal almost every season in Chapel Hill is to compete for a national championship.

    While North Carolina may do just that, it is hard to imagine the program reaching those heights the season after losing all that talent.

No. 12: Florida

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    Who is going to rebound besides Patric Young?

    Florida is once again loaded with athleticism, speed and talent. Guard Kenny Boynton and big man Patric Young should form one of the best combos in the entire SEC.

    But the Gators won’t be able to show off their athleticism if they don’t have the ball enough.

    Florida was not a good rebounding team last season. In fact, the orange and blue finished 130th in the nation in total rebounding, which is not exactly a recipe for a deep run in March.

    Even more worrisome for Gator fans, the team’s leading rebounder from 2011-12, Bradley Beal (6.7 per contest), departed for the NBA after just one season in Gainesville.

    Safe to say, rebounding is something Florida should be concerned about.

No. 11: Baylor

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    A lot is riding on a 7’ center who isn’t much of an offensive force down low

    Baylor lost a lot of talent from last year’s squad. Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller are now in the NBA, and Quincy Acy is gone as well.

    That doesn’t mean the Bears won’t be competitive again in the Big 12 this season. Guards Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip return, and a formidable recruiting class, anchored by big man Isaiah Austin, will join the fold.

    While Austin is a tremendous talent, he also has his shortcomings, which may be a concern since so much is riding on the big man. He is 7’ tall but only weighs 200 pounds, which puts him somewhere between a green bean and a flag pole for height/weight ratios.

    Consequently, he is not the best low block scorer, despite his athleticism and shot-blocking prowess. 

    That is not to say Austin can’t improve his strength as the Big 12 season continues and he realizes how physical it can be in the paint.

    Baylor may need him to.

No. 10: Syracuse

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    There is a lot of turnover

    If Syracuse is going to have another successful season in 2012-13 it will do so by successfully replacing a whole bunch of players.

    In fact, the majority of the Orange’s starting lineup departs from last year, including Scoop Jardine, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph. What’s more, first man off the bench Dion Waiters will be playing in the NBA this year as well.

    It’s a testament to Syracuse’s depth and Jim Boeheim’s coaching abilities that Waiters, who came off the bench last year, was such an early draft pick. Boeheim will have to call on this depth in order to once again compete in the Big East this season.

    My guess is he will.

No. 9: Michigan State

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    Draymond Green really was that important

    Much as Jordan Taylor was even more important than people realized for Michigan State’s Big Ten counterparts the Wisconsin Badgers, Draymond Green was Mr. Everything for the Spartans.

    In fact, he was the Spartans’ on-court leader, their best scorer (more than 16 points per game), their best rebounder (better than 10 per game), one of their best defenders (almost two steals and one block per contest) and arguably their best passer (about four assists per game).

    I would venture a guess that Green may be missed in East Lansing this season.

    Look, Michigan State is going to have another great year. The Spartans return too much talent (and add freshman Gary Harris among others) and still have Tom Izzo at the helm.

    Nevertheless, the goal is always the Final Four in Michigan State. Losing Green will be too much to overcome in the Spartans' quest to be playing during the season’s final weekend.

No. 8: Ohio State

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    Only two players are not question marks

    Ohio State could very well contend for a return trip to the Final Four and another Big Ten championship this year.

    Or it could linger around the middle of the conference standings all winter.

    Why such a disparity between the best and worst case scenarios?

    While Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas are as close to givens as you can have in today’s college basketball world, much of the Buckeyes’ success will depend on young players who have worlds of talent but not worlds of experience.

    Specifically, top-notch recruits (from the class of 2011) Amir Williams, LaQuinton Ross and Shannon Scott will see significantly more playing time this season now that William Buford and All-American Jared Sullinger are gone.

    Craft and Thomas are the main parts of the Buckeye engine, but Thad Matta is going to need these other cogs to help out as well.

    How effectively they do will determine the overall success level in Columbus this year. 

No. 7: UCLA

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    The eligibility of the Bruins' future is at stake

    There is once again optimism in Westwood after a few lean years.

    But that could all come crashing to a halt if the pesky NCAA decides to say anything about the eligibility of the superstar freshmen that are coming to town.

    The eligibility of the three crowned jewels of UCLA’s 2012 class (Tony Parker, Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad) has been investigated by the NCAA, which has to have Bruin fans at least somewhat concerned.

    Reports are that Parker has been cleared, but Muhammad was not even allowed to travel to China with the team for a series of exhibitions.

    While this all may turn out to be much ado about nothing, if we are talking about one thing to be worried about for each top team, this has to be No. 1 on UCLA’s list.

No. 6: NC State

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    So much riding on Lorenzo Brown and his surgically repaired knee

    Perhaps no team this side of Bloomington has gotten as much preseason love as North Carolina State.

    The Wolfpack have been overshadowed by conference counterparts Duke and North Carolina in recent years, but the 2012-13 season may just be their time to take the ACC crown.

    However, there is one meniscus that may stand in the way.

    Star point guard Lorenzo Brown had surgery to repair his meniscus over the summer. Yes, I know that the meniscus is not nearly as worrisome as the ACL, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t at least a small of concern in Raleigh.

    After all, you can make the argument that Brown is the best point guard in the nation. Last year, he averaged nearly 13 points, more than six assists, nearly five rebounds and almost two steals per contest.

    Assuming the knee holds up, Wolfpack fans should expect those numbers to only improve as Brown enters his junior season.

No. 5: Michigan

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    Depth may be a problem

    Michigan is absolutely loaded this year.

    In fact, you can make the argument that the Wolverines have the best starting lineup in the entire Big Ten, Indiana included. They at least have their best roster since the days of the Fab Five.

    Star point guard Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. make up one of the nation’s best backcourts, and they will join forces with a dynamic freshmen class that includes newcomers Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary.

    However, Michigan has lost much of its depth from last season. The program was hit by transfers, including that of center Evan Smotrycz, and sharp shooters Zack Novak and Stu Douglass graduated.

    The Wolverines’ starting five is talented enough to win a Big Ten championship, but the starters better stay healthy as they play significant minutes.

No. 4: Kansas

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    Lack of experience

    You know the old cliché. The best programs reload, they don’t rebuild.

    Of course, Kansas fits the bill as one of these best programs that are constantly reloading as its stars depart for the greener pastures of the NBA.

    This year won’t be any different.

    Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor and Conner Teahan have all left the Jayhawks, which leaves Bill Self short on experience outside of Jeff Withey, Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson.

    In fact, ESPN points out that Self will essentially have eight freshmen on his bench this season. Even for a program that has won eight straight Big 12 titles and clearly knows what it is doing, that is a lot of youth.

    It may even be too much youth to make a repeat trip to the Final Four.

No. 3: Kentucky

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    Nerlens Noel may not be as explosive on offense as Kentucky needs him to be

    Anthony Davis was special last season for the Kentucky Wildcats and was certainly one of the primary reasons John Calipari took home the national title to Big Blue Nation.

    While Davis has since gone on to the NBA, Wildcat fans are salivating over his heir to the freshman throne Nerlens Noel.

    Noel is the top-ranked recruit in the class of 2012, and some people believe he may be even better than the aforementioned Davis. In fact, there may not be a more intimidating defensive presence in all of college basketball this season than the Kentucky freshman.

    But the Wildcats may need Noel to contribute on the offensive side as well. Yes, Davis wasn’t the most polished post player, but he did lead Kentucky in scoring by averaging nearly 15 points a contest and had stars Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones to help out.

    For as great as Noel is on defense, he may not have the offensive explosiveness that Calipari will need if he is to be the natural replacement for last year’s leading scorer.

    However, if Noel can improve his offensive post game, look out.

No. 2: Louisville

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    Have the tendency to be inconsistent on offense

    It’s a bit strange to only have three Big East teams on this list. After all, an article like this from a couple years ago would have probably had seven or eight.

    Alas, while the conference as a whole may have taken a step back, the top is still looking strong with Louisville.

    Rick Pitino returns the majority of his contributors from last season’s Final Four team, including superstar Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng.

    Despite the fact that the Cardinals reached college basketball’s final weekend, they were still a very inconsistent and streaky offensive team. In fact, Louisville finished 103rd in pace-adjusted offense last season and struggled to score for long stretches of games.

    If the Cardinals can improve their offense this year, there is no reason to expect anything less than a potential Big East title and deep tournament run in March.

No. 1: Indiana

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    Defense may be a problem

    Indiana is the top team in the nation, at least according to ESPN’s preseason prognostications.

    Naturally, that means the Hoosiers have less to worry about than most teams in the country. But that doesn’t mean everything is perfect in Bloomington.

    Frankly speaking, Indiana’s defense may be the only thing standing in its way of becoming a truly elite squad.

    Last year, Indiana ranked 64th in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive rankings, which isn’t exactly awful. Still, it’s certainly not national championship caliber either.

    Considering the crystal ball is the ultimate goal for Tom Crean’s team this year, the defense is going to have to noticeably improve because offense can only go so far in March. 

    Remember the 102-90 loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16? I would probably pin that on the defense.