The Biggest Missing Pieces for College Basketball's Top Teams in 2013-14
There's no such thing as a perfect college basketball team. Sorry, Kentucky fans, but it's true.
Every team has a flaw, some subtle, some more glaring.
Even this season's top contenders have one issue that can come back to haunt them at inopportune moments. Some may be fixable with some on-the-job training from the current roster. Others will simply have to be endured by teams who don't have the bodies on hand to fix them.
See the guy laying out for the shot above? That's Trey Burke. He's left Michigan for a pro career in Utah, and the Wolverines are going to miss his ability to do this and, more importantly, help others do the same. More on that later.
These are the biggest issues for 12 of the game's best teams, presented alphabetically.
Arizona: Perimeter Shooting
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Last season, Arizona boasted five players who made at least 32 three-pointers. Four of those men shot 39 percent or better from beyond the arc.
Nick Johnson (pictured) is the only one of the bunch who returns.
Johnson played a superb all-around season as a sophomore, leading the Wildcats in assists and steals, but it's his scoring that will be needed this year. He took the shot on only 20 percent of his possessions last season, a figure that will jump in 2013-14 no matter how aggressive McDonald's All-American Game MVP Aaron Gordon is in getting his looks.
Point guard T.J. McConnell was not a volume gunner in his two seasons at Duquesne, taking only the shots he knew he could make. His career 41.6-percent success rate from deep reflects that.
Senior guard Jordin Mayes will get one last opportunity to provide a spark off the bench. He's now two years removed from his 45-percent three-point shooting as a freshman. Only 29.8 percent of his long bombs have connected since then, and his minutes have correspondingly dwindled.
Outside of those three, though, there aren't many other 'Cats for opponents to fear at the arc.
Sophomore Gabe York hit 34 percent from range in less than six minutes per game.
For all his other supreme gifts, Gordon's not a threat outside 15 feet or so.
If Johnson struggles while being defended like a No. 2 option instead of a No. 4 and Mayes can't spread the floor like he did three seasons ago, UA's offense may bog down and ruin what could be a return to the Final Four.
Duke: Low-Post Presence
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Duke's roster looks huge if only the height column is highlighted. Of the Blue Devils' 13 scholarship players, eight are listed at 6'8" or taller.
(Insert standard caveat about schools inflating sizes here.)
Of the bunch, however, only three could be considered post players: senior Josh Hairston, grad student Todd Zafirovski and redshirt sophomore Marshall Plumlee. Those three combined for 510 minutes last season, with 444 of those coming from Hairston.
Suddenly, that size isn't looking like a major strength, is it?
Sophomore Amile Jefferson (pictured) is up to 210 pounds on his 6'9" frame, a 15-pound improvement from last season. He has the length and athletic ability to be a force on the glass, as his 12.7 offensive rebounding percentage from last season shows. However, he's yet to weather a full season as the only post player in his team's starting lineup, a role he'll likely fill this season.
Hairston is a remedial offensive player whose minutes come from his scrappy nature on defense. Unfortunately, he's often too scrappy, as he racked up 7.6 fouls per 40 minutes last year.
Plumlee can follow in the footsteps of his brothers Miles and Mason, but to do so, he has to stay on the court. Two foot injuries have already slowed his development, and he's only now back on the court from an April surgery. In his 50 minutes last season, he produced a solid 11 rebounds, but made only one of eight shots.
Freshman Jabari Parker is 6'8" and 235 pounds, but don't even consider burying him in the low post. That would be akin to asking Kerry Washington to take the lead role in the next Big Momma's House movie: a complete waste of otherworldly gifts.
So, these are Mike Krzyzewski's options, take them or leave them. Duke's wings and guards will get to run their guts out this season with no lumbering bigs to slow them down.
Florida: Backcourt Depth
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Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier is pictured here because by the start of the season, he may be the only experienced player in the Gators' backcourt.
Point guard Scottie Wilbekin still sits on an indefinite suspension for repeated violations of team rules. The ban is reportedly extending through at least the season's first six games.
When Wilbekin returns, he will likely have ceded his job to McDonald's All-American Kasey Hill permanently. The freshman will provide a more dangerous scoring presence than the senior, but Wilbekin's ferocious defense will be missed while he serves his discipline.
Frazier returns as Florida's only true perimeter scoring threat after drilling 46.8 percent from three-point range last season (53.6 percent in SEC games). He spent his summer in Prague as part of coach Billy Donovan's U19 World Championship-winning squad.
Frazier sank only 29 percent of his threes at Worlds, but did find a nice groove in the later rounds, making 7-of-13 against Canada and Lithuania in the quarterfinals and semis.
Rutgers transfer Eli Carter will follow Mike Rosario's path to Gainesville, but is expected to receive a waiver to play immediately in the wake of Mike Rice's firing. Carter will help the Gators' guard depth immensely, but he'll need work on his shot selection. Carter took the shot on 31 percent of his possessions last season, making only 38 percent of those attempts.
The Gators have tremendous talent among their guards, but a sudden left turn from the NCAA and/or further indiscretions from Wilbekin would doom Hill and Frazier to an enormous workload. Those are two men who can't afford to have tired legs in March.
Kansas: A Consistent Point Guard
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As previously discussed here, Kansas point guard Naadir Tharpe is a pivotal figure for the Jayhawks' Final Four aspirations.
Tharpe can be a highly capable distributor for an offense loaded with scoring options. He averaged 3.1 assists per game last season—ranking 12th in the Big 12—despite playing less than 20 minutes per game. With a full-time workload and weapons like Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis, a Big 12 assist crown is not out of the question.
Tharpe's biggest issues come when he wants to score. In February's stunning loss at TCU, Tharpe tried to take the offense on his own shoulders and proceeded to shoot a sickly 2-of-15. He also posted 2-of-11 games against Iowa State and Oklahoma State.
Tharpe shot 34 percent from the floor on the season, and even that was an improvement over his freshman-year percentage.
Freshman Conner Frankamp is considered a much better shooter than Tharpe. Frankamp shot nearly 50 percent from three-point range as a high school senior, then demonstrated solid ball-handling and passing skills over the summer. At 165 pounds, he'll need to add some muscle to be a legitimate penetrating threat, but he may overtake Tharpe early in the season, if not before.
Whichever man is running the KU attack, he'll have weak points that opponents will seek to exploit. Coach Bill Self doesn't need an All-American season out of either Frankamp or Tharpe, he just needs a driver who won't put the offense in reverse.
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Bring in six of RSCI's top 18 prospects in a single recruiting class, and analysts will draw blanks when asked to find your team's weaknesses. Kentucky instantly filled out a depth chart by adding the epic group pictured to the left, but the only questions are how the freshmen will adapt to the college game and how they'll all play together.
Last season's class, spearheaded by Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and 2013-14 returnee Alex Poythress, never quite jelled together.
Noel was an underutilized offensive presence before tearing his ACL against Florida. Poythress disappeared over the final month of the season and Goodwin could not become the shooter that he wanted to be, hitting only seven threes in SEC play.
With this many potential studs on one roster, along with sophomores Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, there should always be someone else able to step up if, say, Aaron Harrison or Julius Randle has a difficult night. The Wildcats will run into problems, however, if one of their young guns keeps trying to shoot his way out of a slump.
Nights like the 4-of-17 that Goodwin recorded against Marshall last December should not be tolerated by coach John Calipari or any of the players. If one of the hyped half-dozen gets benched, however, how will he react?
There's too much talent on this year's UK squad to even conceive of a return to the NIT. However, a national title is the goal. Chemistry concerns have a way of biting a team in March, and if these Wildkittens can't play nice with each other, "what might have been" will be a key offseason storyline.
Louisville: Post Defense
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Only Virginia Commonwealth forced a higher turnover percentage last season than Louisville's 27.1. Forcing opponents to make fatal mistakes is a hallmark of the Cardinals' style under Rick Pitino, just as it is for VCU under Shaka Smart.
What VCU lacked, however, was the intimidating interior presence of Gorgui Dieng. The Senegalese skyscraper blocked a shot on nearly 10 percent of his possessions last season. That provided the security blanket that Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Kevin Ware et al. needed to gamble on committing thefts.
Now, Louisville proceeds without Dieng. The Cards' post presence will come from senior Stephan Van Treese, junior Chane Behanan and sophomore Montrezl Harrell.
Harrell led the returning Cards in blocks last season with 27, but his percentage was roughly half of Dieng's. At 6'8", Harrell possesses good length for his position, but blocking shots is simply not his game.
Behanan averaged 1.4 steals per game, and he can disrupt offenses by breaking up entry passes before a shot even goes up. The 6'6" 250-pounder will need to keep taller opponents off the ball to counter his vertical disadvantage.
Van Treese is a strong rebounder and may prove to be the Cards' most capable rim protector simply because he's the most likely of these three to stay at home in the lane. He's never played more than 14 minutes per game, however.
Will the Cardinal defense have the same bite to it without Dieng on hand to scare opponents away from the rim? If the answer is no, Louisville will face an uphill battle to defend its national title.
Michigan: Proven Point Guard
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Pictured here is Michigan guard Spike Albrecht, in the midst of a performance that would make him a Michigan folk hero.
The 5'11" freshman torched Louisville for 17 points in the first half of the national championship game, staking the Wolverines to a one-point lead at the break. While he couldn't keep the magic alive after halftime, he'll be remembered for keeping Michigan in a game that would have otherwise been an early rout.
With star point guard Trey Burke in the NBA, Albrecht has a chance to win a starting job if he can beat out 4-star freshman Derrick Walton. While Albrecht's performance against Louisville was stirring, it doesn't change the fact that he played eight minutes per game in his rookie season, often against fellow reserves.
Walton is a quick creator, though perhaps not as quick as Burke. He'll fit in well with the scorers in UM's lineup as a pass-first point guard, although coach John Beilein told ESPN (via Detroit Free Press) that Walton will need to force opponents to respect his shot.
If Albrecht successfully wins the starting job, more stories will be written indicting Walton than praising Albrecht. Asking Walton to immediately fill Burke's shoes is a tall order, but there is a precedent for true freshmen successfully running the Michigan offense.
Remember, Burke took over as a rookie and performed well, as did his predecessor Darius Morris. Beilein should be expected to have Walton ready to play until proven otherwise.
Michigan's chances for more postseason heroics will ride on the outcome of this point-guard derby.
Michigan State: Low-Post Depth
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Last season, Michigan State's post duo of Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne was frequently one of the most imposing in America. However, as happens constantly in college sports, eligibility runs out and players move on.
With Nix departed, Payne is still expected to play at or near an All-American level. The question shifts to where he can find support.
Erstwhile small forward Branden Dawson may shift into more of an interior role, but at 6'6" and 230 pounds, may struggle with bigger players who can match his impressive strength.
There is size on the Spartan bench, but not much of it is attached to proven production. Sophomore Matt Costello (pictured) may be the first, best option.
While Costello saw very limited minutes last season, he had a few inspiring moments during a three-game stretch in mid-February. He produced eight points and six rebounds in a blowout win over Michigan, then blocked five shots in 16 minutes against Nebraska and Indiana.
Junior Alex Gauna, like Costello a 6'9", 245-pound wide body, scored six points in 12 minutes against Kansas last season. Unfortunately, he was an invisible man during Big Ten play, contributing grand totals of 15 points and 19 rebounds.
Redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski and true frosh Gavin Schilling will see chances, but both still have work to do before they're competitive Big Ten big men.
North Carolina: Perimeter Shooting
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As has been discussed all summer, P.J. Hairston's North Carolina career could be on a tightrope. While the school's athletic director has expressed a belief that Hairston will be back after missing some limited quantity of games, another misstep tacked on to an exasperating summer could see Hairston dismissed from UNC.
The Tar Heels need Hairston in the fold for both leadership and shooting purposes. Aside from Hairston, UNC's only true perimeter threats may be shooting guard Leslie McDonald and point guard Marcus Paige, both of whom have struggled with their accuracy to this point in their careers.
If there's an encouraging sign from either player, it's that Paige made 46 percent of his three-point attempts (15 of 31) over the Heels' last 10 games. That's much closer to the stroke that coach Roy Williams expected when he recruited Paige out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For the season, Paige shot 34 percent from deep and less than 36 percent from the floor overall.
McDonald was a 38-percent shooter from deep back in 2010-11, but that was a torn ACL and another minor knee injury ago. He was hitting 43 percent last season before missing six games in January. After missing six games through injury and suspension, McDonald made only 29 percent of his long shots in UNC's final 16 games.
Freshman point guard Nate Britt and sophomore wing J.P. Tokoto aren't considered shooting threats just yet. Improvement from one or the other could be the difference between Carolina missing the Sweet 16 and making a run to the Final Four.
Ohio State: Amir Williams
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It's that simple. Ohio State could have made a second straight Final Four with even slight production out of former McDonald's All-American center Amir Williams.
This is not to say that Williams didn't have his moments as a sophomore. He blocked six shots against Iowa. He went for seven points, eight rebounds and three blocks against Nebraska.
There was never a night quite as bad as the zero-point, zero-rebound, four-foul effort in a February loss to Wisconsin, but there were a lot of evenings where fans renamed him. By renaming, we mean slotting "Amir" in as his middle name and replacing his first name with some creative profanity.
Williams led the Big Ten in block percentage and was fifth in offensive rebounding percentage, so his 6'11" frame doesn't always go completely to waste. It's hard for him to stay on the floor, however, when he's committing 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes, as he did last year.
Williams doesn't need to become a 15/10 player for Ohio State to reach the Final Four. Far from it.
What the Buckeyes do need, though, is for him to establish himself as a starting center, stay out of foul trouble, win as many rebounding battles as he should against smaller Big Ten forwards and centers and keep swatting shots.
A six-PPG/seven-RPG/2.5-BPG season would be grounds for a parade in Columbus. Considering Williams' build and pedigree, none of that should be beyond his reach.
Oklahoma State: Bulk
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Oklahoma State has gotten yeoman work the past two seasons from forward Michael Cobbins (pictured), a 6'8", 220-pound bruiser who lives to shove opponents around on the glass.
When it comes to proven size, though, the Cowboys don't have much else. If they can find some inside presence after the departure of space-eater Philip Jurick, the perimeter talent is sufficient to get them to a Final Four.
Cobbins led the team in both rebounds and blocks per game last year despite starting only 18 games and playing 26 minutes per night. He should emerge as a full-time producer after being named to last season's Big 12 All-Defensive team. A July tweet from CBS analyst Jon Rothstein claims that Cobbins has also packed on 30 pounds since the season ended.
Sophomore Kamari Murphy wasn't as efficient offensively as Cobbins, but could be a threat on the offensive glass. At 6'8" and 210 pounds, he could use some of what Cobbins is eating.
Junior Marek Soucek and JUCO transfer Gary Gaskins are the only true centers on the roster. Soucek could be a factor at 7'0" and 235 pounds. Still, he played in only six games last season.
Expect much of the Pokes' time to be spent with Cobbins serving as the only post player on the court. If anything happens to him, the season that was supposed to end with OSU toppling Kansas would be more likely to end with OSU trampled by Kansas.
Syracuse: Proven Shooting Guard
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Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim isn't sweating a replacement for departed point guard Michael Carter-Williams. Freshman Tyler Ennis appears capable of stepping in quite nicely, thank you.
At the 2, however, the outlook isn't quite so rosy for the Orange. After the graduation of Brandon Triche, Boeheim turns to a trio of unproven options: redshirt sophomore Trevor Cooney, Duke transfer Michael Gbinije and freshman Ron Patterson.
Cooney played 11 minutes per game last season, most of that coming before the calendar turned to February. For the season, he sank less than 27 percent from three. He made a mere five threes (on 28 attempts) from February 10 on. Those are dreary numbers for a player expected to be a shooter from day one.
The 6'7" Gbinije could see extensive minutes off the bench at shooting guard, small forward, and perhaps even the point. Likewise, former Indiana commit Patterson could work at both guard positions. Either way, both will help immensely if they become capable perimeter threats.
Gbinije's size could make him an attractive piece at the top of Boeheim's 2-3 zone, so if he's prepared to be a defensive stopper, watch for him to take a starting spot somewhere.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.