Most Intriguing Positional Battles Ahead of 2013-14 College Basketball Season
Even the best college basketball programs go through preseason practices with positions up for grabs.
If a fanbase is lucky, its coach has a multitude of worthy candidates to fill an opening in the starting five. The unlucky ones have to watch the staff select the lesser of multiple disappointments.
While most of these positions are certain to be filled by highly capable players, fans have to wait until the season begins to determine just how excited they should get about the candidates.
Whether a potential All-American lurks in one of these battles or all the options prove to be journeymen at best, the players involved can earn pivotal roles with a strong start to their season.
10. UConn C
UConn coach Kevin Ollie has a massive dilemma on his hands in regards to his center position.
It's not a decision between several qualified candidates, though. It's more a question of whether he'll have any qualified candidates left by the time the season starts.
Senior Tyler Olander (pictured) faces serious career jeopardy after two arrests in six months and remains on an indefinite suspension. The 6'9" Olander has been at least a part-time starter in each of his first three seasons, but has never averaged more than 4.3 points or 3.9 rebounds.
A 16-point, seven-board game against Notre Dame shows that Olander can perform when needed, but will he be allowed to this year?
(UPDATE: College Basketball Talk cites the New Haven Register's Dave Borges in a report of Olander's latest charge, a DUI, being dropped.)
Another 6'9" big man, Jamaican freshman Kentan Facey, is seeking to preserve his eligibility while the NCAA probes a standardized test he passed before leaving home for America. The NCAA considers the test an equivalent to high school graduation, and Facey's two years of prep ball at Long Island Lutheran may have started his "eligibility clock."
A worst-case scenario would force Facey to take a redshirt and lose two years of eligibility. According to former NCAA compliance officer John Infante's Bylaw Blog, Facey may lose one season regardless.
If the NCAA does not clear Facey, Ollie would be left with seldom-used sophomore Phil Nolan and another freshman import named Amida Brimah as his only post options—literally.
Nolan is a hustler with superb speed and agility for his 6'10" frame, but that frame also holds a mere 210 pounds. Brimah may stand 7'0" depending on how long it's been since his last haircut, but has played organized basketball for only three years since leaving his homeland of Ghana.
If neither can compete in the early going, Ollie may be forced into a four-guard lineup with 195-pound small forward DeAndre Daniels in the post. Such a lineup would face serious defensive struggles against bigger teams.
9. Virginia PG
A coach can never have too many point guards on the roster. Virginia coach Tony Bennett watched his team struggle through an early-season loss to Delaware with point guards Jontel Evans and Teven Jones unavailable.
Depth won't be a problem this year, and size shouldn't be a concern, either.
Redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon and true freshman Devon Hall both stand 6'5", while sophomore Jones and California frosh London Perrantes are near the more conventional 6'0".
Brogdon played 28 games in 2011-12, averaging nearly seven points and three rebounds per game before a broken bone in his left foot shut him down for a season and change. He shot less than 40 percent from the floor, but made 80 percent of his free throws.
Jones made nine starts last year, putting up shooting numbers similar to Brogdon's from the year prior. The good foul shooting—Jones drained 81.5 percent—lends hope that Jones can make his jumpers when open. Jones was also slightly more secure with the ball than Brogdon had been, carding a 1.3 assist/turnover ratio compared to Brogdon's 0.9 from '11-'12.
Hall may be more likely to play the caddy role that Brogdon filled two seasons ago, sliding to the off-guard position to give rest to All-ACC scorer Joe Harris. Perrantes is more intelligent than athletic, and he may be expected to learn on the job as a rookie.
Whichever player wins the job, he'll have a talented team around him to relieve the pressure. And Coach Bennett is assured that he won't get caught short at the most important position again.
8. Maryland PG
The Maryland point guard position, like so many, boils down to a young veteran—in this case, sophomore Seth Allen—being pushed by a hyped freshman. In-state prospect Roddy Peters certainly fits that latter bill, having been rated as one of the 2013 class's top 10 point guards by nearly all the major recruiting services.
Allen is threatening to pull away, however, if his summer is providing any indication.
The Terps took a summer tour to the Bahamas—is there any better kind?—and Allen took over the second of the three games. He dropped 26 points on 9-of-10 shooting in a win over the Commonwealth Giants, dishing 10 assists to boot.
During his freshman year, Allen helped engineer a pair of wins over Duke, despite committing a combined 12 turnovers in the two meetings. His free throws with three seconds left capped the College Park win that prompted an epic court storm.
Allen's shooting left a lot to be desired, with only a 46.9 effective field goal percentage (eFG%) to show for his efforts. He also turned the ball over on nearly 24 percent of his possessions according to StatSheet.com.
The 6'4" Peters is three inches taller than Allen, but is likewise a player who enters college as more of a scorer than distributor. He may spend the early part of the season getting fully in shape after an injury that disrupted his senior season of high school.
The "battle" may be at a cease-fire for the moment, especially after Turgeon's declaration that Allen would see the lion's share of the minutes, reported here by Maryland's SBNation blog. Still, keep an eye on the Terps through November and December. If Allen doesn't show substantial improvement, look for Peters to gradually eat into those minutes.
7. Marquette SG
Marquette would be a Final Four contender had leading scorer Vander Blue not decamped for the NBA draft. Coach Buzz Williams was looking forward to having Blue attempt to repeat or improve on his 15-PPG season with junior Todd Mayo in a reserve role and touted freshman JaJuan Johnson learning the college game.
Without Blue, the entire plan is scrapped.
Mayo struggled through a difficult sophomore year. He missed the first semester with academic troubles, spoke with Marquette blog Paint Touches about the insecurity of his playing time under Williams and tacked on knee surgery in late July. After all that, a 44.0 eFG% seems like the least of his problems.
The Memphis-born Johnson is rated as a natural scorer with the ability to get his points both inside and out. He put up 20.3 PPG as a high school senior, including a 23-point effort in Southwind High School's state championship game.
Momentum often favors the freshman in scenarios such as these, since most of the biggest recruits are coming in off of dominant seasons, many capped with a state championship.
Here, Mayo is struggling through a litany of issues and enters the season ill-equipped to claim a starting role. His age limits his upside, as well, considering that he turns 23 in March.
Johnson is likely to start his collegiate debut against Southern on November 8 while Mayo rounds back into shape from his surgery. If the newbie hits the ground running, we may never hear much from Todd Mayo again.
The biggest question for the Golden Eagles: How long will Williams abide struggles from Johnson before he bites the bullet and turns back to Mayo?
6. NC State PG
While the spotlight is nowhere near as bright in Raleigh, N.C. as it was last season, North Carolina State will still be the scene of an interesting point guard duel. The biggest draw is coach Mark Gottfried's enviable decision between two former McDonald's All-Americans.
Tyler Lewis was last season's touted freshman, and he performed reasonably well in relief of Lorenzo Brown. In a pair of starts while Brown nursed an injury, Lewis carded 29 points, 11 assists and only one turnover in losses to Miami and Duke. For the season, in fact, Lewis coughed the ball up only 22 times in more than 420 minutes.
Speaking of coughing things up, Lewis has to hold off a fellow All-American nicknamed "Cat." Anthony Barber is a bigger player (6'2" to Lewis' 5'11"), but he's also quicker and a more dangerous defender. The possibility exists that Gottfried could play the two together, a dynamic that the Associated Press reports has worked well over the summer.
Starting Barber at the shooting guard position would leave either LSU transfer Ralston Turner or JUCO product Desmond Lee coming off the bench, adding scoring punch to the second unit.
If the coaching staff decides that one needs to come off the bench, Lewis may be forced to prove that his shot can fall consistently. He struggled to a 42.5 eFG% last season.
5. St. John's PG
St. John's added one of the nation's top five point guard prospects in the 2013 recruiting class, and now it's up to him to justify the hype and earn a starting job.
Philadelphian Rysheed Jordan joins a backcourt that often struggled to get out of its own way last season. The Red Storm finished last in the Big East in both offensive efficiency and assist percentage, with guards Phil Greene and Jamal Branch struggling to a combined 40.0 eFG%.
Greene is a combo guard who loves to get his own shot, but he's secure with the ball. The junior has a career assist/turnover ratio of 1.8. Branch isn't quite as sure-handed, but he did lead the Johnnies in assist percentage after joining the team in December. Still, neither led the team in APG, falling short of swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer's 2.8.
Jordan appears to be a happy medium between the two, more than capable of getting his own shot but just as willing to distribute and run the offense. With conscience-free gunners like D'Angelo Harrison, JaKarr Sampson and Greene on the roster, a point guard would do well to regulate his teammates' looks, getting them only the best shots knowing that the ball's not coming back.
The battle for the point is likely to come down to Branch vs. Jordan, with Greene sliding into a reserve scoring role as he continues to recover from offseason hip surgery.
The two playmakers worked together frequently on St. John's European summer tour, but with Greene, Harrison and zone-busting Harvard transfer Max Hooper on hand, will there be many off-guard minutes available?
4. North Carolina C
Last season, North Carolina could never find a truly successful center. The Tar Heels' best days coincided with the advent of a four-guard lineup surrounding forward James Michael McAdoo, but even that system had substantial flaws.
This year, someone needs to assert himself in the post, because McAdoo proved that "sole low-post option" was not a role in which he excels. Sophomore Joel James and junior Desmond Hubert bring experience and familiarity with college-level conditioning. Both give them advantages over touted freshman Kennedy Meeks, a 6'9", 275-pound earth mover.
Hubert is a defensive specialist who led the team in blocks last season, albeit at only 0.8 per game. His 8.9 block percentage, however, would have ranked second in the ACC behind only Miami's Julian Gamble, according to StatSheet.com.
Meeks is the most capable offensive player of the three, possessing a soft set of hands and a reliable shooting touch out to 15 feet. Where he'll struggle is with his conditioning, joining an up-tempo offense that will test his wind.
James can relate, having fought to reshape his body since his senior season of high school. Another big man with a decent mid-range game, James simply lost focus at times last year. He somehow committed four turnovers in only seven minutes in a December loss to Texas.
Meeks should be well-prepared to start as a sophomore, but for this year, no one stands out as a true favorite. The field is still too crowded.
3. UCLA PG
There shouldn't be any reason for UCLA to struggle finding a point guard, not when there's a brilliant passer like Kyle Anderson on the roster. The 6'9", 235-pound hybrid player distributes like one of America's top point guards, despite being built like a power forward.
His problem is that he moves and shoots like a power forward as well. A painfully slow release on his jumper and an inability to defend quick point guards make him an awkward member of any lineup.
So what else does new Bruin coach Steve Alford have to fall back on?
Alford's well familiar with one candidate, that being his son Bryce. Alford the younger poured in 37.7 points per game as a high school senior, so he's obviously inherited his dad's scoring touch. He also added 6.5 assists per game.
Combo guard Zach LaVine averaged only 2.5 dimes as a senior, playing primarily off the ball. He scored 28.5 PPG himself, so while the Bruins are having issues finding a distributor, they certainly don't lack for finishers.
Steve Alford may be left in a similar position as his predecessor Ben Howland, hoping that Bryce can ably fill the shoes of last year's floor general Larry Drew.
As for Anderson, the point-forward approach can certainly work, as Creighton has proved the last several years with Grant Gibbs. Attempting to use him as a point guard in the offense can create a host of awkward matchups on the other end. Alford has to decide if it's worth the risk.
2. Harvard PG
Harvard has a roster that could conceivably finish mid-table in the ACC, never mind the Ivy League. The Crimson's level of point guard experience is one that Georgia Tech fans can only look at and salivate.
Brandyn Curry returns after a year away, precipitated by his implication in an academic cheating scandal. He's started 70 games, twice finished in the top 40 nationally in assist percentage and has a career 2.2 A/T ratio.
Curry did, however, badly regress as a shooter over his three seasons in uniform. A 60-percent effective shooter as a freshman, he finished with a 48.3 eFG% as a junior.
While Curry was gone, all Siyani Chambers did was capture Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors by leading the league in assists and also ranking top-10 in scoring and steals.
A more daring and aggressive playmaker than Curry, Chambers' numbers illustrate that vividly. His 50-percent FTA/FGA ratio demonstrate a love of attacking the basket and drawing contact, but his A/T ratio and turnover percentage were comparable to Curry's freshman season, one in which he was hampered by a torn patella tendon.
Chambers' 12.4 PPG are far beyond any average Curry has put up, but Curry also never had to play nearly 38 minutes per game. It's certain that neither man will have to shoulder that much time this season, even if they spend extensive minutes playing together.
According to a Charlotte Observer profile of Curry, he's been named a co-captain for this season. The team knows both these guys can play, but which one would they rather play with?
1. Kentucky C
We've discussed the center position at Kentucky extensively and recently, but it's going to be a recurring topic all season long.
Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein provided moments of dominance last season after taking over from injured top prospect Nerlens Noel in February. Then there were also moments of catatonia in which he appeared petrified of the expectations sewn into the Kentucky uniform.
A two-point, four-turnover, five-foul outing against Tennessee in the first game without Noel was a perfect example of the latter. Then, he followed that up with 20 points, seven rebounds and three blocks against Vanderbilt.
McDonald's All-American freshman Dakari Johnson is a heavier load in the low post, but only by about 20 pounds. He lacks Cauley-Stein's near-freakish athletic gifts, but is a more skilled offensive player in the paint.
The two can play together with Cauley-Stein fronting up on forwards, thanks to his strong defensive footwork. In the starting lineup, however, expect to see Julius Randle slotted in at the 4, so one of this pair must come off the bench.
With potential scoring studs like Randle, Alex Poythress, James Young and the Harrison twins expected to get starters' minutes, a center who's free to focus on defense will be a better fit. Cauley-Stein, the superior defensive threat, provides the added bonus of being able to run with the rest of the Kentucky thoroughbreds.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.