The Biggest Question for Each AP Top 25 College Basketball Team
Only two weeks into the college basketball season, there have already been plenty of surprises for the AP’s top 25 teams. Some are looking even better than predicted (hello, Iowa State!), while others (including mighty Kentucky) haven’t quite risen to meet championship expectations.
One team that’s very much in the former category is the No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers, winners over both Florida and St. John’s already. Even as Sam Dekker and company have run out to a 4-0 start, though, they’re having uncharacteristic problems getting the job done on the boards.
Herein, a closer look at Wisconsin’s rebounding troubles, along with more uncertain areas that will determine how high the rest of this week’s Top 25 can climb (or how far they will fall) as the season goes on.
Can the offense be saved?
Saturday’s disastrous 35-point showing in a loss to Ohio State left no doubt that there are serious problems with the Golden Eagles when it comes to scoring.
Davante Gardner and Todd Mayo got 21 points between them, but the rest of the team shot 4-of-32 from the field.
Against other strong defenses, Gardner and Mayo are going to need more help than Marquette’s current rotation has shown it can provide.
Buzz Williams should give serious thought to expanding the roles of offensively gifted freshmen JaJuan Johnson and Deonte Burton (nine minutes combined against the Buckeyes) to add spark to a weak perimeter corps.
24. North Carolina
What will Roy Williams’ rotation ultimately look like?
Until P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald return from NCAA-investigation limbo, North Carolina will be a vulnerable team that relies too heavily on James Michael McAdoo to do everything.
Assuming that both veteran guards are back for ACC play, though, they’ll solve several of the problems that contributed to Sunday’s stunning home loss to Belmont, notably perimeter defense (15-of-37 three-point shooting allowed) and free-throw shooting (a horrific 22-of-48).
Once he's got all his players available, Williams will still need to adapt on the fly to find roles for the current starters (likely J.P. Tokoto and Nate Britt) who will get benched.
Just as important, he’ll have to do it without stunting the development of promising reserves Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.
Can the defense survive in the Big East?
On Saturday, Creighton got a scare on the road at St. Joseph’s, winning by only four points. The Blue Jays did have an off night offensively by their standards: they only scored 83 points.
If the Blue Jays were still in the Missouri Valley, their defensive woes wouldn’t be a serious issue until March, because their dazzling offense would cover for any lapses.
However, now that they’ve joined the Big East—where defenses such as Marquette and Georgetown will challenge even Doug McDermott’s scoring prowess—they’ll have to learn to win on nights when they don’t shoot 55.4 percent from the floor.
Is one perimeter shooter enough for a Pac-12 contender?
Jordan Adams is a magnificent offensive weapon, but he has very little help on the Bruins’ roster. Through three games, the rest of the team has totaled seven three-pointers (to Adams’ nine) on 30 attempts.
With non-shooters Kyle Anderson and Norman Powell joining Adams in the starting lineup, UCLA could be dangerously vulnerable to the same kinds of zone and soft man-to-man schemes that teams are trying to use against Kentucky.
Coach Steve Alford’s best answer might be freshman Zach LaVine, who’s scored 10 points per game off the bench early on and has more promise as a marksman (4-of-11 from deep) than the other reserves.
21. Iowa State
How good can the frontcourt actually get?
Melvin Ejim’s return from a knee injury was always going to be a cause for celebration in Ames, but few expected it to bring on a court storming.
Nevertheless, that’s what Hilton Coliseum got after a convincing 77-70 win over then-No. 7 Michigan (thanks in large measure to Ejim’s 22 points and nine rebounds).
With Ejim, Georges Niang and juco transfer Dustin Hogue, Fred Hoiberg has the best set of forwards in his young coaching career.
He’ll make sure the perimeter game is up to par, and if the frontcourt plays even 80 percent as well as it did against the Wolverines, his Cyclones will beat some top-level teams away from home, too.
What’s wrong with Isaiah Austin?
Baylor’s 3-0 start has featured the expected contributions from senior Cory Jefferson inside and classmate Brady Heslip outside, plus a strong showing from juco transfer Kenny Chery.
What it hasn’t included is a recognizable version of sophomore center Isaiah Austin, who’s been all but invisible at just 9.0 points per game.
Even though he’s spending less time out by the three-point line this season, Austin’s rebounding has gotten worse, dropping from 8.3 boards a night last year to 4.3 through three contests.
He’s blocking shots just fine (eight of them against Louisiana-Lafayette alone), but until he finds some semblance of an offensive rhythm (and starts battling on the glass), Baylor will be one star short of Big 12 contention.
19. New Mexico
Is Cameron Bairstow for real?
As a junior in 2012-13, Cameron Bairstow had a career year, averaging 9.7 points per game in his debut as a starter. In each of his first two games as a senior, he’s topped 20 points, and he’s shooting 18-of-23 from the field in the process.
The 6’9”, 250-pound forward has yet to pick on anyone his own size, but even against overmatched competition, he couldn’t have approached this performance last season.
A confident, aggressive Bairstow—as a third option to go with established leaders Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk—would make New Mexico a legitimate threat to erase the Mountain West’s recent record of NCAA tournament futility.
Where is the rebounding going to come from?
Tyler Olander, one of the Huskies’ top big men a year ago, has been reduced to 7.3 minutes a game in the early going this season.
In his place, 6’7” swingman Niels Giffey has shot the ball phenomenally, but he doesn’t offer much of an inside presence to a team that’s sitting at 156th nationally in rebounding.
The big men who are playing—starter DeAndre Daniels, plus reserves Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan—all have similar willowy builds, great for blocking shots but not for grinding out rebounds against physical post players.
Shabazz Napier won’t keep pulling down 9.5 boards a night as a 6’1” point guard, so the Huskies have to hope that somebody in their collection of beanstalks grows up into a giant by the time AAC play starts.
Is there such a thing as too much depth?
Oregon has featured an eight-man rotation through its first two games, and that’s with star PG Dominic Artis and forward Ben Carter serving suspensions.
When those two return to action, Dana Altman will have the not-unwelcome challenge of finding playing time for 10 worthwhile contributors.
The point guard spot will be especially loaded, because senior Johnathan Loyd has looked sharp with Artis (the team’s most dynamic player a year ago) out.
Altman has used deep rotations before, and if he can make this one work, the presence of seniors Richard Amardi and Waverly Austin on the bench will be a huge bonus in battling the Pac-12’s imposing front lines.
Who’s going to run the point?
Scottie Wilbekin’s suspension still doesn’t have a defined endpoint, and now his talented replacement is on the shelf.
Freshman PG Kasey Hill, who had been averaging 4.3 assists per game, suffered a high ankle sprain against Southern and will miss at least the next month.
With his top two options taken away, Billy Donovan will have to use some combination of DeVon Walker and Michael Frazier II to run the offense.
Neither is anything like a natural point guard—each has more turnovers than assists so far this year—so Donovan may be forced to put the brakes on his fast-breaking team until one or both of his real floor leaders returns to action.
Can a healthy Mitch McGary fix the interior offense?
As much as the Wolverines are missing Trey Burke’s passing ability, it’s his instincts as a penetrator that have really left a void.
Derrick Walton Jr. is a fine shooter, but neither he nor Caris LeVert have much interest in attacking the paint, and it’s taking its toll on the Michigan offense.
In the loss at Iowa State, the Wolverines attempted just nine free throws for the entire game, and four of those were by McGary in his first game back from a back injury.
John Beilein’s offense has three-point shooters aplenty, but it’s only going to work if McGary—who won’t be able to count on much help from Jon Horford or Jordan Morgan—can provide some semblance of a counterweight inside to balance the outside onslaught.
14. Wichita State
Do Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby add up to one legitimate center?
Most of Wichita State’s rotation has looked a lot like it did during last March’s Final Four run, with star forward Cleanthony Early leading an impressive collection of shooters.
The crucial difference, of course, is the absence of big men Carl Hall and Ehimen Orukpe, and so far, their replacements are doing an admirable job.
Starter Lufile and reserve Coleby (both seniors) are combining for 13.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, a worthy replacement for the 15.1 points and 11.2 boards their predecessors totaled.
If those two can keep playing at that level against the tougher competition that looms on WSU’s schedule—starting with physical St. Louis on December 1—the Shockers will turn out to be as serious a contender as their current lofty ranking suggests.
What happens when this front line faces a real low-post presence?
Through three easy wins, Gonzaga big men Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski have lived up to their billing.
The duo is combining for 24.7 points and 16 rebounds a night, with Dower finally showing the physical dominance that his 6’9”, 255-pound frame has long implied.
However, through a quirk of Mark Few’s non-conference scheduling, even the few big-name opponents the Zags will face—Kansas State, No. 11 Memphis, West Virginia—are teams that won’t have a top-tier big man to challenge Dower or Karnowski.
That will leave the Bulldogs in a precarious position come March, where one meeting with a Julius Randle or an Aaron Gordon could spell instant disaster.
Will rebounding-by-committee work in the Big Ten?
Through Wisconsin’s first three games, all five Badger starters averaged between 4.7 and 5.3 rebounds a night.
That's partly a function of Wisconsin's hardworking guards cleaning up the misses inherent in an offense that lives by the three-pointer. It’s also a cause for some concern given the quality of Big Ten frontcourts this season.
Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker haven’t exactly looked like world-beating rebounders so far—even in Kaminsky's unbelievable 43-point game against North Dakota, he hauled in just two boards.
As a result, the Badgers may get bashed on the glass when they have to slug it out with Michigan State or Iowa.
How much can Josh Pastner expect from his forwards?
Neither a walkover win against Austin Peay nor a blowout loss at Oklahoma State did anything to dispel concerns about the Tigers’ lack of an interior presence.
With Tarik Black and Adonis Thomas gone from last year’s roster, Memphis is breaking in two largely untested post players in the starting lineup.
Sophomore Shaq Goodwin and freshman Austin Nichols both have impressive potential, but neither is ready to start for a contender at this stage.
Even a season of on-the-job training may not be enough to improve Goodwin’s foul-happy defense (or Nichols’ suspect rebounding) to the point that Memphis can play with top-level opponents.
10. Virginia Commonwealth
Are free-throw woes just an early season fluke?
With Juvonte Reddic and Terrance Shannon, VCU has its most offensively gifted frontcourt of Shaka Smart’s coaching career.
Unfortunately, it also has a frontcourt that’s been a disaster at the free throw line, as that duo has shot a combined 7-of-25 from the stripe.
Reddic is better than that—he made 70.7 percent of his tries last year—but Shannon has never been reliable as a foul shooter.
If either or both players continue to toss up bricks at the stripe, it will really limit Smart’s options at the ends of close games (which this defense-first team will play plenty of).
Will the Orange keep playing down to the level of the competition?
Jim Boeheim has taken decades of criticism for padding Syracuse’s non-conference schedule with abnormally high numbers of hapless opponents. The difference in 2013-14 is that the cupcakes Boeheim has brought to the Carrier Dome have been biting back.
Cornell won the first half before fading in the season opener, and it took a frantic final minute from Jerami Grant to save the Orange against lowly St. Francis.
Even if this team can improve its focus as soon as it faces a bigger-name foe—and that’s no sure thing—the kind of ball Syracuse has been playing is guaranteed to turn into an upset loss or two in the competitive ACC.
8. Ohio State
Has Amir Williams really turned the corner?
Given significant minutes for the first time as a sophomore, Amir Williams underwhelmed. The 6’11”, 250-pound center was just okay as a shot-blocker (1.4 rejections per game) and barely registered in any other areas.
This year, though, Williams is starting to live up to a portion of the hype he brought with him to Columbus.
He’s rebounding like a Big Ten starter (6.7 boards a night), blocking shots with abandon (five against Marquette alone), and even contributing 7.3 points per contest.
7. Oklahoma State
Will Travis Ford’s low-post rotation get the job done?
Oklahoma State’s four-guard lineup can generate absurd quantities of points, but any such lineup puts a huge amount of pressure on its lone big man.
Brian Williams has been handling the starting job, while both Michael Cobbins and Kamari Murphy have also made major contributions.
That mix has worked so far, but the Cowboys have yet to face a frontcourt that poses a serious threat, either. With Baylor and Kansas looming in conference play, Williams and his compatriots won’t have it so easy for long.
Will the Blue Devils’ lack of size come back to bite them?
One obvious reason for Duke’s convincing loss against Kansas was that the Jayhawks won the battle on the boards, 39-24. If the Blue Devils are going to hold their own against other title contenders, they can’t afford to be giving up that kind of advantage.
Jabari Parker has been as good as advertised down low, but 6’9” Amile Jefferson is grabbing just 3.3 boards a night.
If he doesn’t show some major improvement, Mike Krzyzewski will be forced to hand out increased minutes to plodders Marshall Plumlee or Josh Hairston off the bench, and that will hurt the Blue Devils offensively.
Will T.J. McConnell become a weak link in the offense?
Duquesne transfer McConnell has played brilliantly in his first four games running the Arizona offense. Even with his 7.3 assists per game and ironclad defense, though, McConnell has also shown one very worrying sign: he still won’t shoot.
Never a major scoring weapon, McConnell is down to 4.8 points a night with the Wildcats. If opposing defenses don’t have to account for his shot, it will make his job as a passer (and everyone else's as shooters) vastly more difficult.
How long will it take the Wildcats’ mental game to catch up to their talent?
Led by an early Wooden Award candidate in Julius Randle, Kentucky’s freshmen have shown limitless promise in the early going. They’ve also shown that they're still freshmen (especially in the loss to Michigan State).
Kentucky is turning the ball over 13 times a game, many on mistakes such as moving screens that will be corrected with experience. More seasoning will also keep the Wildcats from coming out flat as they did to start the Spartans game.
If that kind of shift comes quickly, Kentucky will still be a title favorite by March. If the Wildcats are still making the same mistakes in SEC play, though, they're going to pay for them in the loss column and in their NCAA tournament seed.
Has Chane Behanan gotten his head on straight?
Chane Behanan sat out Louisville’s opener with a suspension, and the two-year starter has been coming off the bench since.
Rick Pitino can afford to keep the hard-headed junior in reserve, but Louisville would be a better team if Behanan returned to his 2012-13 role and performance.
Although he stands just 6’6”, Behanan is the best interior defender and the most adroit rebounder on the Cardinals roster.
Stephan Van Treese is less effective at either job, and ought to head back to the bench (where he played last year)...provided that Behanan is ready to be a team player.
Will the defense be tough enough for the postseason?
The one glaring flaw in Kansas’ impressive win over Duke showed up on the defensive end of the floor.
The Blue Devils shot an astounding 51.7 percent from the field in the loss, and only an even more improbable shooting night from Kansas (56.1 percent) enabled the easy victory for KU.
On nights when the offense is scuffling, Bill Self needs to be able to count on his defense to make the opposing team work for its points.
The pieces are there—especially physical guard Wayne Selden Jr. and mobile center Joel Embiid—but the execution needs to tighten up several notches between now and March if Kansas wants to avoid another early exit in postseason play.
1. Michigan State
Which starting five give the Spartans their best chance?
Michigan State has tried three different starting lineups in its four wins, shuffling Alex Gauna with Matt Costello inside and Denzel Valentine with Branden Dawson outside.
Junior Gauna has a year more experience than Costello, but Costello has shown more potential as a scoring threat. On the perimeter, Dawson is a world-beating athlete but doesn’t have Valentine’s exceptional passing touch.
The sooner Tom Izzo settles on a combination he likes, the more time the unit will have to gel before the grind of Big Ten play opens on New Year’s Eve.
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