Position Battles to Watch in the 2014 College Basketball Offseason
Ask any college basketball coach and he'll tell you that having depth is a key to success.
The ability to go to the bench and bring in talented reserves, ones that don't provide too much of a drop-off in performance, can keep the starters fresh and give a coach options when the inevitable slump or injury occurs.
But while the coaches might like the depth, that's not always the same opinion held by college basketball players. This can be especially true when highly regarded players end up having to share playing time, something they're not used to.
Taking a quick look at the more notable programs in Division I, we can already see that a few will be dealing with some major position battles when preseason practice begins in the fall.
Here are the ones that stand out the most.
Players contending for court time: Grayson Allen, Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon
With Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker leaving early for the NBA Draft, as expected, Duke's top remaining scorers are guards Cook (11.6 points per game) and Sulaimon (9.9). Both played well enough at times during the 2013-14 season to be counted on as leader's next year.
But Duke also has the nation's top-rated recruiting class coming in this fall, and those players are all going to expect to come right in and play. It's likely why they all signed with Duke back in November but at that time it was too soon to know what the rest of the Blue Devils' roster would look like for 2014-15 and how those still around would have played.
While No. 1 prospect Jahlil Okafor is almost a lock to start at center and 5-star forward Justise Winslow should win a starting spot, the situation isn't as clear in the backcourt for recruits Allen and Jones. They've got established players ahead of them, guys that won't just kneel down and give up their starting gigs.
Players contending for court time: Tracy Abrams, Aaron Cosby, Kendrick Nunn, Ahmad Starks
A year after having almost an entirely new roster, Illinois heads into the 2014-15 season with some stability in that it returns all five starters. The Fighting Illini also get three transfers into the mix after each had to sit out last season.
But while having a lot of talent and experience is good, it also means coach John Groce will be faced with having to find playing time for eight guys who are used to starting. The playing time issue will be most concerning in the backcourt, where senior Abrams and sophomore Nunn will be trying to hold onto their starting jobs in battles against former Oregon State guard Starks and former Seton Hall guard Cosby, respectively.
Starks, a senior, averaged 10.2 points per game and started 62 games over three seasons, finishing as Oregon State's all-time three-point leader. Cosby, a junior, started 58 games and averaged 9.8 points in two seasons for Seton Hall.
Players contending for court time: Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Trey Lyles, Alex Poythress, Karl Towns Jr.
John Calipari has been very open about his recruiting style, which involves loading up on high-profile recruits each year knowing that the previous crop is going to have a good number of stars leave early for the NBA Draft.
But Johnson and Lee didn't see enough action as freshmen in 2013-14 to justify going pro, while 2012-13 holdovers Cauley-Stein and Poythress decided to stick around for their junior years. That means Kentucky will already have a very experienced frontcourt for next season even without its latest influx of superior talent.
Towns Jr. and Lyles are both 5-star prospects, both rated in the top 10 nationally by 247Sports.com. Both likely signed with the Wildcats expecting to be able to step right in but now with six players fighting for no more than three spots there's going to be a major battle for playing time in the frontcourt.
Nebraska Point Guard
Players contending for court time: Benny Parker, Tarin Smith, Tai Webster
Nebraska returns four starters from the team that ended a long NCAA tournament drought but replacing shooting guard Ray Gallegos won't be Tim Miles' most pressing concern when preseason practice begins in the fall. Instead, it will be figuring out who is the best fit at point guard.
Neither Parker (a sophomore) or Webster (a freshman) were exceptionally solid in that role last season, though Webster held the starting job the most. Parker came on strong late in the year, while Webster failed to score in eight of the Cornhuskers' final 10 games.
Combined, the two averaged only 6.3 points and 2.9 assists per game, combining to shoot less than 37 percent from the field. That lack of production might open the door for incoming freshman Smith, a 3-star prospect from St. Anthony's in Jersey City, N.J. who was referred to by Miles as "the complete package at point guard" after his signing.
North Carolina Wing
Players contending for court time: Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, J.P. Tokoto
Tokoto fared well as North Carolina's small forward this past season, averaging 9.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore. But his lack of a three-point shot limited what the Tar Heels were able to do in certain situations, which leaves him vulnerable to lose his starting spot.
Throw in the fact that Carolina's top two recruits—Jackson and Pinson—are both 5-star wings who are known for being strong shooters as well as athletic players who can slash to the basket. At 6'8" each they've got three inches on Tokoto, who got most of his points close to the basket despite his position.
In a perfect world all three players would be able to get equal minutes, with certain lineups allowing for two or more to play at the same time when Marcus Paige needs a break. But each will fight hard to be the one that gets the bulk of the action, and it will be quite a competition.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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