The Biggest Question for Top College Basketball Teams in the 2014-15 Season
Even the best college basketball teams have massive question marks heading into the 2014-15 season.
Whom will the defending national champions rely on in the post, and whom will the runners-up play at small forward?
What happens if Duke's big man gets injured or is simply not as effective as promised? On the flip side of that coin, what if Michigan State's key players actually stay healthy this year?
Will a freshman start at point guard for Kansas? What will SMU do without the freshman who was expected to be its starting point guard?
We'll try to answer all of those questions and more as we address the biggest issue facing each of the top 20 teams at roughly the midpoint of the offseason.
These 20 teams are based on the composite rankings posted in late April by ESPN's Eamonn Brennan, CBS Sports' Gary Parrish, USA Today's Scott Gleeson and Nicole Auerbach, and B/R's C.J. Moore and Jason King. If you feel like your favorite team was unduly left off the list, blame them.
The following slides are listed alphabetically by school.
Burning Question: Who Shoots 3-Pointers?
Though I personally feel that Sean Miller should go with Kadeem Allen in the starting lineup, the consensus seems to be that Arizona will be trotting out a starting five of T.J. McConnell, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski.
While that would no doubt challenge Kentucky for the honor of best collection of starting forwards and centers in the country, it leaves us wondering what kind of outside game the Wildcats will have.
In two seasons, Tarczewski has yet to attempt a three-pointer. Hollis-Jefferson made just two triples last season. Ashley shot respectably from downtown (37.9 percent), but averaged only 1.3 attempts per game. Johnson barely shot 30 percent from three-point range as a senior in high school.
McConnell shot 36 percent from behind the arc last season, but he made fewer than one per game. It's not hard to argue that his shots were more about keeping the defense honest than they were about actually being one of the team's better scoring options.
Arizona will still be one of the five best teams in the country, but on the rare occasion that the Wildcats are playing from behind, it's tough to say who steps up to hit a clutch three-pointer.
Burning Question: Who Scores in the Post?
Connecticut has options upon options in the backcourt. Among Ryan Boatright, Rodney Purvis, Omar Calhoun, Terrence Samuel, Sam Cassell Jr. and Daniel Hamilton, Kevin Ollie has six guards who could start anywhere in the country.
But, uh, what are the Huskies going to do in the paint without DeAndre Daniels?
Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah figure to start at the 4 and the 5, but they combined to score a grand total of 13 points over the course of Connecticut's final five NCAA tournament games.
Kentan Facey should get some extended looks as a sophomore, but the reserve power forward might want to cut down on the 9.8 personal fouls per 40 minutes that he committed last year. The Huskies will also have a 6'8" freshman in the mix in the form of Rakim Lubin, but he isn't exactly at the top of anyone's ranking of incoming power forwards.
Unless Facey really blossoms this summer, don't be surprised to see a somewhat regular four-guard lineup with 6'6" Calhoun and Hamilton serving as the de facto forwards.
Duke Blue Devils
Burning Question: What if Jahlil Okafor Struggles?
Scouting has improved considerably over the past few years. It's been a good long while since a top-five recruit failed to come in and put up strong numbers as a freshman—provided the player doesn't get injured or deal with any eligibility issues.
But Duke's season hinges so heavily upon Okafor being a stud that anything other than "Best Freshman in the Nation" could be a pretty massive disappointment.
With all due respect to Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee, there's a reason that Jabari Parker spent much of last season as Duke's starting center—and that reason wasn't Parker's inherent ability to be a shot-blocker and workhorse in the paint.
And yet, with Jefferson presumably starting at power forward, Plumlee is the only option off the bench taller than 6'7".
Maybe this is finally the year that Plumlee delivers on nearly a decade's worth of promise, but it's more likely that Duke would be in a world of trouble if Okafor doesn't follow in the footsteps of Julius Randle and Jared Sullinger by averaging a double-double as a freshman.
Burning Question: Can Billy Donovan Effortlessly Replace 4 Starters?
Replacing one or two starters and remaining one of the best teams in the country is pretty common in college basketball.
Finding a new starter at three out of five positions is feasible, but a challenge.
Donovan is in the unenviable position of essentially turning over a new leaf by replacing four of the five starters from the team that earned the No. 1 overall seed in the 2014 NCAA tournament.
Recent No. 1 seeds to deal with that much turnover have had varying degrees of success—and that's putting it lightly.
Kentucky was the No. 1 overall seed in the 2012 tournament, winning the whole enchilada before infamously failing to even make the tournament the following season. North Carolina was also a No. 1 seed in the 2012 tournament. The Tar Heels lost four starters from that team and were lucky to even earn a No. 8 seed in 2013.
Indiana earned a No. 1 seed in 2013, but the Hoosiers went 17-15 without Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo and missed the tournament this past season.
Really, Kansas has been the only recent success story, losing five crucial players from the team that earned a No. 1 seed in 2013 and still managing to get a No. 2 seed last March. But the Jayhawks have certainly been the exception to the rule when it comes to consistent greatness spanning more than a decade.
And let's not forget that Donovan lost his top six scorers from the 2007 team that won the national title only to miss the tournament the following two years.
Expectations for Florida are very high, and justifiably so. But it might be a mistake to take for granted the amount of change taking place on this roster.
Burning Question: Can Cinderella Finally Fit into Her Glass Slipper Again?
The regular season has become an exercise in futility for Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs have been to 16 consecutive NCAA tournaments. During that stretch, they have averaged 26.9 wins per year, winning at least 23 games in every season.
But whether they earned a No. 1 seed or a No. 12 seed has made little difference. No difference, actually. Over the past five tournaments, Gonzaga has been a No. 7 seed, a No. 11 seed, a No. 8 seed twice and a No. 1 seed. And in all five of those years, the Zags won one game before getting eliminated in the Round of 32.
We'll no doubt pay attention to what they do during the season. Nonconference games against Arizona, Memphis, SMU and UCLA—as well as their participation in the NIT Season Tip-Off—will be a great barometer for whether they can get back into the discussion for a No. 1 seed again this year.
Unless they survive into the Sweet 16, though, it's just going to be another disappointing season in Spokane.
Iowa State Cyclones
Burning Question: Can Fred Hoiberg Strike Gold Again with Transfers?
If there's one thing we can count on every summer, it's Hoiberg making a big splash in the transfer market.
In his first year at Iowa State, he banked heavily on Northern Illinois transfer Darion "Jake" Anderson. He averaged 12.8 points per game and led the team in rebounding.
The following season, Hoiberg added Royce White from Minnesota, Chris Allen from Michigan State, Chris Babb from Penn State and Tyrus McGee from JUCO and made it to the tournament as a No. 8 seed.
One year later, it was Will Clyburn from Utah and Korie Lucious from Michigan State. The big adds this past season were DeAndre Kane from Marshall and Dustin Hogue from JUCO.
This year will be no different, as Hoiberg welcomes Bryce Dejean-Jones, Abdel Nader and Jameel McKay into his rotation.
The scary thing for the rest of the Big 12 is that Iowa State would have had a great starting five even without any of those transfers. Monte Morris, Matt Thomas, Naz Long, Georges Niang and Hogue would have been more than enough to get back to the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight season.
If those three transfers are anywhere near as good as advertised, it might be the Cyclones who finally finish ahead of Kansas for a change.
Burning Question: Will the Starting Point Guard Please Stand Up?
When Naadir Tharpe decided in early May to leave Kansas instead of playing out his senior season for Bill Self, it left the Jayhawks in a bit of a predicament.
That's probably too strong of a word for this situation, though, as Self has plenty of options. It's just hard to say which route is the best one.
Behind door No. 1 is returning point guard Frank Mason. Mason averaged 5.1 assists per 40 minutes last season and was the primary point guard in situations where Tharpe was either unavailable or undesirable.
Door No. 2 contains incoming freshman Devonte Graham. Graham's commitment to Kansas within 48 hours of Tharpe's decision to leave could certainly suggest that part of Tharpe's decision was the knowledge or fear of a plan to bring in Graham to become the starter.
Self has never been one to hand the reins to a freshman point guard, but perhaps he is capable of change.
And behind door No. 3 is Kansas' primary shooting guard, Wayne Selden Jr. Save for Tharpe, Selden was the team leader in assists last season. Making him the primary ball-handler would allow for either an additional three-point shooter or another big man on the court.
There may even be a fourth door that has Conner Frankamp starting at point guard.
Expect the first month of the season to be an experimental period of toying with all of those options.
Burning Question: Who Plays Small Forward?
Perhaps we should instead be wondering whether John Calipari even sees the need to have a conventional small forward.
At 6'8" with a little bit of range, Alex Poythress most embodies the traditional mold that we've come to look for in small forwards, but does having him in the starting lineup give Kentucky the best chance to win?
If Calipari is looking for a combination of height and range at "small forward," why not get more of both by starting Karl Towns Jr. at the 3?
Or how about sacrificing a little bit of height by putting Devin Booker at shooting guard and letting Aaron Harrison (6'6") play small forward?
Long story short: You can't go wrong with this roster, and that's why Kentucky is pretty much unanimously No. 1 in all the preseason polls.
Burning Question: Can They Excel Without Russ Smith?
Getting Montrezl Harrell back was certainly a pleasant surprise, but adjusting to life without Smith will not be easy.
To be sure, Rick Pitino still has some great players in the backcourt. Between Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, Anton Gill and Quentin Snider, the Cardinals will have no shortage of quality guards.
But Russ Smith was Louisville basketball.
Other than maybe Doug McDermott, Smith was more important to his team than any other player in the country. He took more than 20 percent of the team's field-goal and free-throw attempts and led the team in both assists and steals.
Smith can't simply be replaced. The entire team will need to step up its game without him.
Michigan State Spartans
Burning Question: What if This Team Stays Healthy?
"If and when they get healthy, the Spartans will be the best team in the country."
It was a broken record being played in every crevice of the nation last year.
We spent several months waiting for Michigan State to finally get to full strength, eventually making the Spartans one of the most popular picks to win the title as a No. 4 seed.
So what should we expect if this year's squad can avoid the injury bug that bit on what felt like a weekly basis last season?
The three leading scorers (Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling) are gone, but Tom Izzo still has a strong stable of returning players.
Branden Dawson leads the way after averaging 11.2 PPG and 8.3 RPG last season. It's been a while since I had a chance to pull out this stat, but the Spartans were 20-0 last year in games in which Dawson scored more than six points.
Joining Dawson as key contributors will be Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice, Kenny Kaminski, Matt Costello, Alvin Ellis III and Gavin Schilling.
The Spartans will likely go with a pretty short rotation, but they could make a run at the Big Ten championship if the main guys stay healthy this year.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Burning Question: When Will the Summer Scandals Stop?
As if all the drama surrounding P.J. Hairston wasn't enough for North Carolina last summer, now Roy Williams and the Tar Heels are dealing with this whole Rashad McCants mess.
There's no rational way to calculate what sort of effect these offseason media storms have on the team by the time November rolls around, but it would be pretty foolish to assume that the current players are immune to all the noise taking place around them.
If it isn't already impacting them, you have to think that it will when people start calling for Roy Williams' head and inevitably harassing the players about the courses they're currently taking at UNC.
It certainly feels like this is only going to get worse before it gets better or goes away.
It will be interesting to see how well Marcus Paige and company survive the ride.
Burning Question: Will TaShawn Thomas Be Allowed to Play?
If there's one thing that Oklahoma lacked last season, it was a second rebounder.
Ryan Spangler did a great job in the paint, but he had more than twice as many rebounds as any other returning Sooner. Cameron Clark and Tyler Neal were the best rebounders other than Spangler, but they both graduated this summer.
If Thomas is ruled eligible to play after transferring away from Houston, problem solved for Lon Kruger. Thomas was the top scorer and rebounder last season for the Cougars and will start at power forward for Oklahoma from day one.
It's just a question of whether day one will be this season.
Because of Houston's coaching change from James Dickey to Kelvin Sampson, Oklahoma and Thomas are seeking a waiver that would allow him to play without sitting out a season. There hasn't been any news on that decision in the past two months.
If he's unable to play, Oklahoma will have to cobble together a solution from senior D.J. Bennett and incoming freshmen Dante Buford and Khadeem Lattin.
It's a decision by the NCAA that could ultimately be worth at least half a dozen wins for the Sooners.
San Diego State Aztecs
Burning Question: What Will the Offense Do Without Xavier Thames?
Without question, defense has been the key to Steve Fisher's success at San Diego State over the past several years. According to KenPom.com, the Aztecs have been in the top 50 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency for eight straight years, including having the ninth-best defense this past season.
But what in the world will the already anemic offense put together now that Thames is gone?
Thames scored 25.0 percent of the team's points last season. The other departing senior (Josh Davis) was also responsible for 10.3 percent of the points while hauling in 25.1 percent of the rebounds.
I love me some Dwayne Polee II, but are he, Matt Shrigley and Aqeel Quinn ready or able to pick up that much slack?
San Diego State does have one of the top incoming recruiting classes in the country, and Fisher did a pretty fine job of immediately bouncing back from losing his top four scorers from the 2011-12 season, but it sure does feel like the Aztecs will have their work cut out for them to put points on the board.
Southern Methodist Mustangs
Burning Question: Just How Important Was Emmanuel Mudiay Going to Be?
Prior to Monday's news that Mudiay will be taking his talents overseas, our question for SMU was going to be "How far can they go after 22 years away from the tournament?"
But now, the same people who had the Mustangs ranked in the top 15 a few months ago are starting to wondering if they can even make the tournament this year.
Was one freshman guard really that crucial?
Syracuse certainly wouldn't have been the team that it was last season without Tyler Ennis, but you have to think the Orange still would have gone dancing without him, right?
We'll take a deeper dive into SMU on Friday when we present the projected 2014-15 standings for the AAC, but for the time being, let's just say that this team should still be in pretty good shape with an arsenal of Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy, Keith Frazier, Yanick Moreira, Ben Moore, Justin Martin, Sterling Brown, Ryan Manuel, Cannen Cunningham and perhaps Jordan Tolbert if he is ruled eligible to play.
Obviously, Larry Brown and company would have welcomed Mudiay's skill with open arms, but the Mustangs aren't exactly headed for a sub-.500 season without him.
Burning Question: Is There Enough Playing Time Available to Keep Everyone Satisfied?
Even before Rick Barnes landed Myles Turner, this was going to be an issue to consider.
Kendal Yancy and Martez Walker deserve added playing time after excelling in their limited roles as freshmen. Isaiah Taylor already led the Longhorns in minutes as a freshman and was one of the team's top scorers.
Connor Lammert, Prince Ibeh, Cameron Ridley, Javan Felix and Demarcus Holland all improved as sophomores and could reasonably expect more minutes as juniors under normal circumstances.
Jonathan Holmes led the team in scoring at 12.8 PPG despite playing just 24.3 minutes on average. One would think the senior deserves the lion's share of the minutes at one of the forward positions.
But it's mathematically impossible for all of that to happen. In fact, with no departing players and the addition of one of the top incoming freshmen in the country—as well as another small forward (Jordan Barnett) ranked in the ESPN 100—it stands to reason that everyone will actually get less playing time than they deserve.
A 10-man rotation with everyone averaging around 20 minutes per game could be one heck of a lethal combination, provided egos don't get in the way of a good thing.
Burning Question: Was Villanova Actually Good Last Year?
Save for the occasional blowout loss to Creighton or Syracuse, Villanova entered mid-March as one of the top teams in the country. Even after losing to Seton Hall in its first game of the Big East tournament, there was still a pretty legitimate argument to be made for Villanova as a No. 1 seed.
But if we're going to throw out a few losses as statistical outliers, it's only fair to also disregard the win over Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis. That leaves a schedule with 27 wins against a collection of teams that doesn't include a single team that earned a single-digit seed in the tournament.
So, was Villanova a really good team with a few matchup nightmares or an average team that capitalized on a weak schedule and a weak conference?
With James Bell serving as the only important player leaving and Josh Hart capable of filling his spot in the starting rotation, perhaps the 2014-15 season will help us decipher the strength of the 2013-14 Wildcats.
Participation in the Legends Classic (with Michigan, Oregon and VCU) and nonconference games against Illinois and Syracuse should give us a pretty good gauge of what Jay Wright's squad is capable of doing.
Burning Question: Will Anyone Ever Figure Out How to Beat Tony Bennett's Defense?
Over the past eight seasons—the first three at Washington State—Bennett's teams have ranked in the top 25 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency six times, according to KenPom.com. Last season was his best yet, ranking fifth in the country.
Clearly, opposing coaches are no closer to solving this puzzle than they were nearly a decade ago.
Worse for them, Bennett's teams have improved significantly on the offensive end of the court. Four years ago, Virginia ranked 167th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency. Last year, the Cavaliers ranked 21st.
Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell graduated this summer, but they still have plenty of offensive firepower between London Perrantes, Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson and Anthony Gill.
Those might not be household names, but they should be and will be once people starting paying attention to a Virginia team that will make a run at a second consecutive ACC title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Virginia Commonwealth Rams
Burning Question: What Can Shaka Smart Do with "Real" Recruits?
Over the past five seasons under Smart, VCU added two ESPN 100 recruits. Melvin Johnson and Jordan Burgess joined the Rams before the 2012-13 season—and it certainly didn't hurt Smart's recruiting of Jordan that older brother Bradford had a great four-year career at VCU.
This year alone, Smart is getting three of the top 100 freshmen in the nation.
He already had one of the better teams in the country, but how much better could the Rams be now that they're actually big enough to add some marquee names?
We might not see their full potential this season, but VCU is quickly developing into an annual contender for the national championship. Smart might be one more strong year away from being able to really lure 5-star recruits.
From there, the next question is whether he'll actually stay at VCU long enough to reap the rewards.
Wichita State Shockers
Burning Question: What Can They Possibly Do to Impress Us?
Between a surprising run to the 2013 Final Four and an even more surprising undefeated regular season, the only way Wichita State could shock us again would be by dropping off the radar and somehow missing the tournament this year.
While the Shockers were putting together that undefeated season last year, there was a pretty sizable percentage of the population that refused to even be impressed. The arguments against Wichita State as a No. 1 seed were often louder than the case for the Shockers on the top line.
I still don't understand how people found ways to use their deep run in the 2013 tournament as evidence that they couldn't do the same in 2014.
But if "we" were that jaded last year, imagine how vocal those naysayers will be this season if Wichita State does anything other than go 40-0 while playing just four men for the entire season.
Burning Question: Can Bronson Koenig Replace Ben Brust?
Koenig erupted for a career-high 14 points in the Big Ten tournament against Minnesota before a pretty solid showing in the NCAA tournament—highlighted by his 11 points in the first half against Kentucky.
Was it a sneak peek at a colossal sophomore season, or just a role player who got somewhat hot with everyone watching?
Even with those good games included, Koenig shot just 32.8 percent from three-point range as a freshman.
In order to replace Brust's contributions from the past two seasons, he'll need to improve to 39 percent from downtown while leading the team in minutes played and drastically reducing his turnover rate.
It's possible, but far from a sure thing.
Alternatively, Bo Ryan could go with Josh Gasser at shooting guard, Sam Dekker at small forward and start Nigel Hayes at power forward. But Koenig would still need to be a pretty big contributor off the bench.
Unlike at Arizona, Duke, Kentucky and Texas, where there are plenty of options if one player doesn't produce as expected, a lackluster season from any of the primary Badgers could be a serious issue.
A strong year from Koenig could mean a return trip to the Final Four. If he struggles, though, it could mean we were a bit premature in assuming that the Big Ten is Wisconsin's to lose.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.