The Greatest Concern for the Top 20 College Basketball Teams in 2014-15
No team is perfect. Each one has a weakness, something that can be better than the current state.
This is the case for every one of the 350-ish college basketball teams as we slowly inch toward the 2014-15 season, even those that will begin the year atop polls and best-of lists. There's something of a concern for each, something that like a loose thread on a sweater could cause everything to unravel if pulled on instead of snipped.
Using Bleacher Report's preseason basketball rankings from earlier this summer, we've listed one issue that each of the top 20 teams has to address before the 2014-15 season begins.
20. Iowa: Point Guard Play
With leading scorer and main cog Roy Devyn Marble graduated, Iowa will have to revamp how it generates offense in 2014-15. Aaron White will contribute from inside, but there need to be perimeter contributions to match the frontcourt production. With Marble gone a good place to start would be the point guard spot.
Mike Gesell started all 33 games last season, averaging 7.8 points and 3.9 assists per game, but he took a back seat to Marble and White. His 37.5 shooting percentage was by far the worst of any regular player for Iowa. That will need to improve drastically. The Hawkeyes won't need the 6'1" junior to drop 15 points per game, but he has to be more comfortable shooting the ball so that it will make his distribution more effective.
Gesell's 3.05-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio was great last season, but it can be even better if he's more involved.
19. Michigan: Chemistry
Michigan lost five significant players from last season's team, a quintet that provided about 60 percent of the Wolverines' scoring. This comes a year after having to replace stars Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. from the title runner-up team, meaning John Beilein's roster has only three players that were on board during the 2012-13 season.
A six-player recruiting class means that 11 of the 14 players are underclassmen, which isn't that unusual in college basketball anymore, but it does mean there's still a lot of getting used to that has to happen before the 2014-15 season begins.
Michigan played four games in Italy earlier this month, winning them all, but the results weren't as important as getting everyone comfortable with each other. Beilein told Rod Beard of the Detroit News prior to the trip that "it's going to be a tremendous experience for our guys." Junior Caris LeVert and sophomore Zak Irvin will both take on much bigger roles this fall, but youngsters will also need to step up and earn the veterans' trust.
18. Kansas State: Thomas Gipson's Recovery
Thomas Gipson heads into what could be a big senior year for him, assuming he's able to recover fully from offseason shoulder surgery and stay out of trouble.
The 6'7", 265-pound forward tore his labrum late in the 2013-14 season when he averaged 11.7 points and 6.5 rebounds. He was able to make it through the rest of the year, and without a production dropoff you couldn't really tell he was hurt. But after getting cut open it's a different story, and Gipson is traveling the slow road back from surgery.
In the meantime, he's also gotten into some legal trouble. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Gipson was arrested Aug. 13 after allegedly getting caught speeding while driving with a revoked license. He was booked and then released after posing a $1,000 bond, according to the report.
Gipson is being looked at as a key piece for the Wildcats this upcoming season, when they bring back back three starters and should contend for one of the top spots in the Big 12.
17. Nebraska: Handling Hype
To say Nebraska's 2013-14 season was a surprise would be a major understatement. The Cornhuskers went 19-13 overall, but more importantly managed an 11-7 record in Big Ten play to finish in fourth place. That earned them the program's first NCAA bid since 1998.
A poll of league media members taken before the season by Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises pegged Nebraska to finish in last place.
Now comes the hard part, though: being able to either replicate, or better than improve on that performance. Additionally, coach Tim Miles and his team will now have to handle raised expectations from every corner.
Having a playmaker like Terran Petteway back for his junior year will help with handling what will come in 2014-15, as will having other key returners like juniors Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford. There's also inside beef coming to help in the form of 6'9" Georgetown transfer Moses Ayegba and incoming 6'8" freshman Jake Hammond.
Odds are Nebraska won't get slotted so low in any unofficial (or official) polls, but how the Huskers handle the persistent spotlight will be key.
16. SMU: Being Able to Move On
With an electrifying incoming recruit expected to elevate a long-dormant program to elite status, SMU was one of the most talked about teams not in the NCAA tournament in recent memory. But then Emmanuel Mudiay decided to turn pro and play overseas, spurning the Mustangs and leaving them to make that climb without his highly anticipated contributions.
"Such is life," has more or less been the public reaction by SMU coach Larry Brown and his players, with Brown saying the Mustangs "went from a legitimate team that had a chance to win a national championship to a team that has to get better," according to CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein.
The key, though, is whether SMU can actually get better, or if it will be the same team that fizzled down the stretch in 2013-14. The Mustangs do bring back the core of the team that looked so good for so much of last season, but they also are facing a significantly upgraded schedule that includes an early road trip to Gonzaga and Indiana as well as a December visit to Michigan.
Those games were no doubt added to both boost schedule strength, which hamstrung SMU a year ago, but also to highlight Mudiay for what would probably have been his only season of college. Now it means a potentially overmatched team will be tested several times.
15. Oklahoma: Rebounding
One of Oklahoma's biggest weaknesses last season was in the rebounding department, where it held just a scant plus-1.3 advantage on opponents en route to an NCAA tournament bid and a second-place finish in the Big 12.
The Sooners were outrebounded 38-37 by North Dakota State in that NCAA game, which they lost in overtime. That meant the offseason began earlier than expected, but also meant more time could be devoted to fixing that issue.
An answer to the problem was secured, in a way, when Oklahoma landed Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas during the offseason. However, Thomas has yet to be approved for a waiver to play right away. If he isn't cleared for the 2014-15 season that will mean having to make due with Ryan Spangler (team-high 9.3 rebounds per game) as the lone force on the boards unless someone else develops better rebounding ability.
14. Gonzaga: Pangos' Role Change
For his first three years, Kevin Pangos has been able to be a scorer first and a passer second. Despite being a point guard, the presence of another point in John Stockton Jr. made it so the 6'2" Pangos could focus more on shooting and driving than setting up the rest of Gonzaga's players.
Not anymore, as Stockton has graduated and Pangos heads into his senior year as the lone point man.
Pangos hasn't struggled in dishing the ball throughout his career, averaging better than three assists per game every season and a better-than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Now he'll be asked to pass more than shoot thanks to the arrival of scorer Byron Wesley, a transfer from USC.
Wesley led the Trojans with 17.8 points per game and shot 46.7 percent from the field in 2013-14. He'll make up for the production lost by Sam Dower's graduation, while also taking some of Pangos' shots away. If Pangos transitions into his new role seamlessly, it could be a big year for Gonzaga.
13. Iowa State: Replacing Veteran Production
Iowa State's reputation as a haven for transfers paid off in spades last year, with former Marshall player DeAndre Kane leading the Cyclones to the Big 12 tournament title and a solid run in the NCAA tournament. But with transfers comes the fact that they'll often be there for only a little while, and now ISU has to replace what Kane (17.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.9 assists) produced.
ISU also has to find a replacement for Melvin Ejim, the leading scorer at 17.8 points per game.
It's not like the Cyclones are devoid of talent, either from returners—Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue, Naz Long and Monte Morris can all play—or from more transfers like former Marquette signee Jameel McKay and UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones, but that doesn't always translate into results.
This has been coach Fred Hoiberg's approach for the past four years, and the improvement has been there each season, but with such a patchwork roster there's always the worry that the new group won't be able to click as well as the previous one.
12. Villanova: Inside Effort
Villanova brings back four starters from the team who won the Big East regular season title in 2013-14 and should be the favorites to do so again this year. But the Wildcats want more than a conference crown; they want to be able to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament like in 2006 and 2009.
Losing by double-digits on the opening weekend, regardless of the fact that it came to the eventual national champions, just won't cut it with 'Nova.
One thing that the Wildcats were lacking last season was an inside presence. JayVaughn Pinkston, at 6'7" and 240 pounds, was essentially the team's big man, averaging 14.1 points with 6.1 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the field. Other than him the only other contributor in the paint was 6'11" Daniel Ochefu, but he didn't come along as planned.
Ochefu, who will be a junior, needs to develop into a more dependable presence in order for Villanova to be a complete team. He had 5.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game with 59.4 percent shooting a year ago, but the concern is that he might not be able to do much more than that.
11. Texas: Jonathan Holmes' Shooting Touch
With Texas' signing of 5-star center Myles Turner during the offseason, the team heads into the 2014-15 season with three of the most imposing frontcourt players in the country. But not all three can play inside, meaning someone from the trio of the 6'11" Turner, 6'9" Cameron Ridley and 6'8" Jonathan Holmes has to move away from the paint.
All signs point to Holmes sliding into the small forward position for his senior year, where he'll have to show he can shoot as well as he has been able to muscle and power his way to points.
Holmes led the Longhorns in scoring at 12.8 points per game last season, shooting a solid 50.5 percent from the field. But most of those baskets were very close to the rim, while he made 28 of 84 three-point attempts. It will be how Holmes shoots from between those areas, particularly on 12- to 15-footers, that determines how well he'll fit into his new role.
If Holmes is unable to develop that mid-range shot, coach Rick Barnes may need to shift to a more frontcourt-focused attack and that could affect the play of Ridley and Turner.
10. Louisville: Backcourt Leadership
Louisville didn't just lose one of the best players in program history in Russ Smith—it also lost a presence that oozed leadership, swagger and confidence unlike few players in recent college basketball memory.
While the Cardinals got a big windfall in the form of power forward Montrezl Harrell opting to return for his junior season, that still doesn't address the leadership void from their backcourt. And it wasn't just because of Smith's departure, as Louisville also saw Kevin Ware transfer to Georgia State and Luke Hancock graduate.
Each of those seniors took several seasons' worth of experience and headiness with them, something their replacements just can't match at this time. Chris Jones is a senior, but his exploits don't compare, while Terry Rozier will be entering his sophomore season and may not be ready to be a leader.
Unless Rick Pitino wants to transfer the control to the frontcourt, someone from the guard group is going to need to step up.
9. Virginia: Bench Production
One of the many keys to Virginia's breakout season in 2014-15 was how it was able to dip into the bench whenever needed to get instant contributions from the likes of Anthony Gill and others. But now Gill is likely to slide into the starting lineup, meaning someone else will need to become that key reserve who helped pump energy into the Cavaliers.
Gill averaged 8.6 points and 4.0 rebounds in less than 20 minutes per game last year as a sophomore. The 6'8" forward shot 58.7 percent from the field, and made 12-of-17 shots in Virginia's first two NCAA tournament games. When he came off the bench against Coastal Carolina in the opening contest, the Cavaliers went from trailing the big underdogs to asserting control.
That's the kind of stuff you'll want from a starter, so it bodes well to have Gill in the lineup this fall. But Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett must be concerned with who among his newcomers and returning bench players can fill that instant offense role that Gill provided.
8. Wichita State: Inside Points
Domination down low hasn't been part of Wichita's modus operandi during its two-year rise from being just another mid-major to being a legitimate power. The Shockers were able to get by with the main inside contributions coming from guys that were better served as wings, such as 6'8" Cleanthony Early translating that into team bests in scoring (16.4 points) and rebounds (5.9) last season.
Early is gone, though, as are 6'6" Nick Wiggins and 6'9" Chadrick Lufile, a trio that was responsible for more than one-third of WSU's rebounding in 2013-14.
In order for Wichita to have another big year it will need to find a way to be more effective inside; that way its overly talented backcourt featuring Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Fred VanVleet aren't susceptible to being shut down with double teams.
The man that figures to be the best frontcourt option this season is Darius Carter, a 6'7" senior who shot 52.4 percent and averaged 7.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in just under 19 minutes per game. Carter spent some of the summer prepping for his increased role by playing with travel team Athletes in Action on a four-game tour in Italy.
If Carter comes through, Wichita should roll again. But if he can't make the grade it could lead to trouble.
7. Florida: Maturation
Florida coach Billy Donovan hasn't had many seasons that would be considered "down years," which is part of the reason his Gators will likely end up highly ranked entering 2014-15 despite graduating four senior starters. Donovan always has talent, and his regard as one of the best coaches in the country gives him the benefit of the doubt.
But that quartet that departed made the Elite Eight or better in all four of their seasons, meaning an amazing amount of experience has moved on and must be replaced by reserves and newcomers.
Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Frazier II are a pair of veteran holdovers, and they'll be asked to provide a lot of leadership in addition to the former's acumen as a wing contributor and latter's lights-out shooting from outside. They're not the concern for Donovan; that lies in youngsters like Chris Walker, Alex Murphy and his freshmen.
Walker didn't get to join the team until February last season, and the 6'10" forward struggled to get into the mix behind so many upperclassmen. Murphy, a 6'8" Duke transfer who will be eligible in December, could only watch. Both have talent and promise, but they'll need to show maturity as they step into much more significant roles.
6. Duke: Defensive Toughness
Offense will seemingly never be a problem for Duke with the players that Mike Krzyzewski recruits and the way he puts them in a position to score in bunches. But the defensive effort, well, that's a different story.
Even with electric attackers like Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood last season, the Blue Devils finished 116th in the adjusted defensive efficiency statistic tabulated by Ken Pomeroy. Duke was the best on the offensive end, but many times that efficiency was negated, most notably in the upset loss to Mercer in the NCAA tournament.
It's not like Krzyzewski doesn't coach or preach defense, but of late it just hasn't been there. The next crop of incoming superstars is expected to reverse that course, with 5-star forward Justise Winslow and No. 1 overall prospect Jahlil Okafor both regarded as stout defenders.
If those newcomers can defend as hoped, it will be a huge lift for Duke. But Krzyzewski has to be concerned that these new players might find that playing defense against college guys is a lot harder than guarding undersized high school kids.
5. North Carolina: Outside Shooting
Marcus Paige had to do quite a bit for North Carolina last season, and the sophomore was successful in nearly every task that coach Roy Williams asked of him. That included being the Tar Heels' only legitimate outside shooting threat, as Paige attempted and made more three-pointers than the rest of the team.
Paige can't be the only guy hitting from outside in 2014-15, but for that to change it's likely going to mean most of that assistance will come from Carolina's three freshman recruits.
Joel Berry II will either back up Paige at the point or play that role and allow Paige to play the 2. Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson will work from the wing, and they will need to be able to hit outside shots as well in college as they did while getting recruited by Williams.
Carolina went 10-of-38 from three-point range in a pair of games played earlier this month in the Bahamas, with the Heels hitting just 3-of-25 treys in a loss to the Providence Storm. That won't fly in the regular season.
4. Arizona: Outside Shooting
Arizona wasn't particularly dependent on the three-point shot in reaching the Elite Eight last season, though it did take its fair share of long-range shots with more of them coming after an injury to forward Brandon Ashley shifted the lineup to a more guard-oriented attack.
The Wildcats will once again be frontcourt-heavy this fall, with Ashley back and working alongside center Kaleb Tarczewski and incoming forward Stanley Johnson. But while the new forward effectively replaces dynamic athlete Aaron Gordon, there's no one player lining up to be the successor to shooting guard Nick Johnson.
At 16.3 points per game— with more than 30 percent of his field goals coming from three-point land—Nick Johnson led Arizona in scoring. Without him, the main outside shooter left is guard Gabe York, but he's not expected to be able to take on Johnson's other roles (such as being a defensive stopper or a transition slasher). Senior point guard T.J. McConnell can hit the shot, but he's a pass-first player and will stay that way.
Arizona will need someone to emerge as a potent outside threat, whether that be junior college transfer Kadeem Allen or sophomore Elliott Pitts. If that doesn't happen, when the Wildcats get into situations where they need to make a jumper they could be in for trouble.
3. Kansas: Point Guard Play
When Naadir Tharpe decided to transfer in the offseason, it made one of Kansas' main weaknesses that much more glaring. Without him, there wasn't a proven point guard on the roster, an issue that contributed to the Jayhawks' early exit from both the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments.
Tharpe wasn't a liability at the point, pouring in 5.0 assists per game along with 8.5 points, but he wasn't at the level of some of Kansas' previous guards. His departure was significant, though, because it means Bill Self will either need to go with sophomore Frank Mason or incoming freshman Devonte Graham.
Mason played 16 minutes per game and averaged 5.5 points and 2.1 assists in 2013-14, showing signs of promise when on the court. Graham will get a chance to win that starting spot as well, and whoever wins the job will have to prove they can facilitate the offense for a team that has a lot of weapons but needs someone to get the ball to them in space.
2. Wisconsin: Which Backup Fits Better?
With four starters coming back from his Final Four team, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan's one burning question in the offseason surrounds whether to replace outside shooter Ben Brust with a similar player in guard Bronson Koenig or go big and bring power forward Nigel Hayes into the mix.
Koenig, a 6'3" sophomore, averaged 3.5 points in 15.5 minutes per game last season. Hayes, a 6'7", 250-pound sophomore, had 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 17.4 minutes per contest.
Each contributed in his own way when given limited action, and one of them will need to step up into a bigger role. The concern that has to weigh on Ryan is, depending on which one he leans toward, whether that decision will be the right one and whether the odd man out stops developing and improving while being relegated again to a reserve role.
The Badgers don't necessarily need either player due to the return of upperclassmen Frank Kaminsky, Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker and Traevon Jackson. But getting a strong effort from one in a starting role can be the thing that keeps Wisconsin moving forward.
1. Kentucky: Spreading the Wealth
Too much talent, athleticism and skill seems like a really tough problem to have, huh? But in the case of Kentucky in 2014-15, managing all of the players who could each be the go-to guy if playing elsewhere is as important as anything else that John Calipari must do.
Kentucky has nine—yes, nine—McDonald's All-Americans on its roster. It also has two seven-footers and another pair of guys 6'10" or taller, not to mention a seemingly unlimited supply of long and strong guards and wings. The Wildcats also have a potential secret weapon in 5'9" freshman guard Tyler Ulis.
It seems like Calipari could just throw in any five and he'll have success, when you look at it on paper. He could also just cycle in three or four players at a time and presumably see no dropoff in production, but that's not how it works. Star players from the prep level all want to be the star in college, and if their roles aren't as significant as hoped for it can lead to animosity and poor effort.
Sharing seemed to go well during Kentucky's six-game trip to the Bahamas, with 10 players averaging at least 17 (but no more than 21) minutes in going 6-0 and winning by an average margin of 16.6 points. Three players averaged 10 or 11 points, another five scored six or more points per game.
That's a great sign, but has to be taken with a grain of salt. For one, the games were far below the level of competition Kentucky will face come November, and the Wildcats were also without two players (junior center Willie Cauley-Stein and freshman forward Trey Lyles) who didn't play because of injury.
When training camp begins, the 12-man rotation will need to get whittled down into a workable group. How that happens, and how that goes over with those limited by the depth, is a huge concern for Kentucky.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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