Who Has the Best Starting 5 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
North Carolina hasn't been particularly healthy this season, but the full-strength Tar Heels starting five (if we ever get to see it again) will be the best in the nation.
For the purposes of this list, benches do not exist. We'll occasionally mention noteworthy bench players, just because some of these sixth and seventh men deserve to be mentioned. However, we're only interested in starting fives.
Teams like Arizona and West Virginia that rely heavily upon their depth didn't score well, while (arguably) inferior teams that ride their starters hard were able to sneak into the top 10.
One thing to note: Minor injuries were disregarded, but significant injuries have to be taken into consideration. For example, Michigan State's Denzel Valentine and North Carolina's Kennedy Meeks have missed the past few games, but they should be back shortly. They are both considered starters for this list. But Duke's Amile Jefferson and Connecticut's Amida Brimah aren't expected back for at least a few more weeks and were thus not included as starters for their respective teams.
Ranking our 10 best starting lineups basically boiled down to a search for weaknesses. Do any individual players have major question marks? Or does the unit as a whole have major troubles against certain types of offenses or defenses?
In a nutshell, these are the 10 teams that should be most dangerous in March if they can avoid the dreaded injury and foul bugs.
Rodney Purvis, Sterling Gibbs, Daniel Hamilton, Shonn Miller, Kentan Facey
With a healthy Amida Brimah, UConn is a no-brainer inclusion in the top 10.
Hamilton has been downright incredible (minus Tuesday's dud against Temple). Miller is drastically better than advertised when he chose to transfer from Cornell, and Purvis has evolved into the stud we were promised at N.C. State three years ago. Before Brimah's broken finger, Gibbs was clearly the fifth-best option on this team, and that's saying something, considering he carried Seton Hall on his back last year.
But the Huskies just don't quite pack the same punch without their shot-blocking star. Were this a top 12, though, they would probably still make the list, which tells you how well the rest of the team has played.
Duke Blue Devils
Derryck Thornton, Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, Brandon Ingram, Marshall Plumlee
Like Connecticut, Duke's ranking was seriously impacted by a frontcourt injury.
Were Amile Jefferson still in the mix, the Blue Devils would crack the list. Allen and Ingram have been fantastic, and Jones is enjoying a second consecutive efficient and bizarrely unnoticed season.
However, Plumlee has as many games this season with one point as he does 10 or more, and Thornton isn't yet performing at anywhere near the same level as the freshman point guards who came before him: Tyus Jones, Kyrie Irving and Austin Rivers.
That's an unfair standard to make Thornton live up to, but even as far as this year's freshman point guards in the ACC go, he isn't the best one. (Shout-out to Wake Forest's Bryant Crawford and Boston College's Jerome Robinson.)
California Golden Bears
Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews, Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb, Kameron Rooks
The only team from our preseason top six that isn't still in the top six, our preseason No. 4 starting five has been playing its best basketball since deciding to have Jabari Bird on the bench for the opening tip.
He's still averaging better than 23 minutes per game as the Golden Bears' sixth man, but it's hard to consider this one of the 10 best starting fives in the country when one of the starters (Rooks) isn't doing much of anything and another (Brown) has been frequently inefficient while trying to do too much.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson, Zach Auguste
Quickly forgotten after early losses to Monmouth and Alabama, Notre Dame still has an efficient offense after losing Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton to the NBA. Auguste is the only starter who isn't ranked in the top 200 nationally in O-rating for the team that ranks fourth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency.
However, the Irish have been porous on defense, and that has to be half of the equation, right?
Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan, Davon Reed, Kamari Murphy, Tonye Jekiri
Kadeem Allen, Gabe York, Allonzo Trier, Ryan Anderson, Kaleb Tarczewski
Texas A&M Aggies
Alex Caruso, Anthony Collins, Danuel House, Jalen Jones, Tyler Davis
These are three very good teams without any glaring holes in the starting five, but they each have guys on the bench who arguably deserve to start.
For Miami, Ja'Quan Newton and Ivan Cruz Uceda might be the third- and fourth-most valuable players on the roster, but they're coming off the bench. The same goes for Dusan Ristic and Mark Tollefsen for Arizona and Tonny Trocha-Morelos and Admon Gilder for Texas A&M.
It's hard to take these teams seriously for the best starting five when they might not even be submitting their best ballots.
10. Providence Friars
Starting Five: Kris Dunn, Junior Lomomba, Ryan Fazekas, Rodney Bullock, Ben Bentil
Preseason Rank: Not Mentioned
Remember when Providence was supposed to be Kris Dunn and a bunch of bums?
No writer who values his job or access to credentials used that exact terminology, but that's certainly the way we treated the Friars. Though Dunn was No. 1 or No. 2 on every preseason list of the best players in the country, Providence was a bubble team (at best) in the eyes of most bracketologists.
Yet, this team is No. 8 in the nation in the latest AP Top 25.
(Ironically, the other guy who was No. 1 or No. 2 on those lists—Ben Simmons—has been the subject of much NIT discussion, even though he was supposed to be the one joining a roster good enough to be one of the 20 best teams in the country.)
Little did we know that Bentil was gearing up to become one of the biggest breakout stars in the nation or that Bullock could ball at a Big East level after missing the entire last two seasons (one due to suspension; one due to injury).
It isn't quite the fabled Big Three of the late 2000s Boston Celtics or early 2010s Miami Heat, but Dunn, Bullock and Bentil are about as dominant a trio as there is in college basketball today. They're averaging a combined 51 points and 22 rebounds per game.
Unfortunately, No. 10 on the list is as high as we're willing to go with the Friars, because Lomomba and Fazekas aren't nearly on the same level as their three counterparts. Fazekas was a 47.2 percent three-point shooter before missing six games due to mononucleosis, but he's a one-trick pony in that regard, and Lomomba doesn't even bring that much to the table.
Put it this way: There's a reason Providence's Big Three combined for 56 points Tuesday night in a loss to a Marquette team that scored 65.
9. Michigan State Spartans
Starting Five: Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Eron Harris, Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling
Preseason Rank: Not Mentioned
The difficulty in ranking the Spartans is that we've never actually seen them at full strength. Schilling missed the first 11 games of the season because of turf toe and played just 11 minutes in the final game before Valentine underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee.
So, really, we're just guessing at their starting five, even though the season is nearly two months old.
Valentine will obviously be in there once he's able to go, and it's kind of hard to imagine a scenario in which Forbes or Costello loses a starting job after how well each has played this season. The other two spots are up in the air. However, Harris has certainly earned a bigger piece of the pie in Valentine's absence, and Schilling is the only logical choice for the fifth spot, with Deyonta Davis evidently still not good enough for a starting job in Tom Izzo's eyes.
Regardless of the mix, this has to be a top-10 starting unit by the time Valentine returns.
He was so great for the first six weeks of the season that you could give Valentine just about any four players and still win a ton of games. Giving him a shooter like Forbes and post presences like Costello and Davis is just unfair to the rest of the country.
8. Iowa State Cyclones
Starting Five: Monte Morris, Deonte Burton, Abdel Nader, Georges Niang, Jameel McKay
Preseason Rank: 10
As with Michigan State, we're forced to do some projecting here, as Deonte Burton didn't become eligible until the 10th game of the season and hasn't yet cracked into the starting rotation—even though he's already one of the four or five most important players on the team.
Even if you insist on Matt Thomas (44.3 percent from three-point range) in Burton's place because Thomas has started the past six games, the Cyclones are still worthy of consideration for a spot in the top 10.
That's the luxury of having a trio of sensational upperclassmen in Morris, Niang and McKay.
Morris has actually struggled to find his outside stroke this season—30.8 percent after entering the season with a career mark of 40.0 percent from downtown—but he has been an even better passer and defender and has improved considerably as a finisher in the paint compared to last year. And few finish in the paint on both ends of the court better than McKay does.
Niang, meanwhile, is in the middle of the best season of what was already a great career. The senior is setting career highs in two-point, three-point and free-throw percentage while averaging more minutes than in any of his first three seasons. He is also averaging fewer turnovers while creating more blocks and steals than ever before. We shall see how well those numbers survive the rigors of Big 12 play, but it has been quite the eight-week stretch for Niang.
Nader has also been much more efficient than in years past, and that's what is keeping the Cyclones in the discussion for the Final Four. We expected big things from their Big Three, but Nader was the wild card with woefully inefficient numbers throughout his career. He hasn't been anywhere near as efficient as the other starters, but he has been sufficient while playing solid defense.
There's almost no depth whatsoever on this roster, but the starting five is darn solid.
7. SMU Mustangs
Starting Five: Nic Moore, Shake Milton, Sterling Brown, Ben Moore, Jordan Tolbert
Preseason Rank: Not Mentioned
Markus Kennedy was my preseason pick for AAC Player of the Year two seasons ago. Due to an ankle injury, he lost his starting job less than one month into this season. Even without him in there, SMU still has one of the best starting units in the country.
So, yeah, it kind of sucks that this team isn't eligible for postseason play, because the Mustangs have the goods to do some serious damage in March.
Per usual, Nic Moore has done a great job of leading this team from the point, but he isn't even remotely the best story here.
Tolbert is averaging a double-double (12.2 PPG, 10.2 RPG). Brown is shooting an insane 72.3 percent from the field (36-of-48 from inside the arc; 11-of-17 beyond it) and 84.6 percent from the free-throw line. And the freshman Milton has actually been the most efficient player on the team, as far as O-rating is concerned.
In fact, four of the five starters rank in the top 100 nationally in O-rating, and Nic Moore is the odd one out by ranking 163rd. They have been borderline unstoppable on offense all season, and they aren't too shabby at keeping the opposition in check, either.
6. Kentucky Wildcats
Starting Five: Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee
Preseason Rank: 1
We wouldn't expect any less from Kentucky's placement in any slideshow, but this is almost certainly going to be the most hotly debated ranking—particularly in light of the team's most recent outing.
Before Kentucky's embarrassing loss to LSU, we were ready to put the Wildcats in the top three. Even with Skal Labissiere failing to live up to expectations, the leadership of Ulis, great play of Murray and improvement of Poythress and Lee were more than enough for some high praise for this squad.
But then Poythress and Lee were positively dreadful against the Tigers, while Briscoe had another woefully inefficient game—a disturbing trend that would be much more heavily discussed if the world wasn't already dedicating all of its resources to arguing over Labissiere's standing in mock drafts.
Suddenly, plenty of people are arguing that Kentucky doesn't even belong in our top 10 because Ulis and Murray are the only reliable guys—and Murray is a streaky shooter, at that.
Let's pump the brakes on Kentucky's funeral procession, though, because the big guys are better than what they showed Tuesday night.
Lee was pretty good in limited minutes over the last two years, but he has been a star this year in games where either injury or foul trouble didn't restrict him to less than six minutes of action. Don't expect much at the free-throw line or any form of actual shooting, but in terms of offensive rebounds, blocks and dunks, he has been fantastic.
And while Poythress entered the season as the biggest question mark because of his recovery from a torn ACL, he has been one of Kentucky's best assets when he isn't saddled with foul trouble. (He has been whistled for at least four fouls in six of the last seven games, though, so that's a noteworthy qualifier.)
If either Briscoe or Labissiere can turn the corner over the course of the next two months, Kentucky will go right back to its usual spot as one of the best starting units and one of the favorites to win the national championship. It may be hard to see in the midst of their current struggles, but these Wildcats are still talented.
5. Virginia Cavaliers
Starting Five: London Perrantes, Malcolm Brogdon, Darius Thompson, Isaiah Wilkins, Anthony Gill
Preseason Rank: 6
As with Kentucky, it's tempting to throw in the reactionary towel on Virginia in light of a dreadful performance earlier this week. In the process of losing to Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers committed an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers and allowed the Hokies to shoot 52.9 percent from three-point range.
But it was merely a blip on the radar of what has otherwise been an efficient season on both ends of the court.
Brogdon and Gill have both spent time in the top 10 of the KenPom.com Player of the Year rankings, but Perrantes has actually been the team's MVP. He is leading the nation in three-point percentage and seems to always be the one the Cavaliers call upon in clutch, late-game situations. He's also averaging 2.65 assists per turnover and rarely commits fouls.
Hidden behind the great play of those three stars has been some solid production from Thompson (aside from Monday night's doughnut against Virginia Tech, that is). The Tennessee transfer is shooting 37.0 percent from beyond the arc and 61.7 percent inside it, but his real value has been as an on-ball defender, where he leads the team in steal percentage.
Not far behind Thompson in that category—and well ahead of everyone else on the roster in block percentage—is Wilkins. His emergence has quietly been one of the biggest reasons the Cavaliers are looking like title contenders for a third straight year. A strong rebounder and defensive stopper in the paint, Wilkins has become for this year's team what Darion Atkins and Akil Mitchell were in years past.
4. Kansas Jayhawks
Starting Five: Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, Devonte' Graham, Perry Ellis, Hunter Mickelson
Preseason Rank: 5
Kansas is the undisputed No. 1 team in the country right now, but it's tough to put the Jayhawks any higher than No. 4 on this list because they only have four reliable starters.
Selden has been on fire for so long this season that we might as well start calling him the Eternal Flame. The refs tried to get him out of his rhythm with early foul trouble against Oklahoma, but he still finished that thriller with 21 points.
Mason was the much bigger story coming out of that epic battle for his incredible effort on the defensive end of the court. He isn't quite in the same stratosphere as someone like Kris Dunn, but there aren't many better two-way point guards in the country.
Graham has been the pleasant surprise after having the first couple of months of his freshman season derailed by injury. His only subpar outing thus far came in Kansas' only loss of the season, in case you were wondering if he might be important to the Jayhawks' cause.
And Ellis is still the rock in the post, going for roughly 14 points and seven rebounds on a nightly basis for the third straight year. His consistent production is like starting a game with points already on the scoreboard.
However, Mickelson hasn't been that much of an asset. He's solid on the defensive end for blocks and rebounds and even gets a surprising number of steals for a 6'10" dude, but he has yet to play more than 17 minutes in a game this season and still manages to get into foul trouble on a regular basis.
I love the three-headed force of Mickelson, Jamari Traylor and Carlton Bragg, but those bench guys don't apply in this scenario. It's your best five against their best five, and 40 minutes of Mickelson would be a liability against the three centers at the top of our list.
3. Maryland Terrapins
Starting Five: Melo Trimble, Rasheed Sulaimon, Jake Layman, Robert Carter, Diamond Stone
Preseason Rank: 2
Prior to Wednesday night, Damonte Dodd had started seven straight games at center for the Terrapins. I was concerned we'd have to evaluate Maryland with Dodd instead of Stone or just cheat the system by saying Stone might as well be the starter with how well he has been playing.
But common sense finally prevailed and Stone was in there for the opening tip against Rutgers—and recorded a double-double in the process—which allowed us to put the Terps at No. 3 where they belong.
Even before last week's 39-point, 12-rebound game against Penn State, Stone has been living up to the hype of being one of the best freshman centers in the country. The big man has now scored in double figures in eight straight games, averaging 16.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, despite playing just 23.0 minutes per game during that stretch.
Elsewhere, Trimble is every bit as great as he was as a freshman, if not better. Carter has been a rebounding, two-point-making and shot-blocking machine. Sulaimon is shooting 50 percent from three-point range and averaging just shy of four assists per game. And for a third straight year, Layman is quietly averaging roughly 11 points and five rebounds per game while shooting 37 percent from beyond the arc.
They all work well together. As soon as they break their nasty habit of occasionally showing no interest in playing the first 10-20 minutes of games (see: games against Rider, Penn State and North Carolina), the Terrapins could be the best team in the nation.
2. Oklahoma Sooners
Starting Five: Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Hield, Khadeem Lattin, Ryan Spangler
Preseason Rank: Honorable Mention
"They'll be in great shape with the combined forces of Khadeem Lattin, Dante Buford and Akolda Manyang at power forward and center, but being forced to choose just one of those big men at this point in time was enough of a drawback to relegate Oklahoma to the honorable mentions."
That was our rationale in keeping Buddy Hield and company out of the top 10 back in September, and, frankly, it still rang true until about three weeks ago when this transformation began:
Lattin (first seven games): 15.6 MPG, 4.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 0.9 BPG
Lattin (last six games): 28.3 MPG, 8.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.2 BPG
Monday night's 46 minutes, 10 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks certainly helped skew the more recent numbers in the right direction, but that's the whole point.
Six weeks ago, Lattin was just one of the three power forward options who weren't doing much of anything. If you had told us after his seven minutes, three fouls and zero points in the opener against Memphis that he would be capable of doing what he did against Kansas, we would have advised you to seek psychiatric help.
Now that he's a full-fledged defensive weapon who can even put some points on the board, it's tough to find any weakness in this starting five—unless you think Cousins' three-game stretch of shooting 9-of-39 from the field is going to continue to be a problem.
But even with Cousins scoring four points on 14 field-goal attempts and the entire bench scoring a total of five points, Oklahoma still pushed Kansas to three overtimes at the Phog. If that isn't the sign of an outstanding starting unit, what is?
1. North Carolina Tar Heels
Starting Five: Joel Berry, Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks
Preseason Rank: 3
It was tempting to put Oklahoma at No. 1 because of the drastic improvement of Khadeem Lattin, but he isn't the type of player who can single-handedly take over a game. His double-double against Kansas was great, but he isn't going to explode for 25 points in a game anytime soon.
Any one of these five Tar Heels, though, could go for 25 points and either 10 assists or 10 rebounds without it coming as much of a surprise.
Take Johnson, for example. He went for 39 points and 23 rebounds against Florida State Monday night, but there hasn't been any shock and awe about the fact that he's averaging 21.0 points and 12.4 rebounds per game since Meeks hit the sideline with a knee injury. Rather, the resounding opinion has been, "Well it's about time he started really living up to his potential!"
It wouldn't be any different for the other guys.
Jackson has struggled to find his three-point stroke to this point in his collegiate career, but if and when he does, we'll be about as surprised as we are that Wayne Selden is finally making it rain as a junior at Kansas.
Meeks has had spurts of dominance but frequently gets derailed by injury or illness. He's the classic case of the "he'll be a superstar once he gets/stays healthy" narrative. He'll almost certainly be the guy for the Tar Heels if he returns for an injury-free senior year.
Everyone knows Paige is a stud, but Berry has been one too, averaging 14.0 points and 5.4 assists over his last seven games. They don't force nearly as many turnovers as Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright did with Connecticut, but it's hard not to make some parallels to that 2014 championship backcourt when either one of UNC's guards can tear a defense to shreds with a pass, shot or drive on any given possession.
North Carolina is No. 1 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, even though this quintet has only played three games together. These five guys at full strength almost unquestionably form the best starting five in the nation.
O-rating and other stats courtesy of KenPom.com.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.