2011-12 College Basketball Preview: 25 Questions from the Preseason Top 25

Doug BrodessCorrespondent IOctober 21, 2011

2011-12 College Basketball Preview: 25 Questions from the Preseason Top 25

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    The ESPN/US Today preseason coaches poll came out, and North Carolina was the nearly unanimous No. 1, getting 30 of the 31 first-place votes. 

    Kentucky, Ohio State, UConn and Syracuse round out the Top 5.

    Even though it is a decent tribute to be included on such a list, many issues exist for these teams as they face the upcoming season.

    Let's consider 25 questions for these Top 25 teams.

No. 25: Missouri

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    Who will fill in for the injured Laurence Bowers?

    Laurence Bowers was slated as one of the top front-court players in the Big 12. Recently, he tore his ACL and is out for the season.

    Missouri (23-11; 8-8 in Big 12) has Ricardo Ratliffe (6'8"), Steve Moore (6'9") and forward Kadeem Green (6'8") on the roster.

    But Frank Haith, the Tigers' new head coach, has suggested that he might go, at times, with four perimeter players.

    If Mizzou does go with that plan, Marcus Denmon (pictured) will be leading the way. The 6-foot-3 senior is the Big 12's top returning scorer (17.1 ppg), shooting 45.5 percent from beyond the arc.

No. 24: California

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    What impact will Mike Montgomery's health have on the Cal Bears' season?

    Cal's head basketball coach Mike Montgomery had surgery this week and has been discharged from the hospital.

    He is supposed to have a short absence from team activities and should be back soon.

    If he doesn't make a speedy recovery, will that derail the Bears' season before it really gets on track?

    Even if Montgomery takes longer, the Bears should be just fine.

    Cal returns the talented trio of Jorge Gutierrez (14.6 ppg), Harper Kamp (14.2 ppg) and last year's Pac 10 Freshman of the Year Allen Crabbe (pictured, 13.4 ppg).

No. 23: Gonzaga

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    Do the Zags have enough talent to make a serious run at this year's Final Four?

    This may be one of the most talented teams that Mark Few has had in several years.

    While they do not have a National POY candidate like Adam Morrison or a first team All-American like Dan Dickau, the Bulldogs are deep.

    Robert Sacre (12.5 ppg; 6.3 rpg), Elias Harris (12.4 ppg; 6.0) and Sam Dower (7.6 ppg; 3.3 rpg) form one of the best front-court trios in the West.

    Even if Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos—two exceptional freshmen guards—don't start immediately, they are ready to step in and contribute from the word "Go."

No. 22: Cincinnati

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    Can Yancy Gates become the next great Cincinnati forward?

    Bearcats PF Yancy Gates is as big and bad (6'9", 260 lbs.) as anyone in the Big East.

    His 2010-11 averages (11.9 ppg and 6.8 rpg) demonstrate that he is already a force to be reckoned with in the paint.

    Can he elevate his game to the next level and consistently dominate?

    Gates has shown that he can take over games. He just needs to do it night in and night out.

    If he does, the Bearcats have a chance to improve on last year's terrific 26-9 record.

No. 21: Marquette

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    Marquette made it to the Sweet 16 last year in March Madness. Can they get that deep in the tourney again this year?

    Since the only major loss for the Golden Eagles is Jimmy Butler, Marquette definitely has the chops to get things done.

    Darius Johnson-Odom (pictured; 15.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, and 2.4 apg) is ready to step up and become one of the premier guards in the Big East.

    Alongside DJO, Jae Crowder is another legit outside threat (11.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg).

No. 20: UCLA

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    UCLA will have the horses up front, but who will run the show from the backcourt?

    With a frontline of Reeves Nelson (13.1 ppg; 9.1 rpg), Josh Smith (10.9 ppg; 6.3 rpg) and the UNC-transfer Wear twins, the Bruins are set down low.

    Lazeric Jones (9.1 ppg; 3.6 apg) showed signs of being able to take care of things up front. Incoming freshman Norman Powell may be just athletic enough to jump in to help from the very onset. 

    Outside shooting still may be the area that remains the biggest backcourt uncertainty at this point.

No. 19: Texas A&M

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    Could Khris Middleton be the best player in the Big 12?

    In a word—yes.

    Middleton is ready for a break-out season.

    As a sophomore wing, Middleton was the Aggies' leading scorer (14.3 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (5.2 rpg).

    If he takes his game to the next level, it is very possible that A&M could challenge for the Big 12 title in their last year in the league.

18.: Michigan

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    The Wolverines were No. 300 in rebounding last year. Have they done anything to improve on the boards?

    It's not a great sign when a 6'4" guard (Zack Novak, pictured) is your top man on the boards (5.7 rpg).

    Novak and No. 2 rebounder Jordan Morgan (6'8", 240 lbs, 5.4 rpg) both return.

    Michigan hopes that, like last year, their overall team play on the perimeter will compensate for their lack of inside strength.

No. 17: Alabama

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    Can Alabama get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006?

    Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat: Alabama was ripped off on Selection Sunday 2011.

    There is no way that they should not have been invited to the Dance after winning the SEC West.

    This year, the Crimson Tide will most certainly bring enough to earn their way in to this year's NCAA Tournament.

    PF JaMychal Green (pictured,16 ppg and 7.8 rpg) is the best front court player in the conference outside of Lexington, KY.

    Running mate Tony Mitchell (15.4 ppg; 7.1 rpg) is ready to take another giant step forward.

    Sophomore guard Trevor Releford is an underrated guard who will run things for Bama as they look to repeat in their division of the conference.

16. Arizona

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    Who will fill the shoes that Derrick Williams left behind in Tucson?

    The best answer to that question is...no one player will replace the scoring, rebounding and leadership void that Willilams' departure for the NBA Draft created.

    The good news is that Sean Miller has built a balanced and deep roster that will feature multiple people each taking turns being "The Man."

    The Cats need point forward Solomon Hill (pictured; 8 ppg; 4.7 rpg; 1.7 apg) to become more assertive with his shot selection.

    Senior guard Kyle Fogg (8.1 ppg; 2.6 apg) can fill it up.

    The Cats actually may utilize 3-guard sets at various times so that they can also have both of their elite-level freshmen back court players, Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson, on the floor, too.

No. 15: Xavier

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    Will Kenny Frease's indefinite suspension derail Xavier's season?

    "Derail" may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but the Musketeers will really miss their seven-foot, 270-pound center who averaged 11.7 ppg and 7.1 rpg.

    Fortunately for Xavier, senior guard Tu Holloway returns and does a little of everything (19.7 ppg; 5.0 rpg; 5.4 apg).

    In spite of this huge loss (pun intended), the Musketeers should win the A-10 again and be an interesting team to watch come tourney time.

No.14: Wisconsin

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    Who will be Jordan Taylor's "Robin?"

    Jordan Taylor is definitely the Badgers' "Batman."

    Taylor is one of the best point guards in the country.

    He controls the game as well as anyone by both scoring (18.1 ppg) and distributing the ball (4.7 apg).

    With Jon Leuer graduated, top 100 recruit 6'8" PF Jarrod Uthoff may be the best complement to Jordan's exceptional game.

13. Kansas

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    How good is Thomas Robinson?

    We are about to find out. With the Morris twins both leaving for the NBA, Robinson moves into the featured front court role.

    The 6'9", 237-pound PF has the skills and strength to be the next standout inside player in Bill Self's lineup.

    Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, Robinson is going to have to do most of the heavy lifting down low.

    No one else who returns for Kansas averaged as much as two rebounds per game. Ouch!

No. 12: Baylor

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    Can A.J. Walton effectively get the ball in Perry Jones and Quincy Miller's hands?

    The Baylor Bears have the best front court in the Big 12. One of the best in the nation.

    Perry Jones is a multi-skilled 6'11" forward that was under-utilized last year.

    Freshman forward Quincy Miller is another can't-miss player that could help the Bears challenge for the Big 12 title.

    But head coach Scott Drew needs A.J. Walton, his point guard, to get Jones and Miller the ball where they can do the most damage.

    Walton, at times last year, played tentatively and looked confused.

    If Baylor is to make a deep run in March—which they are fully capable of doing—Walton must emerge as a competent floor general.

No. 11: Pittsburgh

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    Will Ashton Gibbs take another step forward?

    Each of his three years at Pitt, Gibbs has made a big step forward.

    Last year, he went from being an good outside shooter to become one of the best in the nation, hitting on 49 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and 89 percent from the line.

    Even if he just maintained those levels of accuracy, the Panthers would be in good shape.

    It will be interesting to watch what part of his game will take a leap forward this season.

10. Florida

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    Will Billy Donovan play four guards in the same lineup?

    The better question might be, "Why wouldn't he?"

    With having Kenny Boynton (pictured, 14.1 ppg) and Erving Walker (14.4 ppg) returning and freshman phenom Bradley Beal and Rutgers-transfer Mike Rosario arriving, wouldn't you try to come up with some strategy that would keep all four of these players on the floor with man-child Patric Young as much as possible?

    Me too!

9. Memphis

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    Can super-soph Will Barton and freshman phenom Adonis Taylor play in the same lineup?

    Will Barton was one of the best freshmen wing players last year.

    He averaged 12.3 ppg and 5 rpg on a extremely young and talented Tiger team.

    Add another 6'6" McDonald's All-American in Adonis Taylor and you have what could be one of the best wing combos this season.

    If third-year head coach Josh Pastner can figure this one out, this could be a scary team that could go very deep in the Tournament come March.

8. Louisville

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    Can Peyton Siva find his shooting touch?

    As Siva moved into the primary role of running Rick Pitino's show last season, he somehow lost his outside shooting touch.

    His freshmen year, the 5'11" PG shot 40 percent from beyond the arc; last year, as a sophomore, Siva shot only 27 percent from downtown.

    While he is one of the best play makers in the Big East, The Cardinals need Siva to re-discover his ability to knock down three's.

7. Vanderbilt

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    Does Vandy have the heart to take the next step?

    The Commodores have plenty of talent, depth and experience ... all the things that are necessary for a special season.

    The question that is out there is about the Commodores' hunger and drive.

    Last year, Vanderbilt was rolling along with a 20-6 record in late February, but finished by losing five of their last eight, including a first-round upset to Richmond.

    Kevin Stallings needs to find the right buttons to push with this team.

    They have the stuff; they just need to make sure they leave everything on the court.

6. Duke

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    How good is Mason Plumlee?

    The second of three Plumlees on the Blue Devils' roster may be the key to their success in 2011-12.

    Sure, Seth Curry is ready to emerge as a dynamic scorer. Duke fans hope that Austin Rivers delivers.

    But Mason Plumlee's emergence as an inside force is critical.

    Without him and others stepping up, Coach K's crew will be vulnerable to more than just the team nine miles down the road.

    Mason Plumlee has the tools to be a double-double guy this season. Heck, he wasn't that far off last season when he averaged 7.1 ppg and 8.5 rpg.

    My prediction is that while he may not be the second coming of Laettner, Ferry or Gminski, Plumlee2 will be very good this season.

5. Syracuse

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    Will Scoop Jardine help the Orange more than he hurts them?

    Jardine is one of those kinds of players with which fans have a love/hate relationship. They have seen Scoop do some great things. And they have seen him do some lousy things.

    The Orange need him to step up and lead the team, not just look for shots.

    Jardine distributes the ball well, evidenced by his 5.8 apg average and his 2:1 assists/turnover ratio.

    What Scoop needs to further develop is his decision-making when it comes to pulling the trigger.

    If everything else stays the same and his shot selection improves, watch out, Big East and beyond!

4. Connecticut

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    Can Jeremy Lamb replace Kemba Walker as the Huskies' "go-to guy?"

    It's great to have an exceptional player like Kemba Walker around. The problem is, when he leaves, there is a gaping hole to fill.

    UConn head coach Jim Calhoun needs to find out where he is going to replace Walker's production that included 23.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg (second on the team) and 4.3 apg.

    No, all of these stats don't need to come from one player, but UConn does need to find someone to fill the role of "go-to-guy." The player that they look to when they need a bucket. The one that they will put the ball in their hand when the game is on the line.

    The most likely candidate is Jeremy Lamb. He is a capable scorer that came on strong in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

    If given that assignment, Lamb's response to it will determine a great deal for a team that may actually be more talented than last year's championship team.

    But talent alone is not enough. Not for UConn or any other college hoops team.

3. Ohio State

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    Who's going to replace Diebler and Lighty's shooting from beyond the arc?

    Part of what made Ohio State so good last year is that they had a great balance between interior dominance and long-range competence—meaning they could both bang and bomb.

    Jared Sullinger took care of a lot of the banging. But one of the reasons he was able to operate down low is the excellent three-point shooting of OSU's perimeter players.

    Two of those players, Jon Diebler and David Lighty, graduated. William Buford (pictured, shot 44 percent on three-pointers) will still be dropping them in from beyond the arc.

    Who else might step into that role of long-distance shooter? Who else will help keep the floor spread?

    Aaron Craft is the next best returning three-point shooter at 37.7 percent.

    If head coach Thad Matta can't find other to knock down some bombs, the Buckeyes' opponents will be more likely to pack the lane and make things more difficult for Sullinger.

2. Kentucky

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    How will Terrence Jones respond to the "New Kids on the Block?"

    Terrence Jones had a fantastic freshman season, scoring 15.7 ppg, grabbing 8.8 boards and blocking 2 shots per game.

    He was "The New Kid."

    Now, with the passing of a season, and the arrival of a new set of elite-level recruits, the issue arises: How will a player, like Jones, who has been a featured part of the game plan, react when others might be taking some of the opportunities that he was given?

    I do not know Terrence Jones. He might be the world's greatest teammate, willing to do anything for the sake of the team.

    But, sometimes chemistry issues can hinder the performance of very good teams.  

1. North Carolina

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    Who will play the "2" for the Tar Heels?

    Four of the five starting positions are already penciled in for the preseason No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels.

    Kendall Marshall: Point Guard. Harrison Barnes: Shooting Forward. John Henson: Power Forward. Tyler Zeller: Center.

    The one position that is up in the air is Shooting Guard ... and boy, does Roy have some options.

    He could go with Dexter Strickland who averaged 27 minutes and scored seven points per game.

    Or, he might go back to Reggie Bullock, whose freshman season was shortened last year because of injury. Before he departed, Bullock was scoring 6.1 ppg.

    Finally, Williams could surprise everyone and go with freshman sharp-shooter P.J. Hairston.

    Bullock and Hairston are better shooters, but Strickland is a better defender.

    The problem is someone is going to be left out with limited minutes. My guess that could be Hairston.

    If Bullock is fully healthy, there's a good chance that he is going to have first shot at the starting SG position.

    What a problem to have: Which McDonald's All-American do I play?