Key question for 10 top teams as college basketball practice begins

Friday October 3rd, 2014

It's been 179 days since Connecticut completed its miraculous run in the NCAA tournament by knocking off a Kentucky team that had finally begun playing up to its talent. There are still 42 days left until games begin in earnest on Friday, Nov. 14. But the longest offseason in sports is nearly finished, as college hoops teams begin practicing today. In a sport in which many of the best players only stay for a season, there are plenty of questions on every roster. Our full preseason top 25 is still a few weeks away from being released, so below are burning questions for the top 10 teams from our way-too-early top 25 published just days after that national championship game.

Burning Questions
  • 1
    1Duke Blue Devils
    Is there any ‘D’ in Duke? There’s no question that, even without departed first-round NBA draft picks Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, scoring won’t be a problem for the ultra-talented Blue Devils. It wasn’t a problem last year, either, when they scored an ACC-best 78.4 points per game. It was the other side of the ball that proved to be Duke’s undoing during its 26-9 season. The Devils uncharacteristically were a sieve on defense, allowing opponents to shoot almost 46 percent from the floor. Included in that figure were some truly porous performances, such as when Syracuse shot 57.4 percent to win its Carrier Dome showdown with Duke in early February, or when North Carolina shot 59.6 percent – despite losing – in the regular season finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium and, most damagingly, when Mercer made 55.6 percent to stun the Blue Devils with one of the biggest upsets of the NCAA tournament. Freshman Jahlil Okafor, who follows the likes of Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers and Parker in Durham as a one-and-done phenom, has the height (6-foot-11) and the length to be a shot-blocking presence in the middle. That should help protect the rim, but the bigger question will be whether guards like fellow freshman Tyus Jones and senior Quinn Cook can prevent the many forays into the lane that burned Duke so often last year. -- Ted Keith

  • 2
    2Wisconsin Badgers
    Can the defense deliver? Wisconsin returns almost its entire starting lineup from Bo Ryan's first-ever Final Four team. And offensively, the Badgers will be one of the most dangerous teams in college basketball. They were the second-best team in the country at avoiding turnovers last season, one of the many reasons they finished in fourth in's adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. But on the other end of the court, the Badgers had trouble ending opponents' possessions: They were 325th in the country (out of 351 teams) in defensive turnover percentage, 294th in defensive free throw percentage and 245th in block percentage. There's no reason to doubt that Wisconsin has the firepower to get to the Final Four again, but will its defense let it down along the way? -- David Gardner

  • 3
    3Arizona Wildcats
    Can Arizona defend as well as it did last season? The driving force behind the Wildcats’ success last season was defense. Sean Miller’s team finished first in the nation in defensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage defense and second in two-point field goal percentage defense, according to Arizona will attempt to maintain its sterling marks on that end of the floor after losing two of its best individual defenders – forward Aaron Gordon and guard Nick Johnson – to the NBA. This team has enough length and athleticism to remain among the best defensive teams in the country, but one wonders if there might be some slippage without Johnson’s rangy perimeter work and Gordon’s versatility. -- Chris Johnson

  • 4
    4Villanova Wildcats
    Are the big men a big problem? It’s no secret that Wildcats head coach Jay Wright runs a guard-heavy offense but last year’s often became too one-dimensional. Villanova took almost 45 percent of its field goal attempts from three-point range last year, making 35.6 percent. That could be a real problem, such as when they made just 4-of-19 in a loss to Seton Hall at the Big East tournament that knocked them out of the running for a No. 1 seed or when they shot less than 28 percent in the NCAA tournament, getting bounced by eventual champion Connecticut in the third round. Even with leading scorer James Bell having graduated, the Wildcats’ best offensive options will again come from the backcourt: Darrun Hilliard II and Ryan Arcidiacono, with Josh Hart likely assuming a bigger role as a sophomore. JayVaughn Pinkston is a forward capable of producing in the paint, but he also took 31 threes last season and is not going to make defenses focus their attention on the interior. At 6-11, Daniel Ochefu could do that – but only if he makes serious strides in the preseason. He has averaged just 5.6 points and taken 3.3 field goal attempts per game during his first two seasons, but as a junior he figures to have an expanded role. -- Keith

  • 5
    5North Carolina Tar Heels
    Can Marcus Paige get some help? While its archrivals at Duke struggle to stop people, 11 miles down Tobacco Road in Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s task will be finding high-level scorers. Yes, the Tar Heels averaged 76.6 points per game, second in the ACC to the Blue Devils, but of the four players who averaged in double figures, two (James Michael McAdoo, at 14.2, and Leslie McDonald, at 10.4, respectively) have moved on and a third, junior forward Brice Johnson (10.3) has never been a starter. Too often last year, Marcus Paige was the only Carolina player who could be counted on to score, and even his scoring bursts didn’t come until the second half, when Paige scored more than two-thirds of his points for the season. Johnson is the most likely candidate to get more shots, and that won’t be a problem with him: He took the third-most field goals on the team despite playing the sixth-most minutes. Fortunately for head coach Roy Williams, Johnson also led the team by making 56.6 percent of his attempts. Other primary options to become secondary scorers include sophomore center Kennedy Meeks (7.6 points in 16.3 minutes per game) and freshman forward Justin Jackson, a top-10 recruit who earned co-MVP honors at the McDonald’s All-American game and has a reputation as a smooth mid-range scorer. That will still leave the bulk of the three-point production in the hands of the junior guard Paige, but as long as he’s getting help elsewhere and the Tar Heels are playing at Williams’ preferred breakneck tempo, Carolina should have little trouble outscoring opponents. -- Keith

  • 6
    6Kansas Jayhawks
    Who will play point guard? This was actually Kansas' biggest concern for much of last season too. Naadir Tharpe's raw numbers from a year ago appear easily replaceable, especially his 5.0 assists per game, but Tharpe wasn't consistent enough running the offense. With Tharpe defecting to the D-League, head coach Bill Self has said that he wants a rotation of ballhandlers. The starting job seems to be headed to sophomore Frank Mason, who was the Jayhawks' primary backup last year. But he'll be pushed by his classmate Conner Frankamp, who has earned a reputation as a three-point shooter mostly because of his 4-for-7 effort against Stanford (he shot 31.3 percent on fewer than two long-range attempts per game before that). The wildcard is  top-100 prospect Devonte Graham, whose extra year of high school could make him a more viable threat to compete as a freshman. -- Gardner

  • 7
    7Michigan Wolverines
    Can Caris LeVert step up? The Wolverines managed to overcome losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA last season in part because of Nik Stauskas’s jump from auxiliary scorer to offensive alpha dog. Michigan will hope LeVert can make a similar leap this season. That’s asking a lot out of the 6-foot-7 wing, but LeVert’s year-over-year trajectory suggests it's possible. Consider that he averaged 12.9 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting last year after recording 2.3 ppg on 31.5 percent as a freshman. LeVert, whose name is already showing up in the first round of 2015 NBA mock drafts, spent much of his summer recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot, but averaged 14.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and a team-high 4.3 assists on the team’s trip to Italy. -- Johnson

  • 8
    8Kentucky Wildcats
    Are there enough minutes in a game? This has become an annual problem for John Calipari -- and most coaches wouldn't mind it. Thanks to a few surprise returns (Andrew and Aaron Harrison and Willie Cauley-Stein among them), Kentucky has even outdone itself with the talent on its roster this season. Calipari will have nine McDonald's All-Americans at his disposal, but how will he play them all, and how will they come together as a team? This summer, in exhibition games in the Bahamas, the Wildcats rolled out two five-man platoons, but it seems unlikely that they'd rotate every player off the court every five minutes during the regular season. The Harrison twins seem certain to start, but the frontcourt is full of big men vying for minutes: 7-footers Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, 6-11 Karl Towns, 6-10 Trey Lyles, 6-9 Marcus Lee and 6-8 Alex Poythress, all of whome would be starters on any other team in the SEC -- and on many other teams in the country. Can they develop a team chemistry? And, with all that talent, will it even matter? -- Gardner

  • 9
    9Colorado Buffaloes
    Who is the next Askia Booker? Last season, when Spencer Dinwiddie was lost with a torn ACL, Colorado turned to Booker to lead the team. He obliged, averaging 13.7 points per game and keeping the Buffaloes in the national picture -- eventually leading them to the NCAA tournament -- when many had written them off. Dinwiddie is gone for good now, having been selected by Detroit in the second round of the NBA draft, and Booker needs a partner in the backcourt. Junior Xavier Talton is the man to beat, but the Buffaloes will hope for a scorer to emerge from the group of Talton, junior Eli Stalzer and sophomore Jaron Hopkins on the perimeter. If the wings can create on offense, the formidable frontcourt -- led by last year's leading scorer center Josh Scott -- will be able to push opponents around and put up enough points to avoid outcomes like last year's season-ending 77-48 loss to Pittsburgh in the second round of the NCAA tournament. -- Gardner

  • 10
    10Texas Longhorns
    How will Jonathan Holmes, Myles Turner and Cameron Ridley fit together? Rick Barnes faces a dilemma most coaches would envy: With Ridley and Holmes returning, and heralded freshman Turner arriving, the Longhorns have an abundance of frontcourt talent. The issue is figuring out how to deploy it effectively. While Ridley should occupy the low block, Turner has legit perimeter skills and Holmes shot a career-high 33.3 percent from three-point range last season. All three of them can play together, but not at the expense of the spacing Texas needs to maintain an efficient offense. Having too much talent at one spot isn’t a problem so much as it is a roster trait that need be managed to produce desired results. -- Johnson

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