Key question for 10 top teams as college basketball practice begins
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.
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 kenpom.com. 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
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
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
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
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