Predicting the Winners of College Basketball's Top Position Battles for 2014-15
Position battles are one of the most popular talking points in any sport's offseason. Here, we're tackling months' worth of those arguments by predicting the winners of position battles at 20 of the top college basketball programs in the country.
Who replaces Shabazz Napier at Connecticut or Nick Johnson at Arizona?
Who will start at point guard for such iconic programs as Duke, Kansas and Syracuse?
How in the world is John Calipari going to keep all of those big men happy at Kentucky?
Most of these questions will gradually be answered over the final two months of the offseason, but we're not nearly that patient.
Connecticut's Shooting Guard
The Candidates: Omar Calhoun, Sam Cassell Jr., Rodney Purvis, Terrence Samuel
Might as well get this party started by figuring out what the defending national champions, UConn, plan on doing without Napier.
Ryan Boatright moves from starting shooting guard to starting point guard. I can't imagine anyone arguing against that.
But who takes Boatright's spot at shooting guard?
It has long been assumed that Purvis will be the man for the job, but the McDonald's All-American transfer from North Carolina State will have a good amount of competition.
Calhoun averaged 11.1 points per game while starting all but one of them during the 2012-13 season, but he lost his three-point stroke before subsequently losing his starting job near the end of last December. Who's to say he can't rediscover the shot (and defensive intensity) that made him one of the highest-rated shooting guards of the 2012 recruiting class?
And what about Samuel—the freshman guard who scored in double figures twice in the NCAA tournament after failing to do so at any other point during the season? Didn't he do enough last year to earn an increased role for the 2014-15 campaign?
We can't very well sleep on Connecticut's JUCO transfer, either. Cassell shot 33.3 percent from three-point range while sinking 2.4 triples per game last season at Chipola College. He also averaged 3.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game, which would pair nicely with Boatright to once again give Connecticut one of the best backcourt duos on both ends of the court.
(Cassell would have been a pivotal piece of Maryland's rotation by now if he hadn't been ruled ineligible before the 2012-13 season.)
Purvis will likely win the battle, but Connecticut has a lot of options. Even if Kevin Ollie goes with a three-guard starting rotation and bumps Daniel Hamilton from his presumed spot as starting small forward, three very capable players will be on the wrong end of a timeshare.
Florida's Small Forward
The Candidates: Brandone Francis, Devin Robinson, Dorian Finney-Smith, DeVon Walker
Michael Frazier II will almost certainly start at shooting guard for the Florida Gators, as will Chris Walker at center.
But what Billy Donovan plans on doing at either of the forward positions is a bit more uncertain.
If Jon Horford comes in from Michigan and claims the starting power forward job, that leaves these four players battling for one spot in the rotation. Will Yeguete started every game last season for Florida, and considering Horford is basically a bigger version of Yeguete, it's hardly a stretch to assume he'll start.
As Florida's top 2014 recruit and the No. 7 small forward in this year's recruiting class, according to the ESPN 100, Robinson is a popular choice to start at small forward, but that's hardly a guarantee—especially given the poor luck that the No. 7 small forward has had in recent classes.
Kuran Iverson held that honor last year, and he didn't even average 10 minutes per game for Memphis. Devonta Pollard was the No. 7 small forward in 2012's class, and he was one of Alabama's least valuable (and most checkered) players before transferring to junior college. Michael Gbinije was in that spot in 2011 and barely saw the court for Duke before going to Syracuse.
Before that it was Florida's Casey Prather, and it wasn't until his senior year that he finally became a key contributor for the Gators.
We're not saying that Robinson is cursed or even remotely unlikely to succeed, but nothing is guaranteed.
Even ignoring that possible jinx, though, Finney-Smith seems most likely to start at small forward—assuming he isn't already starting at power forward. He played just under 26 minutes per game last season as Florida's sixth man, and four of the five starters from that team graduated this summer.
The dark horse in this race is Francis if Donovan decides to go with a three-guard rotation that can shoot the lights out, but the smart money is on Finney-Smith for the time being.
Southern Methodist's Second Big Man
The Candidates: Cannen Cunningham, Justin Martin, Ben Moore, Yanick Moreira
Deciding on a second starter in the paint could be the final step left in SMU's surprising emergence as one of the 10 best teams in the country.
The Mustangs were already going to have Nic Moore, Emmanuel Mudiay and Keith Frazier excelling along the perimeter and Markus Kennedy manhandling opponents in the post, but that fifth spot was going to be the weak link.
With Justin Martin deciding to transfer in from Xavier, however, that no longer appears to be the case.
As a combo forward for the Musketeers, Martin (6'6") averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 37.3 percent from three-point range. When they want to go with a smaller lineup, he's a pretty obvious choice to play the stretch 4.
Will he start, though?
Both Moreira and Ben Moore played very well last season in the paint, albeit sparingly—neither averaged more than 15 minutes per game in his first season at SMU. Cunningham was also a very useful backup, leading the team in block percentage but only playing 12.9 minutes per game.
Honestly, this feels like the type of situation where three of the four players will evenly split one position, while the other serves as Kennedy's reserve. After all, 10 different players averaged at least 12 minutes per game last season for Larry Brown.
My guess is that Moreira starts at center, if only because he's the tallest of the bunch. JUCORecruiting.com had Moreira listed as the second-best JUCO transfer last summer, and he was doing a fine job of fulfilling those expectations over the first month of the season before fading a bit and subsequently tearing his MCL.
He didn't do much of anything once he returned to the lineup, but perhaps a full offseason of healing that knee will be enough for him to start and average 16-18 minutes per game this year.
Arizona State's Point Guard
The Candidates: Jonathan Gilling, Tra Holder, Shaquielle McKissic, Chance Murray
This one wouldn't sting quite as much if Jahii Carson had actually been drafted last month. His decision to pointlessly forgo his final two seasons in college leaves Arizona State in quite the pickle.
Calaen Robinson's decision to transfer to Portland State didn't help matters, either. Robinson didn't get to play much last season for the Sun Devils, but he did average 6.8 assists and 3.5 steals per 40 minutes during his limited time on the court.
As a result, Herb Sendek has to decide whether he wants to start a freshman, a rarely used shooting guard or his starting small forward or power forward from last season as this year's point guard.
Either McKissic or Gilling would seem perfectly capable of playing point forward. Both players averaged better than 2.5 assists per game last season, while maintaining an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.0 or better. If he had enough assists to qualify, McKissic's 2.96 assist-to-turnover ratio would have been 14th-best in the nation.
By starting one of them at point forward, though, Sendek would be paper-thin at the actual forward positions, forced to start Eric Jacobsen and Willie Atwood in the post and pray that they can both play close to 40 minutes per game.
So let's assume that McKissic and Gilling remain at their positions from last season and continue to add a few assists per game, while letting a freshman do the bulk of the ball-handling.
The ESPN 100 doesn't think very highly of Holder, ranking him as the 56th-best incoming PG, but 247Sports has him in the Top 25—in the same general range as potential highly major starters such as Devonte Graham, Lourawls Nairn, Dominic MaGee, Edmond Sumner and Anton Beard.
He doesn't necessarily need to be Carson 2.0, but if Holder can play relatively error-free ball as a freshman, the Sun Devils could be a lot better than we initially thought.
Texas' Big Men
The Candidates: Jonathan Holmes, Prince Ibeh, Connor Lammert, Cameron Ridley, Myles Turner
All five of these players would be capable of starting at power forward for a major program like Texas, but that's simply mathematically impossible.
The most obvious starter of the bunch is Ridley. He scored in double figures, was one of the best rebounders and shot-blockers in the country and drew fouls like moths to a flame.
Whether he technically starts at power forward or center depends on what Rick Barnes plans to do with Turner.
Turner is one of the top-rated centers in the country, but that hardly means he's automatically going to come in and supplant an established starter in the lineup.
Joel Embiid was the top center last year, but it was a month into the season before he replaced Tarik Black in the starting five. Dakari Johnson was the next-best center, and he didn't crack into the starting rotation until February.
If Turner does start, that means Holmes is either moving from power forward to small forward or dropping out of the starting five altogether—which seems unlikely, as he's the only noteworthy senior on the roster and was the most offensively efficient player on the team.
Of course, No. 2 on the team in O-rating was Lammert, and heaven only knows where he and Ibeh are going to fit into this beautiful mess. Lammert has been tragically underrated over the past two seasons because he doesn't do a whole lot of scoring, but he is efficient with his shots and is an above-average rebounder.
My guess is that Holmes, Ridley and Turner all start—bumping Demarcus Holland from small forward to shooting guard and sending Javan Felix to the bench.
Turner may technically be labeled the center because he's 7 feet tall, but don't be surprised if Holmes and Ridley play essentially their same game as last season, while Turner has the freedom to play on the perimeter as the biggest small forward in the game.
Illinois' Shooting Guard
The Candidates: Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams, Kendrick Nunn, Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks, Malcolm Hill
As I wrote two weeks ago in the projected Big Ten standings for 2014-15, the Illini have guards for days. Thus, they have a plethora of options at shooting guard.
Here's what we can very safely count on with Illinois' rotation for next season—Nnanna Egwu will start at center, and Rice will start somewhere.
Everything else is pretty well up in the air, but let's make a few educated assumptions.
Assumption No. 1: Rice does not start at shooting guard. Though he was the team's top scorer last season, he shot just 29.5 percent from three-point range in 2013-14 and 24.1 percent in 2011-12. He's only 6'4", but he's much more of a small forward than a shooting guard.
Assumption No. 2: Abrams starts at point guard.
Jaylon Tate had a higher assist rate last season, but Abrams is the senior who has been starting at point guard for the past two seasons. That might not be enough to guarantee Quinn Cook the starting job at Duke, but Abrams doesn't have a Tyus Jones waiting in the wings. Also, like Rice, Abrams has shot worst than 30 percent from three-point range in his collegiate career.
Assumption No. 3: John Groce decides not to go with a four-guard starting lineup. There will certainly be stretches of games where the Illini play small ball, but they'll start games with either Leron Black, Austin Colbert or Maverick Morgan at power forward.
Both Hill and Nunn were highly rated shooting guards in the incoming class of 2013, but both Cosby and Starks shot 40 percent from three-point range during the 2012-13 season before transferring to Illinois. I might make the wrong guess, but there really is no wrong answer here for Groce. Any of those four would be a suitable starter.
(The more I think about these options, the more I realize having Illinois in eighth place in the Big Ten was a huge mistake. This team could easily finish in the top five in that conference.)
I'm going with Cosby because he offers marginally more in the "secondary ball-handler" department than the other three options, but Nunn and Starks will absolutely give Nigel Hayes some fierce competition for Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year.
Syracuse's Point Guard
The Candidates: Michael Gbinije, Kaleb Joseph, Ron Patterson
Whoever gets the job is going to have some pretty big shoes to fill. Between Jonny Flynn, Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis, the point guard position at Syracuse has evolved into a factory for first-round draft picks.
If we were putting odds on these, Patterson's chances of becoming the starting point guard are about as good as Boston College's chances of winning the ACC this year.
Patterson was brought in as a shooting guard and did nothing to dissuade that classification by hoisting a three-pointer for every 2.8 minutes on the court—barely less frequently than Marshall Henderson's 2.5 minutes per attempt.
However, it's not like Trevor Cooney is going to play point guard. If Patterson is going to get regular minutes as a sophomore, the 6'2" guard will have to learn how to play the point.
The only other in-house option is Gbinije. The 6'7" hybrid guard/forward averaged 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals per 40 minutes last season, but as is the case with Jonathan Gilling at Arizona State, moving him to the point just leaves a gaping hole at one of the forward positions.
If Jim Boeheim is going to give a starting job to someone who has done nothing yet at the D-I level to prove he deserves one, doesn't it make more sense to go with Joseph at point guard as a freshman and keep Gbinije at small forward rather than playing either Tyler Roberson or B.J. Johnson in Gbinije's normal spot?
We definitely think Joseph gets the job, but letting a freshman start at point guard with no real backup plan and no other established leaders on the team is a dangerous game. Last year, Ennis had C.J. Fair, Nigel Williams-Goss had C.J. Wilcox, Cat Barber had T.J. Warren and Andrew Harrison had all of the supporting talent a player could ask for.
Who's helping Joseph when the going gets tough?
Michigan's Big Men
The Candidates: Max Bielfeldt, Kameron Chatman, Mark Donnal, Ricky Doyle, D.J. Wilson
The Michigan Wolverines will have a very intriguing dichotomy this year.
Between Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, they have one of the best backcourts in the entire country.
But the frontcourt might want to spend the first month of the season wearing "Hello! My name is" stickers on their warm-ups.
Michigan fans have long since talked themselves into Donnal being ready to dominate after a season in the weight room, Doyle and Wilson being underrated studs who will surprise everyone and Chatman being the best thing since sliced bread, but the rest of us are withholding judgment until the big men actually accomplish something on a D-I court.
I will say this much for the bunch, though: Donnal has undeniably gotten much stronger in the past 12 months. And when you're 6'9" in the Big Ten, strength and endurance are about as important as footwork or a mid-range jumper.
Also, I'm pretty sure the Wolverine faithful are onto something with Doyle. He averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game last year as a senior on what was otherwise a pretty lackluster varsity team, as outlined by Max Preps. He could be a diamond in the rough.
The biggest question in play here is how small is John Beilein willing to go?
Both LeVert and Irvin are 6'6" and could feasibly man the forward spots at times, while letting Walton and Spike Albrecht handle the backcourt duties, but let's go ahead and assume we're looking for a three-guard, two-forward lineup.
Donnal will start at the larger of the two forward spots, with Doyle serving as his primary backup. They may swap as the season progresses, but you have to like Donnal's chances of starting in November after spending last season practicing against the likes of Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan.
And at the other forward spot, Chatman has to be considered the early favorite to play the stretch 4. One of the top things that scouts have raved about Chatman is his versatility.
Even though he might be a little undersized for a traditional power forward, he should fit in nicely as the replacement for Glenn Robinson III.
Georgetown's Small Forward
The Candidates: Aaron Bowen, Reggie Cameron, Isaac Copeland, L.J. Peak, Paul White
Whether Copeland is actually a candidate at small forward for Georgetown will depend on Joshua Smith. If the long-maligned big man gets his head on straight this season and starts at center, it bumps Mikael Hopkins to power forward and creates an even bigger logjam at small forward.
Should that happen, the versatile 6'9" Copeland would start at small forward as a freshman.
But let's go ahead and assume Smith doesn't start, and Copeland gets to play power forward with Hopkins at center.
Of the remaining four names on the list, who has the edge?
Bowen received better than 20 minutes per game last season, but he spent much of that time at power forward either in relief of Nate Lubick or when Lubick was the de facto center with neither Hopkins nor Moses Ayegba on the court.
Cameron played 13.3 minutes per game—mostly at small forward—but didn't really offer anything better than Bowen, shooting much worse from the field than Bowen and serving as one of the worst rebounders and shot-blockers on the team.
But Cameron was a freshman and didn't really break into the rotation until midway through the season after Smith's suspension when they suddenly just needed eligible bodies on the court. Might he improve considerably as a sophomore?
Peak and White are both freshmen—and fairly highly rated ones at that—but it's not like they're coming in and trying to replace an incumbent starter. If either one impresses in camp, he'll have a good shot at starting.
Because of that—and because the Hoyas are pretty devoid of three-point options beyond D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera—my money is on Peak earning a starting job. He may even start at shooting guard and slide Jabril Trawick back to small forward where he spent pretty much the entirety of the 2013-14 season.
Arizona's Shooting Guard
The Candidates: Kadeem Allen, Stanley Johnson, Elliott Pitts, Gabe York
This one really comes down to whether Sean Miller would rather go with a traditional lineup or simply put the five best players on the court.
Johnson is an incredible talent—arguably one of the most NBA-ready players in this year's recruiting class.
But a consistent three-point shooter he is not. Johnson is more of a wrecking ball who can get to the rim and the free-throw line.
With Nick Johnson gone to the NBA and T.J. McConnell a pass-first point guard, Arizona wouldn't have much of a perimeter game with Johnson starting at shooting guard. Talented as the Wildcats may be with Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski on the court together, it's easier to stop big men when you can pack it in unafraid of three-point shooters.
In football terms, opponents would have the option to put eight or nine men in the box to stop a great running back without worrying about being beaten by the quarterback.
(If Johnson doesn't start at shooting guard, you can add Arizona small forward to the list, as he and Hollis-Jefferson battle for minutes at that position.)
Instead of starting Johnson at shooting guard, look for Arizona to go with Allen—the 2014 JUCO POY.
To be fair, Allen isn't exactly a three-point assassin, either, shooting just 30.5 percent from downtown last season, but he averaged 25.9 points per game over the past two years for Hutchinson Community College. The 6'3" combo guard adds an element to the lineup that probably won't be there when Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are on the court instead.
Arizona will definitely go with a four-bigs lineup on a pretty regular basis, but we should see Allen in there from the opening tip more often than not.
North Carolina's Shooting Guard
The Candidates: Nate Britt, Justin Jackson, Marcus Paige, Theo Pinson, J.P. Tokoto
(I'm listing Paige as an option at shooting guard, but that only happens if Roy Williams decides to start Britt or Joel Berry at point guard, which I find pretty unlikely.)
Rather than trying to figure out North Carolina's best option at shooting guard, the q