College Basketball

Biggest Obstacle Facing Top College Basketball Contenders in 2014-15

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistSeptember 2, 2014

Biggest Obstacle Facing Top College Basketball Contenders in 2014-15

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Every college basketball team in America can have their national championship hopes derailed by any number of issues. Entering the season, however, they all have very specific strengths and weaknesses for fans to point to and obsess over. (Yes, even you, Kentucky fans.)

    No matter what the difficulties are facing your favorite team, rest assured that in most cases, it's not alone. Otherseven those among the eliteare dealing with similar issues.

    The teams that can figure out how to surmount their weak spots and enter the NCAA tournament on a high are the ones most likely to finish a run to the national crown, much like UConn did in 2014.

    Until the games start, though, these 10 issues look like they'll plague at least one of Bleacher Report's preseason top 25 teams. Who will be able to overcome?

     

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Expectations

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Concerned Parties: No. 17 Nebraska

    Nearly every set of 2013-14 Big Ten predictions had the Nebraska Cornhuskers preparing to dry up and blow away. (Sorry about the link barrage, but the point had to be made.)

    Those picks, however, were made before Pinnacle Bank Arena started to assert itself as the most intimidating new home-court advantage scenario in America. It was before coach Tim Miles started to look like a mad motivational genius and not just a hyperactive tweeter. And it was even before Terran Petteway stormed into the Big Ten and made off with the scoring title.

    With nearly everyone of importance returningpower forward Leslee Smith's torn ACL notwithstandingthe Huskers aren't sneaking up on anyone this season. The 2014-15 picks are much kinder than last year's.

    Petteway, whose shooting started to tail off in the later weeks of last season, has to keep the pedal down all year. The Benny Parker-Tai Webster tag team has to keep being productive at point guard. Georgetown transfer Moses Ayegba and freshman Jake Hammond, neither of which is a heralded prospect, have to provide post depth in Smith's absence.

    The crazed Big Red fans will make life in Lincoln miserable for all visitors, but the Huskers' visits to other Big Ten ports will now be circled. If NU's getting to another NCAA tournament, it'll have to earn it.

Ball Security

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Concerned Parties: No. 16 SMU

    SMU's revival last season was spearheaded by its defense, but the offense was also buoyed by some of the nation's most efficient shooting. If the Mustangs had been able to get shots on more possessions, a couple of their losses may have turned into wins, and the school would have seen its first NCAA trip since 1993.

    Turnovers were a problem in nearly all of SMU's losses and even a few of its victories. The Mustangs turned the ball over on at least 22 percent of their possessions in six of their nine losses. Sloppy ball-handling likewise plagued them in conference wins over Cincinnati, UConn and Memphis, but even early-season blowout wins over Sam Houston State, Texas State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff were shaky.

    Point guard Nic Moore, pictured above laying out to prevent yet another giveaway, is the only returning SMU player to card a positive assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Some handling help was supposed to be coming in the form of Dallas-area star Emmanuel Mudiay, but we all know how that's turned out, don't we?

    There are still superb scorers and defenders on the Mustangs' roster, there's plenty of size and now there's a year of winning experience. The Mustangs certainly won't miss Louisville in the American this season, but they have to avoid turnovers against this year's contenders, such as UConn, Tulsa and Memphis.

    Otherwise, there may once again be a shortage of quality wins, which would lead to a lot of undue stress come March.

Chemistry

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    Frank Franklin/Associated Press

    Concerned Parties: No. 13 Iowa State

    Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has made stitching rosters together out of motley groups of transfers look easy for four years now. He's yet to endure a losing season at his alma mater. and he's won four NCAA tournament games in the last three seasons.

    Can he keep it going indefinitely?

    This year's Cyclones will be partially keyed by prominent transfers Bryce DeJean-Jones (ex-UNLV/USC), Jameel McKay (who left Marquette before playing a game) and Abdel Nader (ex-Northern Illinois).

    None carry the kind of baggage that followed former Cyclone vagabonds such as Chris Allen, Korie Lucious and Royce White, but DeJean-Jones is quite well-traveled, and McKay's bolting Marquette was nothing if not oddly timed. Nader, for his part, pleaded guilty to OWI charges in June.

    Veterans such as Georges Niang and Monte Morris should be capable of providing leadership and helping Hoiberg keep everyone in line. Eventually, though, the wrong people joining a program at the wrong time can lead to serious issues. Just ask Dana Altman out at Oregon.

New Competition

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    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    Concerned Parties: No. 10 Louisville

    Not that Louisville is terribly worried about its transition to the ACC from the American but let's face it: The Cardinals aren't in Kansaser—Orlando any more.

    In place of UCF, there's UNC. Out with Temple, in with Duke. Never mind heading to Tampa to play USF; now there's a trip to the real South Florida, as in Miami. Syracuse instead of Rutgersseriously, we could do this all day.

    The ACC's invitation came a couple of years too late, as it would be highly intriguing to see what a team led by Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith could do among the blue-bloods. As it is, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino leads a team with All-American candidate Montrezl Harrell and a host of question marks.

    Guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones will face big, skilled backcourts like Virginia's and Florida State's. Harrell will face tenacious rebounders like Amile Jefferson and Brice Johnson, but he'll also have a few nights where he can shift into beast mode.

    A roster with six freshmen and two very seldom-used sophomores in Anton Gill and Akoy Agau joins a conference with 12 McDonald's All-Americans who have at least a season's experience.

    There are plenty of opportunities for signature wins but don't expect anyone to roll over for a 61-point beatdown the way Rutgers did in the AAC tournament. Even Georgia Tech should be able to keep it within 40.

    We think.

Quality Size

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Concerned Parties: No. 8 Wichita State, No. 9 Virginia, No. 12 Villanova, No. 15 Oklahoma, No. 18 Kansas State, No. 19 Michigan, No. 22 VCU, No. 23 UConn

    Most of these teams either have talented big men who lack experience or simply not enough true big men.

    Wichita State needs someone to step up next to 6'7" senior Darius Carter. All the candidates have some strengths to their games, but none have a minute of Division I experience.

    Virginia's chances of retaining the ACC title hinge on whether Anthony Gill can keep the energy he brought off the bench and produce similarly as a starter. Plus, 6'11" Mike Tobey must become much more assertive without veteran Akil Mitchell to help on defense and the glass.

    Villanova's banking on junior center Daniel Ochefu to keep improving offensively, because senior JayVaughn Pinkston needs some help. Largely invisible sophomore Darryl Reynolds is the team's only other true post player.

    Aside from Big 12 rebounding king Ryan Spangler and part-timer D.J. Bennett, Oklahoma has only three freshmen to man the interior positions. The Sooners are still twisting in the wind, waiting for the NCAA to rule on Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas' immediate eligibility.

    Kansas State has plenty of big bodies, and there's good Big 12 experience in senior Thomas Gipson and junior D.J. Johnson.

    Neither is a true center, however. For that, coach Bruce Weber has to turn to transfers Brandon Bolden and Stephen Hurt. While Bolden saw little playing time at Georgetown, Hurt won 2013 Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year honors at Lipscomb. That's a long way from Big 12 competition, though.

    Michigan's post game consists of Scout.com 4-star prospect D.J. Wilson, ESPN 3-star Ricky Doyle and junior Max Bielfeldt, who's played all of 195 minutes in 39 appearances over two years. Redshirt freshman Mark Donnal could also be a factor, but he likes to step out and shoot.

    VCU got a combined 23.5 minutes, 4.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game from senior Jarred Guest and sophomore Mo Alie-Cox. Someonemost likely Alie-Coxhas to establish himself as a starter with Juvonte Reddic gone. Redshirt freshman Antravious Simmons and two true frosh will also see early time.

    Finally, UConn bigs Amida Brimah, Phillip Nolan and Kentan Facey can all be defensive and rebounding forces, but they were offensive afterthoughts last season. Are any of them capable of handling a bigger load if needed this year?

Experience

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Concerned Parties: No. 7 Florida, No. 25 San Diego State

    Give credit to Getty Images photographer Jamie Squire: He managed to get a shot of Florida forward Chris Walker during the latter's brief cameo in the NCAA semifinal loss to UConn. During the entire postseason, Walker was like Bigfootseen by many but leaving little evidence behind in 32 minutes over eight SEC and NCAA tournament games.

    This season, Walkeralong with fellow sophomore Kasey Hill and career supporting pieces Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smithmust assume a leading role if the Gators are to reach a highly commendable fifth consecutive Elite Eight.

    The former two are ex-McDonald's All-Americans, and Finney-Smith was a controversial snub, so UF certainly doesn't lack for talent. With four seniors gone, though, the torch has been well and truly passed to the next generation, whether it's ready to receive it or not.

    San Diego State has a similar issue as it must replace both its hustleAll-American guard Xavier Thamesand its musclepower forward Josh Davis. Contributors such as J.J. O'Brien, Dwayne Polee and Winston Shepard return, so perhaps this should be qualified as "experienced scoring" in the Aztecs' case.

    See, as much as SDSU fans got tired of hearing it, they couldn't escape the incontrovertible truth that their team struggled to score last season. Without Thames, those difficulties will be magnified. Polee and Shepard have shown the ability to take over games during their careers, but freshmen Malik Pope and Zylan Cheatham may also get their chanceonce Cheatham returns from a broken foot, that is.

Defense

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Concerned Parties: No. 6 Duke

    Scoring talent is seemingly never short in supply at Duke. Even without NBA first-round picks Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, the Blue Devils should still rank among the ACC's most potent offenses.

    According to KenPom, N.C. State, Notre Dame and Boston College were the only ACC teams playing softer defense than Duke last season. Of the Devils' last 15 opponents, 11 averaged more than a point per possession. Each of Duke's final six games ranked among its 11 worst defensive efforts of the season.

    Shall I go on, or are we good here?

    This season, Duke will have a major component it lacked last season: a true stud center. Chicago star Jahlil Okafor brings bulk to the paint, if not otherworldly athleticism. He won't be a four-block-per-game rim protector, but he'll pose a big obstacle to opposing slashers. A team that allowed 62.7 percent shooting at the rim last season, per Hoop-Math.com, needs all the speed bumps it can find.

    If the post is solidified, Duke may be OK. The perimeter defense allowed opponents to hit only 30.7 percent from behind the arc last season. Of course, who's going to sit outside and attempt wing triples when there are wide-open lanes to the basket on offer?

    The bulldog pressure of guard Tyler Thornton will be missed, but freshman Justise Winslow and sophomore Matt Jones should help key the defensive effort. Rookie point guard Tyus Jones' performance on this end will be closely scrutinized.

Perimeter Shooting

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    Ralph Freso/Getty Images

    Concerned Parties: No. 4 Arizona, No. 5 North Carolina, No. 11 Texas, No. 20 Iowa

    Bulk is great. Defensive tenacity will carry a team a long way. Experience helps.

    In the end, though, there will be nights when an opponent starts off hot and a team must shoot its way back into a game. These four clubs could struggle in that regard.

    Arizona had to pull shooters Gabe York and Elliott Pitts out of mothballs when forward Brandon Ashley went down with a broken foot.

    Coach Sean Miller still has both on the roster, along with point guard T.J. McConnell. Bigger keys for the Wildcats' attack, however, will be freshman Stanley Johnson and junior college transfer Kadeem Allen. If both can hit shots on elite D-I defenses, Zona's a Final Four threat again.

    North Carolina had a fine season, considering that Marcus Paige was about it as far as long-range threats. There still aren't a large number of shooters on the Tar Heels' roster, but freshman Justin Jackson may be the best bomber in the entire class of 2014. He'll certainly get plenty of looks as defenses key in on the always crafty Paige.

    Texas has more beef thanwell, a Longhorn Steakhouse, if you'll pardon a pun. In terms of shooting prowess, however, last year's Horns simply blew. (Blew? Horn? Ah, never mind.)

    Among NCAA tournament teams, only Cal Poly and San Diego State had lower effective field-goal percentages, according to Pomeroy. "Shooters" such as Javan Felix and Martez Walker must improve if UT expects to hit the Sweet 16 and beyond.

    Iowa returns only one shooter who sank more than 30 three-pointers last season, that being senior Josh Oglesby. Forward Jarrod Uthoff hit 42.5 percent from deep; he simply needs more looks. The Hawkeyes weren't a team that lived and died on the three last year, but with Roy Devyn Marble's steady scoring gone, coach Fran McCaffery needs all the weapons he can scrounge.

Depth

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Concerned Parties: No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 21 Harvard, No. 24 Michigan State

    Wisconsin has a top seven that most of America can only envy, as coach Bo Ryan's primary rotation more than makes up in skill and intelligence what it may lack in athletic gifts. Injuries or foul trouble, however, will lead to some tense juggling and digging for Ryan as he seeks more options.

    Presumptive All-American center Frank Kaminsky finished last season on fire, averaging 16.0 PPG over his final 12 outings. Over that same span, however, Kaminsky was whistled for 4.3 fouls per 40 minutes, finishing four games with four violations and fouling out of the Badgers' conference tournament loss.

    If Kaminsky makes life hard for himself via foul trouble this season, Ryan's only truly palatable post options are sophomores Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown, who each give away at least three inches to Kaminsky.

    Harvard has all the frontcourt depth it can handle, but the backcourt is another story. The departure of Brandyn Curry means that the point guard role is once again sole property of junior Siyani Chambers. Never mind Curry, though. Sniper Laurent Rivard will be even more missed.

    Look for wing Wesley Saunders to slide into the off-guard role, while Crimson coach Tommy Amaker digs through towel-wavers and freshmen in search of another body. Returnees Matt Brown, Matt Fraschilla and Alex Nesbitt played a combined 91 minutes last season. Freshman Andre Chatfield should see more minutes than any of those three.

    Michigan State got fantastic news when the NCAA granted Cleveland State transfer Bryn Forbes immediate eligibility. Forbes shot 42.4 percent from three last season, and he'll give the Spartans another shooter to take the heat off of point guard Travis Trice.

    While coach Tom Izzo can trot out a very competitive starting five of Trice, Forbes, Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson and Matt Costello, the bench consists of three true freshmen and two seldom-used sophomores. Second-year men Alvin Ellis and Gavin Schilling will be thrown headlong into the fire if the injury bug keeps nibbling on the Spartans the way it did last season.

Minutes

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    Concerned Parties: No. 1 Kentucky, No. 3 Kansas, No. 14 Gonzaga

    Seriously, though, if your team has to have something wrong with it, "not enough minutes" sounds like the best problem to have. It's as if your car is too nice, your girlfriend too hot or your paycheck too fat.

    Kentucky, Kansas and Gonzaga can all go at least 10 deep and may all veer close to 12.

    The Zags augment veterans like Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, Przemek Karnowski and Kyle Dranginis with a solid array of transfers. Kyle Wiltjer (ex-Kentucky), Byron Wesley (USC) and Eric McClellan (Vanderbilt) can all be immediate factors.

    Freshmen Josh Perkins and Domantas Sabonis aren't the cream of the crop that UK and KU annually lock down, but they'll be impact players in the West Coastand perhaps beyond.

    Kansas has to figure out its point guard situation, but it has three talented contenders. Wing Wayne Selden and power forward Perry Ellis are still on NBA radar screens, but neither generates the kind of buzz that freshmen Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre are putting up. Both are projected to be top-five picks in Draft Express' Aug. 22 mock.

    Yeoman role players such as Hunter Mickelson and Jamari Traylor will also carry some weight for Kansas, but it's a safe bet that both will be overshadowed by a kid who won't be able to buy cigarettes until he's finished his freshman season.

    Ukrainian 17-year-old Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk has been compared to names old (Manu Ginobili, per NBADraft.net) and new (Nik Stauskas, according to a scout quoted by CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello). Mykhailiuk might see five minutes per game this year, or he could see 25.

    And then there's Kentucky. Only two members of last season's six-man "Greatest Recruiting Class Ever" left for the NBA, and two players from the disappointing 2013 NIT team still remain.

    Four more McDonald's All-Americans join the cause, and high-caliber towel-wavers Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis round out the deepest roster college basketball has seen since...what, Kentucky's 1995-96 "Untouchables"? That team won a national title and eventually sent 11 guys to the NBA, you know.

    If John Calipari channels everyone into a team effort and keeps all these stars from focusing on their own interests, he should see national coach of the year votes. If not, this will be the most entertaining car wreck since The Blues Brothers.

     

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