Although I’m not quite sure how we got here, we are basically 10 days from the start of the college basketball season – and believe me, I am not complaining. After six months of analyzing and overanalyzing everything about this season (seriously who is the ninth best team in the SEC, Vanderbilt or Arkansas?!?!), we are finally here. The latest clue that basketball is reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally close came this week when both the AP and Coaches released their preseason polls.
Still, while there is unquestioned optimism coming into the year, if you ask any single coach, there is also plenty of cause for concern. After all, as good as some of the top teams in the country are, no team is perfect, and everyone has concerns coming into the season.
So what are the biggest concerns for the top teams in the country? Let’s take a look at one for each team ranked in the Top 10 of the Coaches Poll, which was released on Thursday:
1) Kansas Jayhawks – The FBI
Not sure if you’ve heard, but it’s a bad few weeks for Bill Self. As we all know now, text messages obtained by the FBI and released in court over the last month basically revealed that Self worked closely with Adidas to ensure they landed the commitment of forward Silvio De Sousa. De Sousa has already been suspended and almost certainly will never play again for Kansas (ironically, I actually think his suspension helps Kansas on the court, where they had too many players in the front court as is). More importantly though, everyone wants to know what will happen with this program, and Self specifically.
Ultimately I’m not positive that the texts alone reveal enough to cost Self his job, and even if more evidence comes out, it seems highly unlikely that any resolution will come before the end of this season. At the same time, how much will the scrutiny of the investigation weigh on this program? We saw the FBI backdrop take a toll on schools like Arizona, USC and Louisville last year, and eventually you’ve got to think it will on Kansas as well. Everywhere Self goes he will be asked questions about this FBI probe (no matter how much he continues to issue “no comments”) and in every opposing arena players will be serenaded with “FBI” chants from fans.
My hunch is that like Arizona last year it will eventually wear on one of the most talented teams in the sport and keep them from fully reaching their potential.
2) Kentucky Wildcats – Will They Peak Too Soon
Since the day Reid Travis announced his decision to enroll at Kentucky, I’ve been adamant that this team has no real weaknesses, and four games in the Bahamas only strengthened that belief. This is a team with all the components to win a title: Size, athleticism, skill, mental and physical toughness and experience.
However, when I was watching Kentucky’s “Pro Day” a few weeks ago, I found one comment John Calipari made to be very interesting: He said that he has to do everything he can to make sure that this team doesn’t peak too soon. As he said, this team had to ramp up the intensity for those four games in the Bahamas and will need to keep that edge through a season-opener against Duke, a brutal November and December that includes games against North Carolina and Louisville, and an SEC slate with a handful of Top 25 caliber teams. Is there any chance that mental edge fades the deeper they get into the season? Can they really keep it up for what amounts to 10 months straight?
It will be interesting to see how Calipari handles this group, and the ways he finds to motivate them. However outside of that, it really is hard to find too much to pick apart with this team.
3) Duke Blue Devils – Can the “Big Three” Co-Exist Together
I’m getting kind of tired of typing this so I’ll try to keep it brief. But since the day that Zion Williamson committed to Duke last winter and signed up to play with R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, I really have questioned the ability for all three to play together on the same court.
Seriously not trying to throw shade at Duke, because what Coach K in recruiting is doing is incredible. But this is the exact problem they had last year, with Tatum/Kennard and Grayson all essentially playing the same position. As we all remember, it didn't end well https://t.co/IWjiQZTgHm
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) January 21, 2018
Sure, signing the top three players in a recruiting class sounds sexy on paper, but putting together a basketball team isn’t like putting together a line-up full of home run hitters in baseball. Guys have to be able to play together, styles have to mesh. And what I see from those three Duke players are three insanely talented players – but three that are all essentially the same. All three are incredible athletes and future NBA stars, but all three are also players who are best at creating their own offense and most effective when they have the ball in their hands. None are great three-point shooters, which will limit spacing and driving lanes when they’re on the court together. And much like Duke two seasons ago when they had Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen, I could see a scenario where this simply doesn’t’ work out.
To Duke’s credit they did look good during their trip to Canada, but that was without Reddish on the court. It’s clear that Barrett and Williamson can play together, but what about when they add a third piece to the mix?
We will find out soon enough when Duke faces Kentucky a few weeks from now.
4) Gonzaga – Uncertainty at the Point Guard Position
Ask most casual fans about the Zags, and they’ll tell you that their biggest problem could be weak competition in their conference, where outside of BYU, they probably won’t face an NCAA Tournament caliber team once league play starts. But considering that the Zags have made it to the Sweet 16 or beyond in each of the last four seasons – something Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State, Arizona, Kansas and UCLA can’t say – I’m not so worried about it.
What I am worried about however, is the point guard position.
Gonzaga does return fifth-year senior Josh Perkins, but he isn’t a natural point and was kind of forced into the role last year. It showed, as Perkins finished with a 3-2 assist to turnover ratio and to make matters worse, he missed the whole off-season after shoulder surgery. I talked to Perkins a bit this summer and he claimed that his injury was a blessing in disguise as it allowed others to get more ball-handling reps, and the Zags did get a reinforcement the last few weeks as they welcomed in grad transfer Geno Crandall to the program from North Dakota. Again though, Crandall is more of a combo guard and not someone suited to run an offense.
At the end of the day, the Zags are talented enough to win a national championship. But until we see production from the point guard position, we will continue to question whether they can actually reach that goal or not.
5) Virginia Cavaliers – Will Tony Bennett Actually Switch Up His Coaching Style Come March?
One of the reasons that I think so many of you like me so much is that I always tell it like it is. And as part of telling it like it is, I’m just about the only national media member that refuses to endlessly gush over Tony Bennett. Do I think he’s a good coach? Good enough, sure. Do I think he’s a James Naismith and John Wooden all rolled into one like so many claim him to be? Come on, man.
And if anything, I think it’s fair to call into question his actual “coaching” merits. Because while he has a system built to rack up wins in the regular season, his inability and refusal to change up his style of play continues to cost his team in March. Seriously, just watch that UMBC game. Everyone remembers the loss, but few remember how the Cavaliers got there. When they fell behind early, they continued to run the same boring, plodding offense, which took 28 seconds off the clock every possession.
At a certain point, Bennett had to switch up his team’s style of play, switch up everything that is comfortable to him and he couldn’t do it. And until I see otherwise, I believe it will continue to hurt the Cavaliers to come tournament time.
It was backed up when I talked to a coach following that game, one who had been to multiple Final Fours. I remember him telling me (and I’m loosely quoting him), “That guy will never win a title until he changes as a coach. In the NCAA Tournament you’re just going to face too many different teams, that play too many different styles, and if you can’t adjust, you’ll never be able to win a title. You need to be able to win more than one way.”
That has stuck with me all summer and will continue to stick with me until I see change in Bennett. He is great at what he does, but part of being a “coach” is adjusting your game-plan based on the opponent and situation.
Until I see otherwise, I’ll continue to pick against the Cavaliers.
6) Tennessee Volunteers – Have They Already Peaked?
I’ve made this argument so much throughout the summer that I will try to keep it brief here. But is it possible this particular group of Vols have already peaked?
It sounds crazy, but think about it. This is a group of fourth and fifth-year players who have grown, developed, matured within Tennessee’s system. Also, if we’re being perfectly honest, they’ve all kind of hit their “ceiling” as basketball players. While young teams like Duke, Villanova and Kentucky will no doubt get better throughout the year, how much better can 22 and 23-year-old grown men like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield really get?
To me, it’s a fair question. And it’s why I’m not as high on the Vols as some other teams.
7) North Carolina – Another Team with Point Guard Issues
This one really is a no-brainer. The Tar Heels have arguably the most balanced frontcourt in college basketball. Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Nassir Little are each All-ACC caliber players (Maye and Little both could mess around and win Player of the Year) with perfect skill-sets to complement each other. It isn’t the deepest frontcourt in the country. But it is the one where the pieces fit perfectly together.
The problem is in the backcourt, where Joel Berry is gone and there is no adequate replacement. Freshman Coby White will be thrust into that spot and considering that he’s a freshman and more of a combo guard than he is a true point, it probably won’t end well for the Tar Heels.
To be blunt, I think North Carolina is a little bit overrated – and it’s because of their point guard play. I don’t expect them to stay in the Top 10 for long and consider them more of a fringe Top 25 team.
8) Villanova – Did They Lose Too Much Off Last Year’s Team
Seeing the system that Jay Wright has created at Villanova really is incredible. They rarely recruit a bunch of can’t miss NBA players, yet develop the guys they have into future pros. And when one leaves, the next guy steps in. Between the growth of Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono and the four guys they had drafted last year, it’s only a matter of time before the NBA is filled with a bunch of former Nova guys.
However, that last part is kind of the problem. For years, this program has been able to replace its stars with one homegrown player after another, but that cycle was somewhat disrupted by last year’s national championship run. Had the Wildcats not made the national championship game, there is a zero percent that Donte DiVencenzio or Omari Spellman would have even considered going pro. Instead, both blew up in the tournament and both ended up as first round picks.
No one is feeling sad for the Wildcats are winning a title, but had those two returned, Villanova would have likely been the preseason No. 1 team in the country. Now, for the first time in a long time, they will have younger and inexperienced guys thrust into bigger roles.
How much will it cost them?
(The early returns are “not much at all”)
Villanova tops North Carolina by 10 in a 50-minute scrimmage, per release. 41 for Phil Booth and 24 for Eric Paschall, including six made threes. Cam Johnson led the Tar Heels with 19.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) October 20, 2018
9) Nevada – Do They Actually Have Too Many Players?
Earlier this summer I had Nevada head coach Eric Musselman on the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast (actually I’ve had him twice – you really do need to make sure and subscribe) and one thing that he said stuck out to me. The Wolf Pack only had about six healthy players by the end of last season (at one point they actually had to bring over players from the football team just to run a five-on-five practice) and I mentioned to him that it must be nice to have a full roster, after a slew of transfers and freshmen joined the Pack this off-season. The Wolf Pack are expected to be about 10-deep this season.
In an interesting twist, Coach Muss told me the exact opposite was true: Having a deeper bench created more problems for a coach. Not necessarily with this specific Nevada team, just in general. As he explained it on the show, he’d prefer to have a rotation of about seven to eight guys who knew their roles and knew exactly how much they were going to play and what roles they had. Any more, and it became to get complicated.
So those were Coach Muss’s words, which leads to just one problem for the Wolf Pack: They are insanely deep this season. Nevada expected to lose at least a couple players to the pros (most likely Caleb and Cody Martin), but when both decided to return it created a log jam on their roster. When you add in a bunch of transfers who sat out last season, they now have nine players who are either playing their fourth or fifth year of college basketball. Eight of those guys have averaged double figures at some point in their college careers, either at Nevada or their previous stop.
Yes, you read that correctly. Nevada has… EIGHT GUYS who have averaged double-figures at some point during their college career. The one veteran who hasn’t is Lindsey Drew who started every game for the Wolf Pack until a season-ending injury last year. And Nevada also added McDonald’s All-American Jordan Brown to the mix this past summer as well.
So yeah, you think there are going to be battles over playing time and stats? It seems inevitable.
And more than any other program, it seems like that will be the ultimate issue for the Wolf Pack.
10) Michigan State – Relying on Freshmen
True story: As I got set to write this piece, I texted a buddy of mine who works at Michigan State. I asked him what he thought the biggest concern or weakness of his team was entering the season. His response: “We really don’t have any.”
So yeah, I guess a lack of self-awareness is the biggest issue in East Lansing right now.
In all honesty, I actually like the make-up of this team, but as he later mentioned to me, the Spartans will rely on a bunch of freshmen to fill gaps off their bench. None need to be stars, but for Michigan State to have any depth they will need guys like Gabe Brown and Foster Loyer to contribute. N
March is always a crapshoot, but especially when you’re relying on such young players. And the Spartans will rely on a few this March.