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Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Position battles: Small forwards

By Myron Medcalf

Some of the best one-on-one matchups will take place before the college basketball season tips off. They will come in the form of position battles within a team to determine a starter, which in some cases will shape an entire lineup.

Starting with point guard, ESPN.com will examine those quiet battles on a position-by-position basis this week while also promising we will never use the phrase "iron sharpens iron" to describe the competition.

It’s important to remember that “small forward” does not mean the same thing to every program. Some of these players will essentially play guard slots next year. Others will resemble power forwards or combos. And most can play multiple positions.

Here are small forward battles to keep an eye on:

Arizona: Stanley Johnson vs. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Should coach Sean Miller go with Hollis-Jefferson, the soon-to-be sophomore who excelled against the top teams in America and blossomed into a promising NBA prospect down the stretch last season? Or should Miller insert Johnson, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound freshman beast who will probably play his first and only season of college basketball in Tucson next season? #nationaltitlecontenderproblems After Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury in early February, Hollis-Jefferson played a more prominent role in Arizona’s seven-man rotation, and with a summer in the weight room he should return as a more effective player capable of carrying the Wildcats in 2014-15. But Johnson is a unique talent who won’t stay off the floor. Too many tools. Too much talent. California’s Mr. Basketball is a natural 3-man, but he can guard three or four positions and probably play power forward if necessary. Miller is blessed with another strong roster, but assigning minutes to a pair of future pros could be a challenge.

North Carolina: Justin Jackson vs. Theo Pinson vs. Isaiah Hicks
If J.P. Tokoto plays more at shooting guard with the graduation of Leslie McDonald, this is a situation coach Roy Williams can address with multiple young talents. Hicks played like a typical freshman last season. He struggled in minimal action, but some of the North Carolina native’s challenges were tied to his adjustment from the power forward role he played in high school to the small forward slot he manned as a reserve last season. Still, the 6-8 Hicks was one of America’s top recruits in the 2013 class and understands Williams’ system and demands. But a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans -- Jackson and Pinson -- will fight for that spot, too. Williams might use all three players in his rotation. Jackson is a shooter who could move to shooting guard. Pinson is the most natural small forward in the group, and Hicks has the size and knowledge to play bigger if necessary. One of these players, however, could get lost in the mix next season if they’re all battling for the same position.

Iowa State: Jameel McKay vs. Dustin Hogue vs. Abdel Nader
Fred Hoiberg is accustomed to turnover. It’d be odd if the Cyclones' coach didn’t have some key voids to fill this offseason. Departing senior Melvin Ejim earned Big 12 Player of the Year honors in 2013-14 after a campaign that saw him average 17.8 PPG and 8.4 RPG. With Monte Morris, Naz Long and UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State’s backcourt should be one of the best in the Big 12. Georges Niang will be the go-to guy inside once he’s healthy again, but Hoiberg could use multiple players at the hybrid forward slot, the role that Ejim played so well last season. Hogue is more of an undersized power forward than a true small forward, but he proved his worth in the postseason. This is his spot, but McKay, a former Marquette recruit and Hogue’s former junior college teammate, has been a terror in practices for the last six months. McKay is a versatile 6-9 forward who could join Niang in Iowa State’s frontcourt but won’t be eligible until December. Nader, who led Northern Illinois with 13.1 PPG in 2012-13, will also be a candidate to contribute, but he has some offseason issues to clear up. Nader was suspended after an April incident in which he was arrested and charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated. He has pleaded not guilty and has a court date set for June 24.

Louisville: Wayne Blackshear vs. Shaqquan Aaron
In late March, coach Rick Pitino gave reporters this postseason assessment of Wayne Blackshear: "The only player I've had in the past four years that hasn't had substantial improvement is Wayne Blackshear.” That’s not good, but it’s true. Blackshear was a McDonald’s All-American in high school, but the Chicago product suffered a shoulder injury that prevented him from playing in that game, which was held in his hometown after the 2010-11 season. He has never reached that pre-injury promise. So Aaron, a four-star forward from Seattle who is ranked 33rd in the 2014 class by RecruitingNation, could grab minutes from Blackshear if he continues to underwhelm. Louisville has the pieces to compete for the ACC crown in its first year in the league, and Pitino won’t let Blackshear ruin that potential, especially with all of that young talent on his bench.

Ohio State: Sam Thompson vs. Keita Bates-Diop vs. Jae’Sean Tate
Thompson is the top returning scorer on an Ohio State squad that lost its top three scorers (Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross) from last season. But the Buckeyes wrestled with offensive issues all season. Bates-Diop, a 6-7 forward ranked No. 22 in the 2014 class, could be the solution. He has a strong midrange game and is an elite athlete who might be the most talented player on the roster. Tate is an aggressive incoming freshman who could earn solid minutes, too. It would make sense to start Thompson, the senior, at the beginning of the season, but it won’t be easy to keep Bates-Diop and Tate off the floor.

Florida: Dorian Finney-Smith vs. Devin Robinson
Florida had multiple interchangeable parts in 2013-14. Casey Prather chased national player of the year honors as a 6-5 combo forward who loved to attack the rim. Coach Billy Donovan will have the personnel to play a more traditional lineup next season. Experience has been crucial in his team’s streak of four consecutive Elite Eight appearances, so Finney-Smith -- who averaged 8.7 PPG and 6.7 RPG for the Gators last season -- will have an early edge. But Robinson is a five-star talent who is ranked No. 23 in the 2014 class. He’s more of a true wing than Finney-Smith, which should give Donovan more variety. Duke transfer Alex Murphy, who should be eligible in December, could also be used in that role. It’ll be interesting to see how Florida’s rotation changes throughout the season.