North Carolina Tar Heels: 2014 position battles

Position battles: Centers

May, 16, 2014
May 16
10:00
AM ET
CHICAGO -- Julius Randle is gone, but he wouldn't mind watching the Kentucky big men battle in the fall.

"Yes, there's going to be some competition," Randle said at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. "But Coach [John Calipari] will figure it out."

Randle wasn't going to return next season. He was a one-and-done player from the moment he arrived, looking like a chiseled NBA veteran. He was the one big man who didn't need seasoning. But the rest did. Toss in newcomer Karl Towns Jr., and the Wildcats have as many bigs as any team assembled recently.

Randle's favorite to replace his low-post ability? He's leaning toward sophomore to-be Dakari Johnson.

"He's very good in the low post," Randle said. "He's got a nice touch. It's hard to move him down there."

Randle should know. He had to tussle with Johnson in the low block in practice every day. Now, Johnson will take Randle's role as the player whom the others try to knock off in the post -- for position and, possibly, playing time.

ESPN.com is examining position battles this week. Here are some center battles to keep an eye on:

Kentucky: Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee versus Karl Towns Jr.: Yes, there are veterans -- three of them -- returning against the young pup. Calipari could figure out how to play all four of them at some point during a game. Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Lee all had their moments in which they shined. Johnson has the best chance to be in the low post, Cauley-Stein can be the top shot-blocker and Lee is a bit of an X factor among the group. Now, enter the newcomer. Towns can do a bit of everything, but he doesn't need to be the primary option. That's key for him and rare for a high-profile Kentucky player. This isn't even mentioning Trey Lyles and Alex Poythress, who are more positioned to play smaller forward positions next to the bigs. This team is loaded.

North Carolina: Kennedy Meeks versus Brice Johnson. Meeks is much more of a physical specimen. He can be immovable at times in the low post. Johnson has more finesse to his game. The two of them can play together, but they could take turns sharing the focal point in the middle, depending on the opponent or the flow of the game. They have a chance to both average double figures and nearly seven or eight rebounds per game. If that happens, the Tar Heels could be a force in the ACC and beyond.

Texas: Cameron Ridley versus Myles Turner. Ridley made himself into a real threat last season. He was nearly a double-double player (he averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game). Ridley could progress even more next season. The Longhorns nabbed a late-recruiting season coup in Turner. Turner is too good, too effective to not be on the court. The key for coach Rick Barnes will be whether he can play the two as a tandem. If he can't, then who is on the court when the game matters most is more of a competition than the overall minutes. Regardless, both players can help Texas take a huge leap next season.

Gonzaga: Przemek Karnowski versus Kyle Wiltjer. Karnowski is the traditional post player. He can be difficult to move around, and his offensive game continues to develop. Wiltjer can certainly play with Karnowski because he's slender and is much more of a face-up player. The two can be an effective high-low tandem, but if there is a need to see who is on the floor late, then that is also, like with Texas, where the real competition begins. Wiltjer had a year to get stronger, but he won't turn out like Kelly Olynyk. Wiltjer is still going to be skill first, strength last. Karnowski needs to be the opposite for the Zags to find the right balance.

LSU : Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey versus Elbert Robinson. The Tigers have a chance to make the NCAA tournament because of the decisions of Martin and Mickey. The two were effective double-figure scorers last season playing with Johnny O'Bryant III. Now, toss in the newcomer Robinson. He'll need to find minutes as well. Coach Johnny Jones can't play all three together, but the minutes will need to be divided up. These are good problems to have, and with 15 fouls to expend among the three, the Tigers are one of the few teams in the SEC with the numbers to hang with Kentucky's frontcourt.

Arizona: Kaleb Tarczewski versus Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski was one of the most improved players in the country last season. Give him another summer and he should really be a regular to score in the post. But he has to command the ball even more next season without the presence of Aaron Gordon. Ashley is coming off a foot injury that sidelined him for the second half of the Pac-12 season. He will play with Tarczewski, but if there is any question who would demand more minutes, then that can be a highly competitive battle in practice. It might be moot for coach Sean Miller since the two can coexist, but dividing up the frontcourt minutes will still be an interesting decision for the staff.
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.

Here are some power forward battles to keep an eye on:

Kentucky: Trey Lyles vs. Alex Poythress vs. TBD
Exactly who factors into this battle in Lexington will come down to how coach John Calipari divvies up positions. With so many frontcourt players, he has a numbers crunch that could mean guys play more hybrid positions or even out of position. Will he slide Poythress to small forward? Will he turn Willie Cauley-Stein or Marcus Lee into more of a power forward than a center? Where does Derek Willis fit in? Lyles, one of the best in the Class of 2014, will be a factor one way or another. The good news is that Calipari has options. The interesting thing will be to see how they all play out.

Kansas: Cliff Alexander vs. Perry Ellis
Ellis has spent the better part of his career waiting his turn. Now here he is, a junior, and he’s got a whippersnapper like Alexander to battle. The two come at their position from different but equally effective ways. Alexander is the more typical power forward, a rebounding machine who muscles his way to success. Ellis can rebound and battle with the best of them, but he also has some finesse to his game. Odds are that coach Bill Self will find a way to use both at the same time -- Alexander likely at the 5 -- to form a pretty formidable backcourt.

North Carolina: Jackson Simmons vs. Isaiah Hicks
Or who will back up Brice Johnson? Caught in a numbers crunch, neither saw much playing time last season, but somebody will have to contribute for coach Roy Williams this coming season. Hicks, a sophomore to be, played out of position for most of last season, sliding over to the small forward spot. Meanwhile, Simmons (who will be a senior) has spent the better part of his career biding his time. It will come down to whether Williams leans on the more veteran Simmons or the more talented Hicks.

Wichita State: Who will replace Cleanthony Early?
That’s the unenviable battle. Shaquille Morris, who stopped traveling with the Shockers in February so he could work on his weight training and get in shape, has a chance if he proves he’s up to the task. Freshman Rashard Kelly, out of Hargrave Military, is also an option. He averaged 19.6 points and 10.4 boards in his senior season. The truth is that no one can replace Early alone, but coach Gregg Marshall at least needs to find some committee members up to the task.

Florida: Dorian Finney-Smith vs. Alex Murphy vs. Devin Robinson vs. Jon Horford
Finney-Smith, who likes to rebound, likely will get the nod here, but this could be a fluid position for coach Billy Donovan as the season progresses. Once Murphy, the Duke transfer, becomes eligible in mid-December, things could change. And if Robinson, a highly regarded freshman, develops well, it could change again. Horford, who can play immediately after finishing up his degree at Michigan, will likely get lots of minutes between the 4 and 5 spot, and Finney-Smith will float among small forward, power forward and even in the middle at times.

Gonzaga: Kyle Wiltjer vs. Domantas Sabonis
Wiltjer, the sharpshooting transfer from Kentucky, will likely get the edge here thanks to experience, but the Lithuanian Sabonis is an intriguing guy for coach Mark Few. The son of former NBA star Arvydas Sabonis, Domantas excelled in the FIBA Under-18 World Championships, averaging 14 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.
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.

Some of the best one-on-one matchups will take place before the 2014-15 season tips off. They will come in the form of position battles within a team to determine a starter, which will in some cases 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.

Here are shooting guard battles to keep an eye on:

Duke: Rasheed Sulaimon versus Grayson Allen

As C.L. noted Monday, Sulaimon won a big share of Quinn Cook's perimeter minutes down the stretch of the 2013-14 season, and there's good reason to be very bullish about Sulaimon's junior season. I'm so bullish Virginia fans thought I included Sulaimon at the expense of Virginia star Malcolm Brogdon last week. Brogdon was a regrettable omission, but I do think Sulaimon is "worth watching" for a whole variety of reasons, and this list is one of them. If Sulaimon has the same kind of early-season struggles as last season, he'll have a very capable five-star shooting guard in Allen just waiting to soak up his minutes at the 2 -- not to mention the chance that Coach K could decide to play Tyus Jones and Cook together. There is competition for minutes all over the Duke backcourt. If Sulaimon plays a lot, that means he'll be playing well.

Kentucky: Aaron Harrison versus Devin Booker

Kentucky's most fascinating positional intrigue will come from the frontcourt, where John Calipari has approximately 754 NBA-prospect forwards to parse into some recognizable rotation. It's harder to imagine him shaking things up in the backcourt after March's runner-up run, especially now that the Harrisons seem to have figured things out. But Booker is absolutely a player to watch, especially if one or both of the Harrisons regress.

Indiana: James Blackmon Jr. versus Stanford Robinson versus Robert Johnson versus …

If trades were allowed in college basketball -- maybe this could be one of the hidden upsides of unionization! -- Indiana would be burning up the phones. The Hoosiers have real holes in their frontcourt after losing freshmen Noah Vonleh (to the lottery) and Luke Fischer (to transfer). But boy, do they have guards: Besides star point guard Yogi Ferrell, there's fan favorite Robinson, 6-foot-7 wing Troy Williams, and now two top-rated incoming freshmen. Five-star prospect Blackmon is too good to sit on the bench, but where does that leave Johnson, the No. 10-ranked shooting guard in the class? There are a lot of bodies here. The best possible outcome is that Tom Crean has a ton of 2005-era Phoenix Suns tape on his shelf, says "hey, why not," puts Williams at the center, and plays 80 possessions a game.

Illinois: Kendrick Nunn versus Ahmad Starks

John Groce has a bunch of starters back and an interesting little backcourt situation on his hands. Nunn looked promising as a freshman, but Starks was a knockdown shooter for Oregon State, and it's not like Rayvonte Rice is going to be giving up any of his minutes.

Virginia Tech

Given how awful Virginia Tech was last year, new coach Buzz Williams will put his best players on the floor regardless. But it is worth noting that his best players -- and the three best players in his four-person recruiting class -- are all designated as shooting guards. Ahmed Hill and Justin Bibbs are both top-100 guys, and Jalen Hudson should get some run, too.

Florida: Michael Frazier II versus Brandone Francis

Francis won't unseat Frazier -- you don't bench a guy who made 118 of his 264 3s a season ago -- but Francis may work his way into the backcourt as a more versatile change of pace if Frazier doesn't add a skill or two to his offensive set.

North Carolina, sort of

Having lost Leslie McDonald to graduation, J.P. Tokoto may now be the closest thing the Tar Heels will have to a shooting guard in 2014-15. The good news: Tokoto is a tough, physical player who excels in transition, and he's even better on the defensive end. The downside: He can't shoot. The question here is which of the Tar Heels' incoming players can provide perimeter production. Small forwards Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson are both top-10 overall players in the incoming class, and point guard Joel Berry may be able to play off the ball a bit as well. There isn't a good way to describe this personnel in the context of just one position. Save Marcus Paige, the shape of UNC's backcourt is very much up for grabs.


Position battles: Point guards

May, 12, 2014
May 12
10:00
AM ET
Some of the best 1-on-1 matchups will take place before the 2014-15 season tips off. They will come in the form of position battles within a team to determine a starter, which will in some cases 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.

In places such as Michigan State, the chance to replace a graduating senior was anticipated and planned. In places such as Oklahoma State, the vacancy opened up unexpectedly. The job was likely going to Stevie Clark, but his February dismissal means the Cowboys will rely on freshman Tyree Griffin or junior college transfer Jeff Newberry. And in many cases, the position comes down to choosing between a returnee or a talented newcomer.

Unlike other sports, even the players who lose their respective battles will still have a chance to shine. But winning could be the difference between a starring role and being a footnote.

Here are point guard battles to keep an eye on:


Duke: Quinn Cook vs. Tyus Jones

Cook too often allowed his overall game to be shaped by his makes and misses and was replaced in the starting lineup the final 10 games of the season by Rasheed Sulaimon. Jones’ arrival in the Blue Devils heralded recruiting class means Sulaimon can move back to his natural position off the ball and sets up this showdown. Jones was rated No. 4 overall and the top point guard in the 2014 class by ESPN.com. Praised for his court vision and ability to run a team, Jones is arguably the better facilitator. Cook is a much better defender who has the added advantage of knowing the system.

SMU: Nic Moore vs. Emmanuel Mudiay

Moore had a solid year for the Mustangs leading the team in scoring, assists and 3-point shooting while starting every game. He was first team all-conference in the American. Yet here comes Mudiay, who might be the most important recruit -- he’s certainly the highest ranked -- in SMU history. The 6-foot-5 Mudiay was ranked fifth overall by ESPN.com, and his time in Dallas could be limited to one season before he’s in the NBA. Point guard is the toughest position to play under coach Larry Brown, and Moore has had the luxury of learning his expectations for two years. Mudiay’s talent is so undeniable that the Mustangs might find a way to play both in the lineup.

Kansas: Frank Mason vs. Conner Frankamp vs. Devonte Graham

Naadir Tharpe’s decision to transfer opened up what was already a position begging to be solidified. The Jayhawks haven’t had stability at point guard in two seasons and it threatens what could again be a top-10 team. Mason was third on the team in assists as a freshman and briefly supplanted Tharpe in the starting lineup. Frankamp, also a rising sophomore, played in enough games as a freshman to season him for extended time this season. Graham just signed this month out of prep school, but is considered a true playmaker.

Michigan State: Travis Trice vs. Lourawls Nairn

Trice proved his value at point guard running the Spartans when Keith Appling was sidelined by injury this past season. If Nairn shows the ability to play right away, the two could likely be used in the same lineup with Denzel Valentine at small forward and Branden Dawson at power forward. Should coach Tom Izzo opt for Valentine at shooting guard, Trice would probably be the starter at point. Nairn, a 5-foot-10 freshman, will have to develop his perimeter shooting, but his toughness and leadership skills already mesh into the Izzo mold.

Wisconsin: Traevon Jackson vs. Bronson Koenig

It seems absurd that Jackson, a rising senior who started every game on a Final Four team, could see his minutes diminished by a reserve, but it speaks to Koenig's great potential. Jackson showed a penchant for making the big shot. Koenig is arguably the better scorer with his ability to get to the rim. The rising sophomore proved he’s ready for a bigger role during the Badgers’ loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals. Entrusted to run the team with Jackson in foul trouble, Koenig scored 11 points in 16 minutes during the first half.

Syracuse: Kaleb Joseph vs. Michael Gbinije

Coach Jim Boeheim has proven the past two seasons that he’s unafraid to play an untested point guard. As he did with Michael Carter-Williams two seasons ago and Tyler Ennis this past season, Boeheim could again put the ball in the hands of a player with little point guard experience in his system. Gbinije, a 6-foot-7 junior, filled in at times for Ennis, although he’s more of a combo guard than a point. Joseph, a true freshman, will be a part of the guard rotation that includes shooting guard Trevor Cooney. Don’t be surprised if Joseph ends up like Ennis in the starting lineup early.

Memphis: Rashawn Powell vs. Dominic Magee

It’s been a while since Memphis didn’t have an heir awaiting the starting duties at point guard. Coach Josh Pastner looks to replace five senior guards with a three freshmen who can all play point. Powell and Magee are the likely front-runners as pure point guards. Powell is as much of a wild card as the true freshman Magee. He didn’t qualify last season and was not allowed to practice, but was enrolled in school. Pastner will have a third option in Markell Crawford, who redshirted last season, who has the leadership skills to step in and run the team.

North Carolina: Nate Britt vs. Joel Berry

Thank Kendall Marshall for this battle. Marshall’s injury in the 2012 NCAA tournament sabotaged a team built for a national title run, and coach Roy Williams vowed he’d never be in that position again. In past years, Williams probably would not have added a point guard in this class considering Marcus Paige will ultimately run the show. This battle won’t be as detrimental to team success as others, but is intriguing nonetheless. Berry, the freshman, will challenge Britt, the sophomore, and the time-old notion in Chapel Hill that seniority wins out.

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