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Friday, November 4, 2011
Writer Q&A: ESPN.com's top five teams

ESPN.com

As ESPN.com reveals its top five teams for the 2011-12 season, our writers answer a few questions about these prime national-title contenders.

1. North Carolina

Both on the court and off, how has Harrison Barnes changed from this time last year?

Robbi Pickeral: Off the court, the preseason AP All-American is looser -- playing video games with teammates (something he never did growing up), joking with media, seeming more comfortable with the lofty expectations that surround him. On the court, the sophomore says he has added 15 pounds of strength and that his ballhandling is much smoother. Teammates have been impressed by how much better he's gotten at taking contact, and they expect him to get to the free throw line more often. That should further frustrate defenders and pad the 15.7 points he averaged last season.

What potentially pivotal player are we not talking about enough?

Pickeral: Lost in the hype of UNC's four Naismith nominees (Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Kendall Marshall) is another first-round NBA prospect: freshman James Michael McAdoo. The 6-foot-9 forward from Norfolk, Va., would start on most teams, but on this one he'll be asked to serve a similar role to that of Marvin Williams in 2005 and Ed Davis in 2009: providing a big-time lift off the bench. Both of his predecessors won national titles those seasons before leaving early for the NBA. McAdoo -- whose dad is second cousin to former Carolina star Bob McAdoo -- has the same potential.

2. Kentucky

Do the Wildcats have a weakness?

Jason King: It's tough to find many on a team loaded with future pros, but its youth -- four of the top seven players are freshmen -- is certainly worthy of pause. A lack of point guard depth could also hurt Kentucky. Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb, a combo guard, will start in the backcourt. But after that, it's walk-on Jarrod Polson and Mississippi State transfer Twany Beckham, who won't be eligible until mid-December and has been slow to catch on.

Who is Kentucky's leader?

King: John Wall embraced the role two years ago and Brandon Knight grew into it during last season's Final Four run. But the 2011-12 Wildcats are still waiting for someone to take command of the team. Darius Miller is a senior but isn't one of the squad's top players. Terrence Jones gained respect by spurning the NBA draft and returning to school, but he's never been much of a vocal presence. Don't be surprised if players rally around freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the team's hardest workers.

3. Ohio State

Can the Buckeyes still lock down on defense?

Eamonn Brennan: Perhaps the most underrated reason for Ohio State's success last season was the team's perimeter defense, which managed to do two things that typically run counter on the basketball court: The Buckeyes forced a ton of turnovers but rarely fouled. Usually, teams can do one or the other, but not both. Senior David Lighty was the main reason for this. He was one of the best defensive players and all-around glue guys in the country. Replacing his defensive contributions could prove difficult.

How will Ohio State rewire its attack?

Brennan: The 2010-11 Buckeyes were predictable -- and unstoppable -- on offense. On nearly every possession the ball went to Jared Sullinger in the post, who either scored or, when double-teamed, kicked to senior marksman Jon Diebler. A slimmed-down Sullinger is looking to play less as a center and more as a power forward this season, so Ohio State will have to incorporate more experienced talents like William Buford and Aaron Craft while finding new scoring from sophomore Deshaun Thomas and freshmen Shannon Scott and Amir Williams. This will be a deeper and arguably more dynamic offense, but it may suffer some growing pains as a result.

4. Connecticut

What's Connecticut's biggest concern?

Andy Katz: So far, the Huskies appear to be a bit of a quiet bunch. Someone needs to take on more of a demonstrative presence. Who is going to be the voice for this team? Who will gather this team when things go awry to ensure that players don't stray? In other words, who will be Kemba Walker? Shabazz Napier might be the best candidate, but he still needs to come out of his shell more.

How long will it take for Andre Drummond to become a force?

Katz: Drummond has been a bit passive so far for the Huskies, showing respect as the new guy in the bunch. Breaking his nose in practice also left him a bit more reserved. But as he gets more comfortable, he'll need to be more of a power player opposite Alex Oriakhi. If Drummond is reluctant to accept that role, the Huskies won't reach their potential.

5. Syracuse

Do you have faith in Scoop Jardine?

Dana O'Neill: The simple answer: yes. Syracuse fans understandably have endured a love-hate relationship with their point guard. He is tantalizingly spectacular on one play and frustratingly willful on the next, sometimes too enamored of the $500 pass when the 50 cent one will do. So why believe in Jardine? No, it's not just a Philly kindred spirit thing. He's a fifth-year senior that, mercurial or not, possesses all of the skills to be ranked among the top five point guards in the game. And those three seasons of Big East play account for battle scars, games and years of experience that will serve him and a veteran Orange team well this season.

Is there a 3-point shooter on this team?

O'Neil: There are plenty who can shoot the 3 -- Jardine, James Southerland, Mookie Jones, Kris Joseph, Brandon Triche, Michael Carter-Williams, Trevor Cooney. The issue is can someone sink it consistently? The Orange learned last season just how much of a luxury Andy Rautins and his 41 percent shooting from the arc were, when everyone hovered in the 30-35 percent range. Jim Boeheim has guys who can hit from the outside consistently. He just needs those guys to be taking the shots. In other words, more Southerland, Carter-Williams, Jones and Cooney, less Joseph, Jardine and Triche.