Caleb Love, college basketball

Every preseason, voters try and come up with their top 25 teams. In college basketball, that can be tricky until you know what every team is made of.

Sure, you’ve got Houston and North Carolina. Kentucky and Gonzaga always seem like good bets. And if anyone’s paid any attention to college basketball exhibitions, the Tennessee Volunteers are a legitimate contender.

However, up and down that AP Top 25 are still so many questions. Teams are dealing with injuries. Some benches are thin, raising concerns. And other teams lack identities that they hope they’ll find on the court soon.

With the season approaching in less than a week, here’s something every AP Preseason Top 25 college basketball team can focus on.

1. North Carolina

Consistency out of Caleb Love

There’s no denying that Caleb Love is one of the most talented guards in the country. As a sophomore, he was a key factor in leading the UNC Tar Heels all the way to the National Championship game. He’s a big reason they’re ranked first in most polls to start the season. But Love has never been an efficient player. As a freshman, he could only hit 31.6% of shots from the field. Last season, Love’s field goal percentage was still under 38%. Although the Heels retain their starting backcourt from last season, the losses of Brady Manek and Dawson Garcia mean that Love’s role could expand more. The Tar Heels would benefit from better shot selection.

2. Gonzaga

Point guard play

Starting point guard Andrew Nembhard has moved on, so the Zags will turn to Nolan Hickman and Rasir Bolton to handle those duties. Hickman is the likely heir to the throne, as Bolton is better off the ball. In 17.2 minutes per game last season, Hickman only tallied 1.3 assists per game. He should receive some solid help off the bench, as Chattanooga transfer Malachi Smith comes in as an all-around playmaker. But Gonzaga will have to trust some inexperience at point guard out of the gates.

3. Houston

Full return to health

No one wants to play with an over-arching fear of getting hurt, but it’s hard not to if you’re the Houston Cougars. Even if Houston was able to rally together and make a Sweet 16 run without Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, the Cougars need them both to be at full strength. Of course, that’s a scary sight if they can return to 100%. The most important thing – neither injury was the dreaded ACL. Mark’s was a shoulder injury and Sasser’s toe took him out. They avoided the big one, and hopefully, they avoid injuries altogether, because a fully healthy Houston Cougars team might be the best team in college basketball.

4. Kentucky

Overcoming last year’s early exit

Sure, it can be done. After Virginia was upset by 16-seed UMBC, the Cavaliers went on to win the National Championship the following year. The Wildcats have the talent to do the same, and it starts with 2021 consensus National Player of the Year, Oscar Tshiebwe. Sahvir Wheeler and Illinois State transfer Antonio Reeves bring as much senior leadership as the Wildcats have had in recent years. Five-star freshmen Chris Livington and Carson Wallace go along with the usual one-and-done theme in Kentucky. Without a doubt, the ceiling with the Wildcats is redemption and a ring.

T-5. Kansas

Center play

It’s a MAJOR question in Lawrence right now. With David McCormack graduated, the Jayhawks will have to start a new center – and the answer isn’t as obvious as you might think. The best option seems to be Ernest Udeh, a 6-10, 230 lb. beast who should be able to make do in the Big 12. But he’s a true freshman, meaning Bill Self would have to have complete trust in starting him at the five. Other options include Cam Martin, Zach Clemence, and KJ Adams, plus a few more long shots. No matter what, it’s not an easy decision for the defending champions.

T-5. Baylor

Wing play

The Baylor Bears lost some serious forward talent from last year’s roster. Three of Baylor’s top four scorers from last season – Matthew Mayer, Jeremy Sochan, and Kendall Brown, were all versatile players who could handle a lot of work from the wing and inside. Baylor will look to replace all three and did a good job of bringing in five-star Keyontae George, West Virginia transfer Jalen Bridges, and BYU transfer Caleb Lohner. The difference is the cohesion Baylor loses. The Bears still do have a solid core from last season but will need those three to gel to reach peak performance.

7. Duke

Jon Scheyer

It’s extremely unfair to place so much on a first-year head coach, but that’s exactly what happens when you replace Mike Krzyzewski. There will be even more pressure after North Carolina – Duke’s biggest rival – performed so well in Hubert Davis’ first year. We know that Scheyer has the talent for a successful season, but Duke fans keep the bar high, especially after seeing what happened down Tobacco Road last year.

8. UCLA

Bench play

The UCLA Bruins have one of the thinnest benches in all of college basketball. The sixth-man spot will be open to one of two players. David Singleton is a graduate senior who averaged fewer than five points per game last season. Dylan Andrews is the 44th-ranked recruit in the 247Sports Composite Class of 2022 cycle. After that, UCLA will turn to Kenneth Nwuba, who only played about six minutes per game last season, and Mac Etienne, who didn’t play at all last season after tearing his ACL. The Bruins will need multiple guys off the bench to step up in order to live up to expectations.

9. Creighton

Turnovers

The Creighton Bluejays had a turnover problem last season, finishing 302nd in turnover percentage. A lot of that can be attributed to an inexperienced team, who was able to put together one win in March last season. The Jays bring their young crew back and add on Baylor Scheierman, a sought-after transfer from South Dakota State. There’s not much to hate about what the Bluejays have this season, but if you’re going to point to one issue, it would be turnovers.

10. Arkansas

An all-new roster

Talk about turnover – the Razorbacks lost TEN players from last season’s team. That leaves Eric Musselman with a roster largely made up of freshmen and transfers. In fact, just two returning players – Davonte Davis and Kamani Johnson – are expected to have roles in the rotation this season. Of course, what Arkansas did bring in – three top-20 recruits according to 247Sports Composite, plus multiple impactful transfers – is why the Razorbacks are so highly thought of. But sometimes it comes down to chemistry, and at least right now, that’s something that we’ll need to see before any big judgements are made.

11. Tennessee

Efficiency

From everything we’ve seen on Tennessee during preseason exhibitions, the Volunteers look like they’re better than 11th in the country. But one thing the Vols could improve on is efficiency. While not a huge issue, the Vols shot it under 44% as a team last season. Josiah-Jordan James (38.8%) and Zakai Zeigler (38.1%) are two culprits who brought that percentage down last season. It’s not a pressing issue, but there are always improvements to be made.

12. Texas

Finding enough minutes

It seems to be a theme with the Longhorns – deep rosters that make it hard for minutes to be spared evenly. Texas boasts a roster that has eight very good rotational players and two more who will make it difficult for Chris Beard to decide how to spread minutes. In fact, Texas is so deep, that five-star recruit Arterio Morris might be the third player off the bench. Having a deep team is never a big problem to have, but it’s also not easy.

13. Indiana

Three-point shooting

Where will it come from and will the Hoosiers be able to do it at a high clip? Last season, Indiana was 321st in three pointers attempted per game. And instead of adding a transfer or two to help with the issue, Mike Woodson was able to bring back largely the entire team from a year ago. Of course, that’s the biggest plus about Indiana, but in an age of basketball where three-point shooting is key, the Hoosiers will likely lag behind again in 2022-23.

14. TCU

Three-point shooting

Oh boy, another team with issues behind the line! And similarly, the Horned Frogs also return a vast amount of their group from last year. In fact, TCU is third in the country in returning minutes. Last year, it was a dismal effort, as the Horned Frogs could only connect on 30.2% of shots from behind the arc. That didn’t seem to matter when TCU ran past Seton Hall in the NCAA Tournament, but being one-dimensional is never a good thing.

15. Auburn

Replacing Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler

Smith was one of, if not the best freshman in college basketball last season. Now, Auburn will turn to Morehead State transfer Johni Broome and five-star freshman Yohan Traore down low. Obviously, the Tigers hit the jackpot with a star frosh and top transfer last year. But nothing is promised this season. On paper, it seems as if the Tigers will have just as good of a duo in the paint this year. But when it comes down to it, Smith and Kessler were a dynamic duo, and it isn’t all that easy to just replace two players with their talent.

16. Villanova

The future without Collin Gillespie and Jay Wright

Will it be a program change or just more of the same? The Villanova Wildcats lose not one, but two program legends in head coach Jay Wright and point guard Collin Gillespie. Villanova is positive about the future, which includes five-star freshman Cam Whitmore and new head coach Kyle Neptune. However, enduring the losses that they did is not an easy task, especially in the first year of all the changes.

17. Arizona

Kerr Kriisa’s consistency

At times, Kerr Kriisa can be one of the best guards in the Pac-12. He dropped 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists in a win at Illinois. Kriisa had a triple-double against Utah and seven games scoring in double-figures. But he also had some head-scratching games, like an 0-for-12 showing at UCLA and seven games with at least four turnovers. This year, one big thing will be more consistency from the field and taking care of the ball better.

18. Virginia

Outside scoring

Last season, the Virginia Cavaliers didn’t utilize the three-point line too much. Points as a whole were an overarching problem, but three-point shooting can be most to blame. Virginia only made 5.0 threes per game on an average of 15.6 attempts. Both of those were 350th in the country – nearly dead last. One bright spot? The Cavs did hit 32.3% of their shots from deep, which ranked 257th. So, that does show that while Virginia didn’t rely on the three-ball, they showed some promise. But other than Kihei Clark and Armaan Franklin, the Cavaliers didn’t have any other player take two threes per game. Reece Beekman could be a candidate to help change that.

19. San Diego State

Points

Much like Virginia, San Diego State relies on a staunch defense to make up for a lack of scoring. The Aztecs only averaged 65.4 points per game last season – 311th out of 358 teams in college basketball. In conference play, San Diego State actually averaged slightly more points per game, putting up 67.3 PPG in the Mountain West. Is that a sign of things to come? San Diego State does return Matt Bradley and Nathan Mensah and adds a really good scorer in Darrion Trammell, which could lead to major improvements on offense.

20. Alabama

Health of Jahvon Quinerly

Crimson Tide point guard Jahvon Quinerly tore his ACL in Bama’s loss to Notre Dame in March Madness. While Quinerly won’t be back to start the season, Alabama does expect him to return at some point. That could make all the difference for a Bama team that brought in transfer Mark Sears and five-star Jaden Bradley to mend the loss in the backcourt. When Quinerly returns, it could give Alabama the spark that’s needed to get to full force.

21. Oregon

Playmaking

One reason for a failed season in Eugene last year was a lack of fluidity on offense. While the Ducks didn’t necessarily have scoring problems, nothing came easy. Oregon was 10th out of the 12 teams in the Pac-12 in assists per game during conference play (11.5). Dana Altman brought in South Carolina transfer Keeshawn Bartholemy, who could impact Oregon’s ball movement in a positive way. But the Ducks also have a pair of game-changers down low in Kel’el Ware and N’Faly Dante, which could make the offense a bit stagnant once the ball reaches the post.

22. Michigan

Chemistry

It will be a new-look Michigan Wolverines team, with Hunter Dickinson as the lone returning starter. While that’s not a bad guy to have back, it will mean incoming transfers, freshmen, and returners who had smaller roles last season will need to step up from day one in Ann Arbor. Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn will be counted on to make the transition for everyone seamless, but that’s also a big task out of an Ivy League player coming to the Big Ten. On paper, the Wolverines have a lot of talent, but it’s definitely a fair question for a team with little to base on last year.

23. Illinois

Playing post-Kofi Cockburn

When you lose a dominant college basketball player like Kofi Cockburn, it’s going to present some challenges. Cockburn was the heart and soul of Illinois basketball over the past few seasons, so moving on from him won’t be easy. The Fighting Illini might play very differently this season. Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer and freshman Skyy Clark are expected to hold big roles this season, so we may see less offense in the paint and more pick-and-pop and points from outside.

24. Dayton

Staying out of foul trouble

A favorite to come out of the Atlantic 10, the Dayton Flyers bring back an experienced group that won 24 games last season. But with experience should also come improvement, and for the Flyers, it’s about limiting fouls. Dayton committed 13.9 fouls per game in 2021-22, which was near the bottom in the country. Surprisingly, Da’Ron Holmes down low wasn’t usually the problem. Instead, it was Toumani Camara and Malachi Smith who committed the most personal fouls per game. Of course, fouls aren’t usually the most pressing issue, but it does lead to easy points for the opposing team. Less of that means even more wins for a talented Dayton bunch.

25. Texas Tech

Surviving much of the season without Fardaws Aimaq

A double-double machine and coveted transfer, Aimaq will be out until at least February with an injury. Now, Texas Tech will turn to Daniel Batcho, a redshirt sophomore who only played about 10 minutes per game last season, as the new starting center. Aimaq wasn’t just brought in to start at center – he likely would have been a major piece both as a defender and on offense. Now, the Red Raiders will be without their man in the middle, placing a huge load on Batcho for much of the season. Of course, if Batcho continues to improve when Aimaq returns, it could wind up being a blessing in the end.

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