Ten key questions facing top programs as practice opens

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Ten key questions facing top programs as practice opens
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Friday is the first day of practice for most Division I college basketball teams. Yahoo Sports begins its season preview coverage with a look at some of the key questions facing the nation's top programs and the answers that could emerge between now and the new season tipping off Nov. 13.  

1. Can Gonzaga's three frontcourt stars play together?

When Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis all announced this past spring that they would be returning to Gonzaga, it created a compelling dilemma for Zags coach Mark Few. Could he figure out a way to get his three best players on the floor at the same time next season when each member of the trio stands at least 6-foot-10?

Few has said he intends to try it for stretches of games, a gamble that comes with plenty of advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, the 6-foot-10, highly skilled Wiltjer should be able to back down smaller defenders in the post when opponents play man-to-man or rain down 3-pointers if they go zone. On the other hand, Wiltjer struggled to stay in front of quick face-up power forwards last season, so Gonzaga may have to go zone to hide him defensively instead of asking him to guard opposing wings.

Ultimately, the three-big look may not be the lineup with which Gonzaga starts or finishes most games, but it makes sense for the Zags to have it in their arsenal. Their backcourt is unproven with Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Byron Wesley all graduating and they have a fourth big man, redshirt sophomore Ryan Edwards, capable of contributing off the bench too.

2. Has Indiana gotten any better defensively?

Thanks to the presence of an elite point guard and an array of wings who could either rain down 3-pointers or score off the dribble, Indiana boasted one of the nation's most efficient offenses last season. What prevented the Hoosiers from being anything more than a marginal NCAA tournament team was that their defense was every bit as inept as their offense was dynamic.

Indiana finished the season 275th in points per possession surrendered, only better than Missouri, Virginia Tech and DePaul among major-conference programs. Many of the Hoosiers' perimeter players struggled staying in front of their man or closing out on shooters and the team lacked any semblance of a rim protector besides foul-prone 6-foot-9 center Hanner Mosquera-Perea.

Can Indiana make a dramatic improvement this season even though its perimeter corps is the same as last year and its only scholarship player taller than 6-foot-8 will be a true freshman? Despite external skepticism, Tom Crean seems to think so. He intends to drill his players on getting over the top of screens, rotating quick enough on help defense and closing out on shooters. And, hey, maybe that back-to-basics emphasis will help. To become a top 15 team, Indiana doesn't have to be elite defensively. The Hoosiers just can't be incompetent either.

3. How does Virginia replace Justin Anderson in its starting lineup?

Had Justin Anderson returned for his senior year, Virginia might have entered the season as the nation's preseason No. 1 team. Instead the athletic, do-it-all wing capitalized on a strong 2014-15 season and entered the NBA draft, leaving the Cavaliers in search of a way to replace his 12.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 45 percent 3-point shooting.

The leading candidates to absorb Anderson's playing time are senior Evan Nolte and sophomore Marial Shayok, the former a long-range shooter whose 3-point shot deserted him last season and the latter an athletic wing who showed flashes of promise on both ends of the floor as a freshman. Tony Bennett also emerged from the summer pleased with the improvement of 6-foot-4 Tennessee transfer Darius Thompson and 6-foot-5 sophomore Devon Hall as well.

Whoever plays alongside returning starters London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon in the Virginia backcourt, the Cavaliers are hopeful it goes more smoothly than it did last season when Anderson fractured his left pinkie in early February. The 30-win Cavaliers never looked quite the same again, losing to both remaining Top 25 opponents on their schedule and then falling to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament's round of 32.

Tyler Ulis (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)
Tyler Ulis (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)

4. Can Kentucky's three point guards coexist and work together?

It's no mystery why John Calipari has adopted "positionless basketball" as his favorite catchphrase of the offseason to describe his program. The Kentucky coach needs his team to buy into that concept because his top three backcourt players ostensibly all project as point guards at the next level.

Five-foot-9 sophomore Tyler Ulis is a classic pass-first point guard who controls tempo, creates for teammates off the dribble, knocks down open shots and pesters opponents defensively. Six-foot-3 freshman Isaiah Briscoe is a strong, athletic lead guard who generates shots for himself and his teammates in transition and is at his best bullying smaller guards and finishing through contact. Six-foot-4 freshman Jamal Murray is the most comfortable of the three playing off ball because of his deep range as a spot-up shooter yet he also can score off the dribble, set up big men out of a pick-and-roll or find open shooters.

The bad news is that all three are best with the ball in their hands yet there's only one basketball to go around. The good news is they're playing for a coach who has shown an uncanny ability to get future pros to willingly sacrifice stats for the good of the team. All three have already forged a strong bond and are already saying the right things publicly. Plus, Kentucky's defense shouldn't suffer because Briscoe and Murray have the size and length to defend opposing wings.

5. Is point guard Derryck Thornton ready to step in right away for Duke?

Once Tyus Jones decided to parlay his brilliant freshman season into an NBA contract this past spring, one of college basketball's most talent-rich programs was left in an unusual position. Not only did Duke not have a single point guard on its 2015-16 roster, all the elite point guards in Class of 2015 had also already signed with other schools.

Mike Krzyzewski and his staff solved this problem by putting the full-court press on Class of 2016 prospect Derryck Thornton and persuading him to graduate a year ahead of time to take advantage for the chance to start immediately. His youth and inexperience make him the biggest question mark on a Duke team that will likely start returning standouts Grayson Allen and Matt Jones at the wings with veterans Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee competing for playing time with highly touted freshmen Brandon Ingram and Chase Jeter in the frontcourt.

What will help Thornton make a positive impact right away is that his greatest strength is his decision making. He is a lethal scorer, a skilled playmaker and a solid defender but he needs to add strength and increase the consistency of his jump shot.

6. How will Villanova divvy up playing time among its three point guards?

One is the reigning co-Big East player of the year, a senior known as much for his infectious hustle and enthusiasm as for his knack for sinking big shots. The second is an obvious breakout candidate, a highly touted sophomore who was productive and efficient in limited minutes last season. The third is one of the most coveted incoming freshmen Jay Wright has ever recruited, a McDonald's All-American who starred on the US U-19 world championship team this past summer.

Ryan Arcidiacono, Phil Booth and Jalen Brunson are each standout point guards who would start for most teams around the nation, so how will Wright utilize all three of them? The most likely scenario is that at least two of the three will be on the court together at all times with Arcidiacono and Brunson starting alongside one-another and Booth playing 25 minutes per game as the first guard off the bench.

For Villanova, the advantage of that lineup is always having at least two guards on the floor who are capable of handling the ball, attacking the rim and creating for themselves or their teammates. A lack of size and strength at the shooting guard position could pose problems defensively, but the Wildcats will likely call on 6-foot-5 small forward Josh Hart to defend opposing teams' best wing.

7. Who will join Kaleb Tarczewski in Arizona's starting lineup?

For a team that lost four of its five starters to graduation or the NBA draft this past spring, Arizona enters the new season in remarkably good shape. The return of four rotation players, the arrival of four promising freshmen and the addition of three potential impact transfers give Sean Miller the deepest, most offensively gifted roster he's had since coming to Tucson and a litany of options for how to assemble his starting lineup.

The one certainty appears to be the center position, where returning starter Kaleb Tarczewski will once again see the majority of the playing time with sophomore Dusan Ristic providing scoring and rebounding off the bench. It's also a good bet that 5-foot-10 offensive spark plug Parker Jackson-Cartwright will inherit the starting point guard job from T.J. McConnell and high-scoring Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson will start at power forward.

How the rest of the rotation looks is anyone's guess. Combo guard Kadeem Allen averaged 25 points per game in junior college and drew high praise for his performance on the scout team last year. San Francisco transfer Mark Tollefson is versatile scorer who can play either forward spot. Senior guard Gabe York is a sharpshooter whose defense and all-around game have improved every year. And then there are the freshmen. Highly touted wing Alonzo Trier may be the most polished and college-ready, but Justin Simon can defend all three perimeter spots and Ray Smith is the only true small forward on the roster.

Cheick Diallo (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Cheick Diallo (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

8. Will Cheick Diallo be eligible for Kansas?

The missing element in Kansas' frontcourt last season was a big man who could alter shots at one end and finish above the rim or in transition at the other. The Jayhawks filled that void with the signing of McDonald's All-American Cheick Diallo last spring, but the NCAA has yet to rule whether the 6-foot-9 Mali native will be academically eligible to play this season or not.

At issue are the three-plus years Diallo spent at Our Savior New American, a private school in Centereach, N.Y. Kansas coach Bill Self told reporters earlier this week that Diallo is practicing with the team and that he's hopeful the freshman will be cleared to play by the start of the season. Freshman Carlton Bragg and veteran Jamari Traylor are the other options to start alongside Perry Ellis if Diallo is unavailable.

If Diallo is cleared, he'd be the perfect complement to Ellis in the Kansas frontcourt because their strengths are so different. Ellis atones for modest length and athleticism with a polished repertoire of back-to-the-basket moves and mid-range jump shots. Diallo isn't going to scare anyone if Kansas feeds him the ball in the high post or on the low block, but he runs the floor exceptionally, finishes at the rim, rebounds at both ends and has impressive timing blocking shots.

9. What will Maryland get out of Rasheed Sulaimon?

One year after watching from home as his former teammates celebrated winning the national title, dismissed Duke shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon will have a chance to experience that same joy with his new team. The senior has joined a Maryland program that could emerge as a title contender if Sulaimon can recapture the form he displayed early in his college career.

A former McDonald's All-American who averaged 11.6 points and 3.4 rebounds per game as a freshman at Duke, Sulaimon probably would have been a first-round draft pick had he left school the following spring. Instead his playing time and productivity diminished the following two years as other talented wings eclipsed him in Duke's rotation, leading to issues behind the scenes.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon has known Sulaimon since high school and is confident he'll be an asset for the Terrapins. Sulaimon doesn't need to be a superstar for Maryland to be an elite team, but it would help if he can ease the burden on sophomore Melo Trimble, replace some of the scoring Dez Wells provided last season and guard opposing teams' top perimeter threat.

10. Will Purdue's trio of centers be an asset or a hindrance?

It's a testament to the size of Purdue's frontcourt that a McDonald's All-American nicknamed "Biggie" will be dwarfed by the two other centers in the Boilermakers' rotation. Six-foot-9 freshman Caleb Swanigan joins all-conference 7-foot senior A.J. Hammons and promising 7-foot-2 sophomore Isaac Haas to form a trio that will cause plenty of matchup issues both for Purdue and its opponents.

Assuming Purdue coach Matt Painter opts to slide Swanigan to power forward and start him alongside Hammons, that will create some challenges for the Boilermakers at both ends. Swanigan will have to prove he can stay in front of more mobile forwards off the dribble and can defend pick-and-pops out to the perimeter, two areas in which he probably doesn't have too much experience. Swanigan should be able to seal off smaller defenders at the other end, but providing Hammons and Haas enough space to operate in the post also will depend on his ability to play outside the paint and knock down mid-range jump shots.

Ultimately, Purdue's most effective lineup for spacing purposes and defensive versatility might feature promising combo forward Vince Edwards at the four, but can Painter utilize that lineup frequently and still keep his trio of big men happy? Hammons is an all-conference senior with NBA aspirations, Swanigan is Purdue's most ballyhooed recruit in years and Haas showed promise in limited minutes as a freshman. All three will expect to play a significant role for the Boilermakers this season.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!