College Hoops Mailbag: Who has the best starting five this season?

To help you prepare for the coming college basketball season, college basketball writer and NBA Draft expert Sam Vecenie will be answering questions sent via either Twitter or email once a week before the season starts.

Here are answers to the best questions he received this week. As always, you can reach him at @Sam_Vecenie on Twitter, by following him on Facebook, or by emailing him at sam.vecenie@cbsinteractive.com.

Q: Does Maryland have the best starting five in the America? – @mynewhate

A: The Terps have a solid argument for the title. With what is likely a consensus preseason first-team All-American in Melo Trimble, a potential first-round pick in Jake Layman and a top-10 recruit entering the fold in low-post presence Diamond Stone, that’s three potential All-Big Ten players.

Whether this is the best starting five in the country depends on the other two pieces, and my guess is those two pieces aren’t set in stone yet. It’ll probably be some combination of Rasheed Sulaimon, Robert Carter, and Jared Nickens, depending on how they want to play. Do you use three guards with Layman as a stretch-four man next to Stone, playing Carter in a strong role off the bench? Do you want to play Layman at the 3 next to Carter and Stone, making Nickens’ ability to shoot the 3 all the more important? Or would you rather have Sulaimon’s secondary ball-handling skill and creation ability next to Trimble? There are a lot of questions as to how the pieces will fit together still. It’s a talented group, no question, but I’d look elsewhere for a choice here.

North Carolina is CBSSports.com’s No. 1 team in the nation for a reason, as Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Justin Jackson are a fearsome foursome. Add in Theo Pinson and Joel Berry to that mix after injury-plagued freshman seasons and there’s a ton of experienced talent there. An under-the-radar candidate for this could be Indiana, as Yogi Ferrell will be a preseason All-American flanked by three potential first-round picks in the future in Troy Williams, James Blackmon Jr., and freshman Thomas Bryant. Add in glue guy Robert Johnson, and that lineup might be the most offensively potent group in the country. Another could be California with Tyrone Wallace, Jordan Mathews, Jabari Bird, Jaylen Brown, and Ivan Rabb.

But it’s pretty hard to ignore Kentucky, with Isaiah Briscoe, Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee being probably the most talented group of six players in the country this year. That’s two potential top-five picks in Labissiere and Murray, a pair of potential first rounders in Briscoe and Lee, plus a terrier point guard in Ulis who will defend his butt off, get everyone involved, and catalyze them on both ends. It’s a question as to how this lineup will be molded, whether it’s Poythress or Briscoe in the final run (I’d imagine Ulis gets the nod at point). Plus, Labissiere still hasn’t become officially eligible to play college basketball yet, so that’s a situation worth watching. A bit more spacing wouldn’t hurt on offense, either. But overall, this lineup is just so overwhelmingly talented that it would be my pick.

Q: What are the keys for a great Arizona Wildcats season? – Dave Farley

A: I did a Pac-12 preview earlier this summer and still had Arizona on top of the league despite California and Oregon possessing more talented rosters offensively. Why is that? Honestly, it mostly has to do with trust in Sean Miller getting this deep, multi-faceted roster to play together on both ends.

It’s fair to expect a drop-off on defense given who Arizona lost this offseason. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell were very much elite collegiate defenders. Stanley Johnson was also an elite defender when he was fully engaged, and Brandon Ashley was a big part of their pick-and-roll defense with his mobility and ability to hedge out on the perimeter. Still though, Miller is one of the best defensive coaches in the country, so you’d think they should be able at least carve out an above-average defense this year.

But because it might not be one of the top-three units in America this year, the key for the Cats will be getting more consistent offense. They relied an awful lot last season on McConnell to get them shots late in the offense, and he’s gone now. The offense could really bog down though due to a lack of spacing when defenses keyed on him last year.

I’d look for two guys particularly to tell the story as to whether or not the offense will be good enough to make up for what could be a defensive drop off. First, Allonzo Trier was one of the best pure scorers in last year’s recruiting class, and he’ll be counted on to take on a heavy load while still taking better, more efficient looks than he did at times before getting to Arizona. It’s not out of the question for him to lead the Pac-12 in scoring. Second, Kadeem Allen is a guy that people around the program have been excited about since he arrived on campus after winning JUCO Player of the Year in 2014. He’s a 6-3 guard who will guard both the 1 and 2, but he’s at his best on offense. He can really break down defenses from the perimeter, shoot a little bit from the outside, and he is also terrific at getting into transition. The jury’s still out on him just due to a lack of track record at the high-Division I level, but if he can be the big-time player that many expect him to be the Wildcats should be fine. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention their two big incoming transfers, Ryan Anderson from Boston College and Mark Tollefson from San Francisco. Both of these guys can step out and knock down jumpers, giving them a bit more of a spacing dimension than they had last year.

Overall, the Wildcats could be a more consistent offensive team this year due to better spacing and shooting. But will it be enough to make up for the departing talent? That’s still a question that needs answering.

Q: Will Wisconsin ever finish lower than fourth in the Big Ten? – @The_Lorax2

A: I wouldn’t bet on it until Bo Ryan leaves given that he’s finished there every season since he took over in 2001. There’s a reason he was the only coach in our Candid Coaches poll series to receive at least seven percent of the vote for both best offensive and best defensive coach in the country. He’s possibly the best teacher in all of college basketball, and is certainly among the best in-game strategists in hoops.

But while Wisconsin won’t be outside of my preseason top-four in the Big Ten, they’re under siege to be certain. They lose five of their top-seven contributors, which is far more than any of the top teams in the Big Ten. To add to that, all four of Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue probably have more pure talent on their roster than the Badgers. Still, Ryan coaches guys up (remember when Frank Kaminsky was an incoming junior that had scored less than three points per game in his two years?), and I’d expect that one of Ethan Happ or Vitto Brown steps into a large role and succeeds next to Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. Will it be enough? We’ll see. History is on the side of the Badgers, though, as long as Ryan decides to man the sidelines.

Q: Does LSU have a shot to contend for a national title? -Martin Black?

A: Short answer: Probably not.

Long answer: With Ben Simmons in tow, LSU will have a good chance to be the second best team behind Kentucky in the SEC. He’s the real deal as a college player. A matchup nightmare at the 4 that no one will be able to stay in front of. He’s one of those players who can affect the game without so much as scoring a single point, and he’ll make everyone around him that much better.

Having said that, I’m not sure they have quite enough around him to make a full run. Tim Quarterman was a really good lead ball-handler late in the season, but he hasn’t shown a lot playing off the ball yet, which is something he’ll be required to do often with Simmons. Five-star freshman Antonio Blakeney didn’t have the most impressive summer at camp events, so the jury is out on just how great his impact will be this year. Josh Gray might be tough to play around those three guys because he struggles to shoot and might tank their spacing on offense. Jalyn Patterson and Keith Hornsby can both really shoot and fit better on offense, but both bring their own limitations. Plus, there are questions on the bench as Johnny Jones has underachieved for the last two seasons given the talent that was present on the roster.

They’re going to be terrific to watch, as they’ll play quick, transition-based, uptempo hoops. And Simmons is just about the perfect player to build around for a season in that system. But I’m just not sold on them as a national contender unless Quarterman really improves his jump shot and Blakeney plays better than I saw this summer.


Lightning Round Time…

Q: Can Purdue run a functional offense and keep A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas, and Caleb Swanigan happy?

A: Maybe, but I think it’ll be tough. Swanigan will likely play a lot of 4, which is something he’s going to struggle with on defense despite his length. With he and one of the two seven-footers on the floor, the Boilermakers are going to struggle against heavy pick-and-roll-based attacks.

For me, their best lineups will probably involve a lot of Vince Edwards at the 4. That’ll help them retain a lot of defensive versatility as well as floor spacing on offense, and allow Hammons to stay in the paint where he’s among the best rim protectors in America. Luckily, I think they have enough talent on the wing to make that work. The bigger question will be at the point guard position without Jon Octeus.

Q: Will Oregon State return to the NCAA Tournament after a 25-year absence? – Louie Bottaro

A: It all depends on their offense. Last year, the Beavers had the No. 16 defense in the country, led by Gary Payton II hounding players on the perimeter and making it extremely difficult to get penetration. That should be there again. However, the offense finished 280th in the country according to KenPom, as they really struggled to shoot from the outside.

However, they did add two guys in their recruiting class who can shoot from the outside in Stephen Thompson and Tres Tinkle, son of coach Wayne Tinkle. If those guys can be immediate impact players and the Beavers see some marginal improvement from their returning guys, they’ll get back.

Q: What’s Wichita State’s ceiling this year? Top 5 contender or pretender? – Daniel Miller

A: I’d say somewhere in the middle is a fair bet. I mean, sure, the Shockers could eventually get to the top-five in the regular season given that Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are still around and will be the best players in the MVC by a good distance. And due to the consistency of those guys and their past success, it would be impossible to call them a pretender. We know these guys can really play, so there aren’t really any “Paper Tiger” qualities about them.

However, I’d fall just short of putting them in my top-10 teams most likely to win a national title. There are some pretty significant questions with this group on the interior that they need to figure out after losing Darius Carter from what was a pretty short-handed group as it was last year. Also, they’re going to feel the loss of Tekele Cotton on the perimeter pretty heavily. He took on a lot of tough defensive assignments and allowed Baker and VanVleet to conserve just a bit more energy than they otherwise could have without him. So while I think they’re a team that could get to another Final Four this year if things broke right for them just due to their terrific guard play, leadership, and physicality, I wouldn’t put them in my top-five (and I think few would, anyway).

Q: Is Vanderbilt a legitimate contender in the SEC? – @CC_Report

A: Probably not, just because Kentucky is still in the SEC and — as I mentioned above — still have one of the most talented teams in the country. But behind the Wildcats, Vandy is another team that could make the NCAA Tournament. Damian Jones is a potential first-round pick in 2016 if he can become more assertive inside. Luke Kornet is another solid big man next to him who can really space the floor. On the outside, guards Riley LaChance and Wade Baldwin both had terrific freshman seasons. The Commodores need both of those guys to take the leap into the upper echelon of SEC guards to reach their highest potential.

Kevin Stallings knows exactly how to get the most out of talented offensive players, so I’d expect them to be a top-20 team on that side of the ball again. If the defense can catch up, they’ll reach the Tournament and have a shot to finish second in the league.

Q: Outside of the big-name freshmen, who will be the biggest impact newcomers in the Big East? – Jacob Padilla

A: Tyler Lewis is a former McDonald’s All-American who transferred from North Carolina State to Butler and will be eligible this year. He got caught in a numbers game after Cat Barber emerged at NC State as a point, but he set the school record for assist-to-turnover ratio as a sophomore. He’s a proven player that will likely be an upgrade on Alex Barlow (a good player in his own right) at this level for the Bulldogs.

Also, Durand Johnson should have a strong impact at St. John’s, I think. He was on his way to becoming a featured guy at Pitt before tearing his ACL in 2013-14 and then transferring this past year. He’s a bouncy, athletic wing who can shoot, rebound and pass the ball a bit. He’ll provide experience the Red Storm need this year.

Kadeem Allen will be one of the key players for Arizona this year. (USATSI)
Kadeem Allen will be one of the key players for Arizona this year. (USATSI)

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