July 20, 2007

Andrew's Mailbag: Devilish questions

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll be working all summer to get you ready for the season and answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
July 8: Two favorites in the Big Ten
June 22: Tough second act
June 6: New faces, new hopes

Duke fans are particularly anxious this offseason, and it's tough to blame them. They've grown accustomed to expecting greatness.

The Blue Devils won 30 or more games six times from 1997-2006, capturing seven ACC regular-season titles. They never finished below third in the league standings.

Last season marked a fall from grace. The Blue Devils finished sixth in the ACC standings, going 8-8. They also were knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996.

Was it a one-year fluke? Should we just expect Duke to return to past glory?

We explore those questions and others regarding Alabama's future with a healthy Ron Steele, whether Southern Illinois is a Final Four threat, and the effect of Missouri kicking off center Kalen Grimes in this week's mailbag.

Devil dominance?

Do you think that Duke's dominance will continue even after having an "off year"?

Ron from Georgia

Dominance? That's a stretch. Duke isn't going on any 20-game winning streaks next season. But the Blue Devils might be one of the bigger surprises if they can solve some issues in their front court.

That's largely because the back court ranks among the best in the nation.

Say what you want about the much-maligned Greg Paulus, but he's a good passer who knows how to run an offense. Many ACC coaches would trade their point guard for him.

Remember, Paulus missed most of preseason practice with a foot injury last season and was limited early on. When healthy, he can be dangerous. He scored 20-plus points in three of Duke's last four games.

DeMarcus Nelson, who quietly averaged 14 points a game last season, gives Duke a little bit of everything on the perimeter: versatility, athleticism and experience. He underwent wrist surgery earlier this week, but should be completely healthy when practice begins.

Jon Scheyer is a reliable jump shooter who should benefit greatly from playing steady minutes as a freshman.

Expect a breakthrough campaign from fellow sophomore Gerald Henderson. The former five-star recruit didn't make the impact many expected last season, but showed flashes of his massive potential down the stretch, scoring 15 against Maryland and 16 versus North Carolina (the game where he infamously elbowed UNC's Tyler Hansbrough).

Incoming freshman Nolan Smith (the No. 39 prospect in the class of 2007) should be able to contribute and add depth immediately. He can play at the point or off the ball.

It's an entirely different story down low. With Josh McRoberts (second-round draft pick) leaving early, Duke's best two options in the post are a pair of sophomores who saw limited minutes last season: Lance Thomas (4.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and 7-footer Brian Zoubek (3.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg), who is out for six more weeks with a broken foot.

Freshman forwards Kyle Singler (No. 5 prospect in the class of 2007) and Taylor King (No. 37) will provide offensive firepower, but neither is much of a force in the paint. Singler excels when facing the basket, and King is a 3-point specialist.

More than likely, coach Mike Krzyzewski will play three and sometimes four guards to hide some of the problems in the paint. But ultimately, the Blue Devils need Thomas or Zoubek to create an inside presence if they're going to make another deep run come NCAA Tournament time.

It's a style thing

Missouri has been mentioned as a possible NCAA Tournament team next year. With Kalen Grimes - the team's leading rebounder and biggest body - being dismissed from the team, does that put their tourney hopes in serious jeopardy?

Nathan from Marshall, Mo.

The Tigers aren't going to miss Grimes, who was dismissed earlier this week after being charged with second-degree assault, all that much. The wide-bodied big man wasn't a good fit for Mike Anderson's chaotic, press-at-all-times style.

Thankfully for Anderson, all the players who fit his style best are back, including talented guard Stefhon Hannah, one of the Big 12's most underrated players. That's why they have a legit shot at the Big Dance.

Anderson has a good amount of speed and athleticism with which to work, and more importantly his players now have a full year in his system. Plus, Vanderbilt transfer DeMarre Carroll, who sat out last season, will add some much-needed depth.

Will they struggle on the glass? Will matching up with teams with size be a problem? Sure. But, all three of the UAB teams Anderson got into the NCAA Tournament faced the same issues.

Steele raising

How far can Alabama go with a 100 percent healthy Ronald Steele?

Clint Samuels, Overland Park, Kan.

The Sweet Sixteen would be a legitimate goal. Remember, two seasons ago, when Steele was playing at the peak of his career, the Tide nearly knocked off UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and that Bruins team went on to reach the title game.

Steele probably has a little better supporting cast now.

Jermareo Davidson isn't around anymore, but the steadily improving Richard Hendrix is better. Hendrix ranks among the SEC's premier big men.

The Tide also has more offensive firepower on the wings. Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley each averaged 12.6 ppg last season. Gee is an explosive slasher who excels at getting to the basket. Riley does most of his damage from beyond the arc.

They need a healthy Steele to be a real postseason threat. The veteran is tough to guard and is a great clutch shooter. But, more importantly, he provides the type of leadership and decision-making nobody else on the roster can.

Howling at the moon?

I know Southern Illinois lost Jamaal Tatum, but they still return three starters, a good bench and added a solid recruiting class. Do you think they could make a run at the Final Four?


When it comes to judging Southern Illinois you have to look past who's coming back and who left. The Missouri Valley Conference power always seems to exceed expectations, regardless of what its roster looks like.

The Salukis have been to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments and a pair of Sweet Sixteens (2002 and 2007). That's a remarkable run for a mid-major program playing in perhaps the toughest mid-major league.

Tatum was their best player, but far from a superstar. They'll find a way to replace him and develop a new crop of role players as well.

SIU might even find a way to improve upon its Cinderella run last season. Before someone scoffs at the Salukis in the Final Four, take a look back at their matchup with Kansas in the Sweet 16 last season.

For 40 minutes, the Salukis basically traded baskets with the Jayhawks, who were as talented as any team in the NCAA Tournament. The fact the game came down to the final minute wasn't a fluke. The Salukis looked like they deserved every bit of the No. 4 seed the NCAA Tournament selection committee awarded them (which will help when the seeding is decided next time around).

Is it so hard to imagine them being in the same spot and coming out on top? I don't think so, and that's why I believe Final Four talk in Carbondale, Ill., isn't so farfetched.

Andrew Skwara is the national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. Click here to send him a question or comment for his Mailbag.


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