July 29, 2007

Andrew's Mailbag: Talent isn't everything

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 20: Devilish questions
July 8: Two favorites in the Big Ten
June 22: Tough second act
June 6: New faces, new hopes

When it comes to the teams which lost the most to graduation or early entry, Arizona would easily rank in the top 10.

The Wildcats said goodbye to their leading scorer, leading rebounder and leading assist man.

So, we should expect a big drop-off from the Pac-10 power, right? Not necessarily.

The Wildcats are bringing in yet another highly touted recruiting class. Plus, they return Chase Budinger, one of the nation's top offensive players.

Can such a young team give Lute Olson another NCAA contender? How exactly do you replace the veterans?

We answer those questions and more in this week's mailbag.


The Wildcats lose two leaders to graduation (Ivan Radenovic and Mustafa Shakur) and Marcus Williams to the NBA. Chase Budinger is a future NBA lottery pick, but what about the supporting cast around him? Do you see their 24-year NCAA Tournament run coming to an end?

Scott from Tucson, Ariz.

I can't even fathom an NCAA Tournament without Arizona. The Wildcats are still one of the nation's most talented teams and still have one of the nation's best coaches in Olson.

That certainly doesn't mean they won't underachieve. Olson's last two teams were gone by the end of the NCAA Tournament's first weekend. Even the Elite Eight team from 2005 should have been in the Final Four. (I'll spare you the details of losing the 15-point lead).

Perhaps all the personnel changes are just what Arizona needs to change all of that. The Wildcats have had a lot of chemistry problems in recent years, some of which were blamed on the departing veterans.

The 2007-08 team will be extremely young, with nearly all the leaders being freshmen and sophomores. I look at that as a plus. They're getting a fresh start and will be forced to lean on Olson.

Lack of talent will not be a valid excuse in Tucson.

Five-star freshman guard Jerryd Bayless will give the Wildcats another major scoring weapon to team with Budinger. Bayless is very dangerous in the open court and off the dribble.

Jordan Hill, the forgotten member of the 2006 recruiting class, really came on strong in the final weeks of last season. He has the power needed to provide an inside presence.

Then there's five-star forward Jamelle Horne, who has more than enough raw athleticism and talent to develop into a star in the Pac-10.


Where do you think Cincinnati will finish in the Big East in 2008?

Larry from Cincinnati

The best-case scenario for the Bearcats is a middle-of-the-pack finish. But, I'd predict them to fall more in the bottom third of the league.

Remember, coach Mick Cronin was starting from near scratch last season. There was little talent, thanks to the departure of several seniors and South Carolina transfer Devan Downey. Plus, Cronin's top two recruits, a pair of foreign players, were ruled ineligible.

It showed as the Bearcats won just two Big East games and finished 11-19. They did pull off a handful of near upsets and kept most games competitive a sign that Cronin and his staff can really coach.

There's more hope in the form of the 2007 recruiting class, which includes a pair of four-star prospects, guard Jason Henry and big man Anthony McClain. Henry will help immediately and could be someone Cronin can build the program around.

Still, the talent gap between the bottom of the Big East to the top is a rather wide one. My advice for Bearcats fans is to have a little patience. Cronin is proving himself as a recruiter and on the sidelines. Give him another year and the Bearcats will be a Big East contender again.


Drew Neitzel will definitely carry the scoring load for Michigan State, but who will be there second and third scoring options? Could it possibly be one of their three incoming freshmen?

Scott from Grand Rapids, Mich.

Go ahead and pencil Raymar Morgan as the No. 2 option. The sophomore has a good mid-range game and got valuable experience last season. Playing at the U-19 World Championships this summer also helped his development.

Power forward Marquise Gray may also be counted on for offense. He's their only scoring threat in the post, and coach Tom Izzo will want to make sure he gets consistent touches.

As for the three freshmen, I think wing Durrell Summers, who ironically is the lowest-ranked of the trio, has the best shot at becoming a scoring weapon. Summers is very athletic and brings the kind of energy that could earn him some early minutes.

Classmates Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen look very promising, but they are more likely to be role players at least for next season with Travis Walton and Neitzel entrenched in the backcourt.


Tennessee basketball has always been some kind of underdog. How well do you think the Volunteers will handle being the "team to beat" in the SEC?

Doug from Knoxville, Tenn.

Interesting question. Dealing with the pressure of being the league favorite might be the Vols' biggest challenge.

None of the players have experience with the expectations that come along with being a preseason top 10 team.

More importantly, if Tennessee lacks anything, it's on-court leadership. Dane Bradshaw, the only senior on last year's team, provided a huge chunk of it last season.

Sure, Chris Lofton is an incredible shooter and a great player, but he's also one of the most soft-spoken players in the SEC.

JaJuan Smith is also a senior with plenty of experience, but he often plays with a selfish and out-of-control style that can infuriate teammates.

The rest of the team is fairly young, including sophomore point guard Ramar Smith, who must improve his decision-making (see both Ohio State games last season, where he took tough shots instead of trying to get the ball to Lofton in the closing seconds).

I could see all of that leading to some surprising losses early on. They could lack focus or make the wrong choices down the stretch in a tight game.

But ultimately, it probably won't matter. The Vols are far and away the best team in the SEC, and their talent, combined with the execution of Bruce Pearl's chaotic style, simply will overwhelm most opponents.

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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