April 25, 2008

Which coaches make the most of talent?

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
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Anybody can win with the right amount of talent. At least that is the prevailing thought in college basketball. Teams that land top-25 recruiting classes are expected to win at a big-time level, regardless of their coach.

It's often the coaches who win without highly ranked recruits who prove to be the most impressive.

Drake's Keno Davis was selected The Associated Press' coach of the year this past season after leading a Bulldogs team full of players ignored by schools from the "Big Six" conferences to 28 wins and its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1971. Washington State's Tony Bennett earned the award last season after leading a team without a single top-100 prospect to a second-place finish in the Pac-10.

Davis and Bennett have been head coaches for a combined three seasons. What about the coaches who have shown over time they can consistently win at a high level without much talent? In other words, who does more with less?

We answer that question in this week's mailbag, along with inquiries about John Thompson III's upcoming season at Georgetown, whether Connecticut will get back to being a national-title contender, if Duke has frontcourt help on the way and how many freshmen will be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft in June.

Making the most of talent

Which coaches have done more with less over the years? Is there an index that combines winning success and recruiting rank? Or at least historical recruiting ranks (maybe 20 years' worth)?

David Molodetz from West Hartford, Conn.

I'm not aware of any kind of index, but there's no doubt John Beilein and Bo Ryan would have to be near the top if it existed.

Before the start of this season, The Seattle Times conducted a survey among 82 Division I coaches, and one of the questions was, "Which college coach consistently wins the most with the least talent?"

Beilein was the leading vote-getter, and deservedly so. He went to back-to-back Sweet 16s in 2005 and '06, then won the 2007 NIT at West Virginia without one player who was a top-150 prospect. I'm not sure if anyone else is capable of that.

Ryan has had a little more talent. He was fortunate to arrive at Wisconsin at the same time as Devin Harris, who went on to become a lottery pick. Two seasons ago, the Badgers had Alando Tucker, a late first-round pick, and this season's team had McDonald's All-American Brian Butch.

But Ryan has had nowhere near the amount of talent as, say, Tom Izzo at Michigan State. Yet since Ryan took over at Wisconsin in 2001-02, the Badgers have finished first or second in the Big Ten five times. Michigan State has done that twice over the same span. Ryan also is 11-3 against Izzo widely considered one of the top coaches in college basketball over that same stretch.

I would put at least three other coaches in the discussion: Boston College's Al Skinner, Gonzaga's Mark Few and Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings. Few has started to land top-100 prospects in recent years, but he was consistently getting the Zags into the NCAA Tournament long before that.

Does style matter?

Do you generally see a stark difference in coaches and their teams in their fifth season at a school, when they finally have a roster full of their players? Next season will be the first for John Thompson III with a roster recruited entirely by him. Should we expect to see a vastly different team and approach? It appears that next season's roster will add a much higher speed/athleticism factor to his "Princeton offense."

Brian from Chicago

I think too much is made of coaches having a roster full of players they recruited. Sure, it helps, but above-average coaches adapt and find ways to win.

Thompson is a good example. The Hoyas reached the Sweet 16 in his second season at Georgetown, where they ran into eventual national champion Florida. Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, who committed to the Hoyas before Thompson arrived at the Big East school, were the leading scorers on that team. The next three scorers Brandon Bowman, Ashanti Cook and Darrel Owens were recruited by former Hoyas coach Craig Esherick as well.

Roy Williams won his only national title in his second season at North Carolina with a starting lineup that didn't have a single player he recruited. Bruce Pearl brought dramatic changes to Tennessee three seasons ago, and the Vols, who were made up almost exclusively of Buzz Peterson recruits, responded by earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The point I'm trying to make is that while Thompson has upgraded the amount of athleticism on the Hoyas' roster, I don't think you will see much difference in how they play or how much they win. I'm sure he gladly would trade another year of eligibility for Hibbert for one of his incoming recruits.

Spring cleaning

What the heck is going on at Connecticut? Wasn't it just two seasons ago that the Huskies won 30 games and were considered by many to be the favorite heading into the NCAA tourney? After an ugly season, they seemed to right the ship this season, but after an early NCAA exit, coach Jim Calhoun started talking about changing chemistry and now guys are transferring left and right. Does cleaning house mean another rebuilding season or two?

Geno in Storrs, Conn.

I have been a little surprised by Calhoun's talk of change. If it hadn't been for point guard A.J. Price tearing his ACL 10 minutes into the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies may have gone deep into the tourney. Price emerged as arguably the best point guard in the Big East this season, and many other Huskies made big improvements.

Guard Doug Wiggins and forward Curtis Kelly are transferring, but that shouldn't be a serious concern. Wiggins was a solid reserve, averaging 6.7 points in 18.9 minutes per game this past season, but he can be replaced. Kelly made little, if any, impact in his two seasons at UConn.

The biggest issues are the health of Price and whether Hasheem Thabeet will stay in school. Price must fully recover by next season for the Huskies to contend for the Big East title in 2008-09. He is their offensive catalyst and most valuable player. Losing the 7-foot-3 Thabeet, who must decide by Sunday whether he is entering the draft, also would be a big blow. He ranked second in the nation with 4.5 blocks per game this past season and was the Big East defensive player of the year.

The Huskies aren't headed back to a rebuilding season regardless of what happens with Price and Thabeet. The 2005-06 season, which ended with a 16-14 record and no postseason bid, was an anomaly. This program still is loaded with talent, and the 2008 recruiting class features five-star point guard Kemba Walker.

But for the Huskies to get back to the elite level, they must start getting some good 3-point shooters (Walker's strength is attacking off the dribble). Top-10 teams usually boast a couple of players who can consistently knock down 3-pointers. The Huskies didn't have any great shooters last season, when they ranked last in the Big East with 168 3-pointers made.

More of the same

How will Olek Czyz figure into the rotation in the post at Duke, and will Brian Zoubek be ready to step up as a dominant big man?

Greg from Bossier City, La.

Don't look for much of an impact from the 6-7 Czyz next season. He is on the raw side and lacks the size to be an inside presence. I'd be surprised if he played more than 10 minutes per game. I also don't see Zoubek ever being a "dominant big man." He lacks athleticism and quickness. Moreover, his recent history of injuries concerns me.

Duke largely will be the same kind of team it was this past season. In fact, the Blue Devils probably will be even more guard-heavy. Five-star shooting guard Elliot Williams can replace some of the offense of departing senior DeMarcus Nelson, but he isn't nearly as good a rebounder. The Blue Devils still lack an inside scoring threat and someone who can create a presence in the paint.

First-round freshmen

Of the freshmen who have declared for the NBA Draft, how many do you think will be first-round picks?

Michael P. from Philadelphia

I don't claim to be a draft expert, but I'd say at least 10 of the 12 freshmen who have entered the draft could go in the first round.

Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose probably will be the first two picks. Jerryd Bayless, Eric Gordon, Donte Greene, DeAndre Jordan, O.J. Mayo and Anthony Randolph look like lottery selections. Jordan didn't have overly impressive stats this past season, but the 7-footer has great potential. And the draft is much more about potential than production.

Kevin Love and Kosta Koufos could slide out of the lottery, but I can't imagine either slipping to the second round. Love probably won't be a great NBA player, but his shooting range and extraordinary passing skills are enough to create a long career at the next level. Koufos didn't have a huge impact as a freshman, but he is a 7-footer with a jump shot. Only so many teams can bypass that.

The only real question marks are J.J Hickson and Bill Walker. Hickson is listed right on the fringe of the first round on most mock drafts. Whether Hickson goes in the first or second round depends a lot on how many underclassmen stay in the draft. I haven't seen any mock draft that lists Walker in the first round.

There actually could have been more freshmen going in the first round, but Arizona State's James Harden and Oklahoma's Blake Griffin chose to remain in school. I think Harden has the potential to be a lottery pick, and the 6-10, 240-pound Griffin already has an NBA-ready frame.

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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