June 18, 2008

Any surprise contenders out there?

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
June 11: Terps in trouble
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May 28: Hopeful Heels

This past season widely is viewed as "The Year of the Favorites," because all four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament reached the Final Four for the first time.

But rewind the Tournament a couple of rounds and it's a different story. Six of the teams that reached the Sweet 16 were not ranked in the AP preseason top 25: Davidson, Villanova, West Virginia, Western Kentucky, Wisconsin and Xavier.

Western Kentucky didn't receive a single vote.

West Virginia was picked 10th in its league.

Davidson and Xavier, which each advanced to the Elite Eight, had fewer votes than four teams who went on to miss the NCAA Tournament.

It is teams like that that give hope to a broader base of college hoops fans, each hoping his team is the next Davidson.

Who will be the sleepers in 2008-09? We select a number of candidates in this week's mailbag and address questions about which mid-major league will surprise next season, how to build an unproven mid-major program into a national power, if UCLA coach Ben Howland will win a national title soon, if highly touted recruit Samardo Samuels can replace David Padgett at Louisville and if our preseason top 25 has been tainted by an East Coast bias.

Surprise contenders

Can we get some sleeper teams for next season? What team outside of the (preseason) top 10 will have a chance at the national championship? What team will start outside the top 25 and be dangerous in March?

Taylor from Clarksville, Tenn.

Unlike this past season, there don't appear to be many dominant teams out there. Outside of North Carolina, our preseason No. 1, every team has some big questions.

That's why I think a number of teams outside the top 10 could win it all. I'd start with Florida.

Three years ago, a sophomore-heavy Gators team began the season out of the top 25 and went on to capture the 2006 national title. The Gators, who likely will open the season somewhere between Nos. 15-25, have another talented crop of sophomores. Leading that group is versatile guard Nick Calathes, who I think is going to be a special player. Coach Billy Donovan will also have a wealth of talent to work with, thanks to the addition of the nation's No. 9 recruiting class. It is highlighted by big men Kenny Kadji and Eloy Vargas. The key is getting Kadji and Vargas to develop quickly so they can make up for the early entry loss of Marreese Speights.

Oklahoma will be a Final Four contender if five-star guard Willie Warren lives up to the hype as a freshman. With sophomore big man Blake Griffin surprising some by choosing to stay in school, he and Warren could form one of the nation's top inside-outside tandems.

I also like Gonzaga quite a bit. This will be the best blend of talent and experience that Bulldogs coach Mark Few has had, and that's saying something considering he has taken the program to nine consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Their biggest obstacle may be a fast-improving West Coast Conference that is probably the best he has seen.

As far as dangerous teams outside the top 25, watch out for Kentucky. I'm not entirely sold on the Wildcats, who are losing their top two guards (Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford). But Billy Gillispie has shown a penchant for getting his previous teams to overachieve, and having powerful big man Patrick Patterson (the co-SEC Freshman of the Year along with Calathes last season) gives him a solid building block.

I don't know if Miami and San Diego will start out in the top 25, but I expect both to improve on their second-round appearances in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. The Hurricanes return their top five scorers and add five-star wing Dequan Jones. The Toreros return every key player.

And watch out for Wisconsin, another borderline top-25 team, as well. The Badgers have almost always exceeded expectations under coach Bo Ryan. With three starters back, Ryan has a solid base on which to build.

Banner year for C-USA

The Sun Belt surprised everyone by landing two bids to the NCAA Tournament last season. The Colonial did the same in 2006. What mid-major league will follow in those footsteps and surprise everyone in 2008-09?

Thomas from Boulder, Colo.

It seems as if Memphis coach John Calipari talks about how underrated Conference USA is every season. Well, 2008-09 is the season to believe him.

I think you could see C-USA send as many as three teams to the NCAA Tournament. The West Coast, which sent three to the field of 65 this past season, could match that number again - but it wouldn't be as surprising.

Memphis is an NCAA Tournament lock, although the Tigers will certainly take a step back from their 38-win campaign. But UAB got some great news when star guard Robert Vaden chose to pull out of the draft. With Vaden and senior guard Paul Delaney, who missed most of this past season with a torn ACL, the Blazers have enough firepower to challenge the Tigers for the league title.

And I think Tulsa and Southern Miss will contend for at-large bids. Tulsa returns its top two scorers from a team that won the inaugural College Basketball Invitational. Southern Miss returns its top eight scorers from a 19-win team.

Marshall is another intriguing sleeper. Second-year coach Donnie Jones (who worked under Donovan for 13 years) has a handful of high-profile transfers who sat out last season.

Will Howland win big one?

Will UCLA be able to win a championship in the next few years or even in 2009? I really don't enjoy Ben Howland's handle as one of the "best coaches not to win a championship."

Marshall from Asheville, N.C.

I'd be surprised if Howland doesn't win at least one national title at UCLA and doesn't get his first by the time his next freshman class exhausts its eligibility (that would be 2012).

We are talking about a guy who has been to three consecutive Final Fours in an era of unprecedented parity. That doesn't happen because you received some lucky bounces and some easy draws in the NCAA Tournament.

Howland is one of the best coaches in college basketball. The first two times he guided the Bruins to the Final Four, he didn't have an inside scoring threat. He also took two Pittsburgh teams that didn't have great talent to back-to-back Sweet 16s.

More important, Howland is one of the best recruiters in college basketball. On top of that, he is located in an extraordinarily talent-rich area. The Bruins will welcome the nation's No. 1 recruiting class this fall. It's the fourth time in the past five years they've had a top-20 class.

As long as Howland remains at UCLA, a steady stream of big-time prospects will continue to arrive in Westwood and the Bruins will remain in the national-title hunt.

Coach Skwara

If you were the coach of a mid-major program without much history, how would you go about recruiting a team and giving them a chance to succeed and go to the NCAA Tournament? Is there a position that is more important than the rest? Is there a certain style that has shown to be more successful?

Gary from Pittsburgh

The chances of beating out high-majors or even established mid-majors for prospects is remote, so I think it would be better to focus on under-the-radar players. You need to pinpoint unselfish players with high basketball IQs. I'd also scour the junior college ranks and try to lure in a couple of transfers. There always are talented guys who slip through the cracks or need a second chance.

Still, you're going to have to rely on outsmarting and outworking opponents for the most part. That's largely how programs such as Butler, Creighton and Southern Illinois have consistently reached the NCAA Tournament - and been legitimate threats once there. They have been veteran-laden teams that have great chemistry and resourcefulness.

Old school player

How well will Samardo Samuels do next season replacing David Padgett at center for Louisville?

Michael from Louisville, Ky.

Saying you can't compare the two always sounds like you are dodging the answer, but that really is the case here.

Padgett was a unique big man because of his great passing skills and superb feel for the game. That along with the absence of a playmaker in the backcourt is why Louisville ran much of its offense through Padgett. The Cardinals often got him in the high post and counted on him to find an open teammate moving to the basket.

Samuels isn't going to fill that role. The five-star recruit is more of an old-school type of post player, doing most of his damage around the basket. He is going to be a much better rebounder than Padgett, who pulled down only 4.8 boards per game last season. Samuels is also a better low-post scorer than Padgett.

But without Padgett around, who is going to be the facilitator on offense for the Cardinals? They must find a solution to that question if they are going to reach the Final Four.

Left Coast left out

Where in the world do you get your ideas about your preseason top 25? It has to be the usual Least Coast bias. You only have one team (Oklahoma) west of the Mississippi River in your 10? Where do you get stats to back that one up?

Ted Bloom from parts unknown

The glaring lack of teams west of the Mississippi in our top 10 has more to do with the Pac-10 and Big 12 being poised for down years than somebody in our office having a grudge against the West Coast.

I went back and took a look at our preseason top 25 last season; it had nine teams located west of the Mississippi, including three in the top 10. All nine each of which reached the 2008 NCAA Tournament, incidentally are losing their leading scorer. Many are losing their top two and three scorers.

With that much scoring to replace, it is going to be a rough year for West Coast teams.

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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