July 9, 2008

Tar Heels face season as the targeted team

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 2: No love for Hokies?
June 25: Aggie expectations
June 18: Surprise contenders

Two years ago, every preseason publication and media outlet picked Florida No. 1. It was an easy choice. The Gators were returning every starter from a team that had won the national title.

North Carolina probably will be a consensus No. 1 this season. The Tar Heels return every starter from a team that went to the Final Four. That's more than the other three Final Four participants combined (Memphis and UCLA return two apiece, while Kansas returns zero).

That begs this question: Who was the bigger favorite, Florida or UNC? And if the answer is UNC, then how far back must we go to find a preseason No. 1 who was a bigger favorite?

We tackle that question, among others, in this week's mailbag.

Walking away?

North Carolina is going to be the heavy favorite to win the national title. When is the last time you remember a team being this big a favorite to win it all?

Jason from Carbondale, Ill.

My initial reaction was to say Florida in 2006-07. Not only were the Gators loaded with experience, they also possessed great talent. Three of those starters became lottery picks (Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah), after Noah turned down a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick by returning for his junior season.

But it wasn't as if there weren't worthy challengers out there. North Carolina received nine first-place votes in the 2006-07 AP preseason poll. Tyler Hansbrough was coming off a great freshman season and the Tar Heels were adding the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. There also was a lot of buzz surrounding Ohio State, which had the No. 2 class led by 7-foot phenom Greg Oden. The Buckeyes, of course, went on to lose to the Gators in the title game.

The difference this season is the lack of competition. UNC could receive every first-place vote in the preseason poll. While the Tar Heels return every starter from a team that won 36 games, most of the other perceived contenders have some big questions.

Connecticut (ranked No. 2 in Rivals.com's preseason poll) needs its point guard and best shooter, A.J. Price, to recover from a torn ACL. Pittsburgh (No. 3) lost its best outside shooter (Ronald Ramon). Purdue (No. 4) doesn't have a player who has been past the second round of the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame (No. 5) hasn't been past the second round since 2003.

There have been some other large favorites this decade. Duke received 61 of 68 first-place votes in 2005-06 and UConn had 69 of 72 in 2003-04. But I can't remember a season in which there was this large a gap between No. 1 and Nos. 2-10. You may have to go back to when Duke was trying to repeat as national champ in 1991-92 or perhaps when UNLV fell short in 1990-91 to find a team that will be as big a favorite as the Tar Heels.

Not so fast

Steve Alford turned New Mexico around this past season. We barely missed out on the field of 65, and that was with a young team. How do you see New Mexico doing this season?

Mike from Albuquerque

I'm afraid you might have to scale back your expectations a bit. The Lobos return a solid nucleus, with four of their top seven scorers back. But Alford probably would trade the entire group for another year of eligibility for J.R. Giddens.

You could make an argument that no player was more valuable to his team in 2007-08. Giddens, who was taken with the last pick of the first round of the NBA draft, led the Lobos in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks, and was second in assists.

It's not that rare to see teams get better after losing their best player. Look at Wisconsin minus Alando Tucker this past season. But when your best player was counted on to do so many things, I think it's a different story.

Alford now has a roster made up mostly of role players. There is no real difference-maker. His staff put together what is probably the top recruiting class in the Mountain West, highlighted by versatile four-star wing Phillip McDonald, who turned down a scholarship offer from Kansas. But expecting McDonald to replace Giddens' widespread production is not only unfair but unrealistic.

I think the best a Lobos fan can hope for is a return trip to the NIT. But don't get too down. If Alford keeps recruiting well, the Lobos should make a run at an NCAA tournament berth in 2009-10.

Huskies need help

Does Washington have a chance to be the surprise team in the Pac-10 this season? The Huskies will certainly be much more experienced and have much more depth, and the incoming class provides three quality guards. How could a talented team that runs 10 deep not make the NCAA tournament?

Sean from Seattle

You could ask the same question about Washington this past season. Despite losing Spencer Hawes to the NBA, the Huskies brought back four double-digit scorers. They also were adding a strong recruiting class and a transfer (Tim Morris) who started at Stanford.

I saw the Huskies play in person at the Preseason NIT, and despite them losing to Syracuse and Texas A&M, I still felt they could be a dangerous team. They seemed to have plenty of balance and depth.

But I came to realize that the Huskies had some fundamental flaws, particularly on defense. They ranked last or near last in the Pac-10 in numerous defensive categories.

Much of it stems from the lack of a shot-blocker. I really admire the way big man Jon Brockman plays. He is relentless on the glass and has a great feel for positioning around the basket. But he has blocked a total of 15 shots in three seasons. Brockman, listed at 6-7, is a little undersized, but that number still is extraordinarily low for a guy who spends so much time in the paint.

Finding a reliable point guard is another big issue. Senior Justin Dentmon never followed up on the promise he showed as a freshman. Dentmon has struggled to shoot the ball and needs to be a better distributor. The long-term answer may be ultra-quick sophomore Venoy Overton, who is a better ball-handler and defender.

But until the Huskies can stop opposing players from attacking the basket, it won't matter who is playing point guard or how much depth and experience they throw at other teams. On paper, they look like a team that should contend in the Pac-10, but I'm more inclined to think defensive problems will keep them closer to the bottom of the pack again.

Waiting game

When will we find out if Pittsburgh's Mike Cook will get a sixth year of eligibility?

Scott from Newtown, Pa.

It's tough to say. The NCAA isn't exactly known for making decisions in a timely manner. Pitt was expecting to find out two weeks ago. I recently contacted an official at the school, who said the answer could come that day or in two weeks or in a month.

I think Cook, who played in 29.7 percent of Pitt's games (11 of 37) last season before suffering a knee injury, has a legitimate shot at getting another year.

Anthony King was granted a medical redshirt after playing in 25 percent of Miami's games (eight of 32) in 2006-07. That gave King five years of eligibility, but there have been a number of cases where a sixth year has been given. Former Florida State guard Andrew Wilson was granted two medical redshirts. Cook is seeking one since his first redshirt year came voluntarily when he transferred from East Carolina to Pitt.

Dreaming big

What do you think the chances are that Davidson goes to the Final Four? Obviously, the Wildcats are going to have a bigger target on their back after being such a Cinderella story this past season.

Jim from Charlotte, N.C.

Davidson's remarkable run to the Elite Eight, combined with star guard Stephen Curry's decision to stay in school, has raised expectations to extraordinary levels for the Southern Conference school. But I think those expectations are unfair.

There's no doubting Curry is a great player. He played better than anybody in the 2008 NCAA tournament and he's probably the best shooting guard in college basketball.

But Curry isn't the kind of player who does well in creating his shot. I think that's going to be a problem because the Wildcats are losing veteran point guard Jason Richards. It was Richards' ability to penetrate and dish that led to a lot of open looks for Curry. Richards led the nation in assists this past season and also was the team's second-leading scorer at 12.7 points per game, helping take some pressure off Curry.

The Wildcats also are losing two senior post players who averaged more than 20 minutes per game.

If the Wildcats were returning everyone, I could see the Final Four as a legitimate possibility. But I just don't think they have enough of a supporting cast around Curry to get that far this season.

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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