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July 4, 2006

The Mailbag: New blood takes over

Remember all that talk about the Big East being such a superior conference last season? It's been replaced by big, fat question marks all over the league.

Connecticut lost five starters, including four first-round draft picks. Villanova lost the top three guards in its four-guard starting lineup. West Virginia lost four of five starters and almost all of its scoring. So did Cincinnati, which will have its third coach in as many seasons. The league's top scorer, Quincy Douby, is also gone, taking the NCAA Tournament hopes of a Rutgers squad with him.

With all the departures, many Big East fans - especially those used to spending the early weekdays of March watching NIT games - are wondering if their teams will have an easier road to the top of the standings.

Some North Carolina fans believe that Roy Williams is destined to capture his second national title in March. Fans at another elite school have serious concerns about the direction of their programs. Tennessee fans want to know if Bruce Pearl can create a worthy encore without his trusted point guard C.J. Watson.

Here are opinions on all those topics and much more.

Andrew's Mailbag
With UConn's entire team drafted by the NBA last night and Villanova losing Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry - is the Big East wide open this year? Who will step to the front - Georgetown? Pittsburgh? Louisville?

Jason in Louisville

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I wouldn't say the Big East is wide open, but it will certainly have some more parity. It will be much easier for a sleeper or two to emerge this season.

Pittsburgh is the clear favorite, thanks to the last-minute return of 7-footer Aaron Gray. The Panthers have plenty of depth and I expect rising sophomore Sam Young to become one of the league's stars. Losing emotional leader Carl Krauser will ultimately prove costly.

Georgetown is also a legitimate Final Four threat. The Hoyas are experienced, talented and will boast one of the nation's top frontcourts, led by 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert and athletic power forward Jeff Green.

Connecticut won't be winning 29 games again and they will be vulnerable in December. That said, the extremely young Huskies will be a contender when the league tournament approaches. Jeff Adrien will emerge as one of the league's top big men and word is that guard A.J. Price who hasn't played in three years because of a brain hemorrhage is looking like the four-star recruit that Jim Calhoun snagged in 2004. Rivals.com's No. 3-ranked recruiting class also adds eight new players, including five-star prospects Stanley Robinson and Curtis Kelly, who will make impacts right away.

Marquette and Louisville are both capable of making runs at the league title, although they will all have to figure out ways to mask glaring weaknesses.

The Golden Eagles will have the league's top point guard in Dominic James and possibly the best backcourt with his sidekick, Jerel McNeal. The downside is leading scorer Steve Novak is gone. His long-range 3-pointers won't be missed as much as his size. Novak was their leading rebounder at 5.9 boards a game last season. The 5-11 James was next at 4.5.

With the addition of five-star recruits Earl Clark and Derrick Caracter, the Cardinals are as deep and talented as any team in the league. But without Taquan Dean they are lacking a proven leader and a reliable scorer. Ultra-athletic small forward Terrence Williams is the heir apparent, but I don't think he has the game to score 15-plus every night. A healthy Juan Palacios is a better candidate.

The dark horse is DePaul. Four double-digit scorers are back, including the best-player-nobody-has-heard-of: Sammy Mejia. If often-injured big man Wesley Green can give them a presence inside this team could be dangerous.

Syracuse is the biggest mystery out there. No one player was as valuable as Gerry McNamara last season (see the 2006 Big East tourney). The Orange have added some big scoring weapons with Paul Harris and Mike Jones to pick up some of the slack.

I was born and raised a Tar Heel. Carolina blood flows through my veins and I've put the house on my boys winning it all. What are our chances? And just how good is Brandan Wright? I'm thinking UNC 90, Florida 81 in the 2006-07 championship game.

Reginald Speight in Tar Heel Country

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When it comes to the Tar Heels, believe the hype. Roy Williams has a good shot at winning his second title in three years and anything less than a Final Four trip should be considered a disappointment in Chapel Hill.

Williams added the nation's top-ranked recruiting class to the core of young players that led the Heels to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season. Williams didn't just add huge loads of talent. He added specific pieces - the pieces that were missing last season.

Brandan Wright is one of the biggest. The power forward is the ideal complement for Tyler Hansbrough. Wright is long and lanky. Hansbrough is built like a brick wall. Wright is a finesse player on offense, looking as comfortable in the high post and the perimeter as on the low block. Hansbrough craves physical contact and does most of his damage around the basket. And Wright excels in the one area that Hansbrough struggles shot blocking.

Tywon Lawson gives Williams a true point guard. Built low to the ground and blessed with good court vision, Lawson is always looking to create for others. Lawson's ability to distribute the ball will allow the Heels to take better advantage of their growing number of scoring weapons. One scorer to watch is Bobby Frasor, who can now play on the wing and focus on draining long-range 3-pointers.

The Heels have size, talent and depth. They lack experience, but any coach will tell you the other three ingredients are more important. Especially a world-class coach like Williams.

As a Tennessee fan, I was very encouraged with the Vols' play last season. People have them projected to be very good again next season, but I am afraid they are going to miss C.J. Watson quite a bit. I think he was an underrated point guard. How worried should UT fans be about losing his leadership.

Kevin in Nashville (volquest.com)

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This may be the most in-depth question I've ever been asked about the men's basketball program at Tennessee. Perhaps there is room for three sports in Knoxville.

My short-and-sweet answer: Don't lose your optimism, but you should be concerned. If five-star point guard Ramar Smith gets into school, ignore any concern and feel free to start boasting and making bold predictions to friends who make fun of your orange-laden wardrobe.

Bruce Pearl has more than twice as much talent as he did last season that's a scary thought in the SEC, where he already engineered a remarkable one-season turnaround. More importantly, his team is much deeper. That is key when playing his intense, breakneck style of basketball. Remember how the Vols wore down in the final weeks last season? That won't be happening again.

Pearl does need to find a replacement for the underrated Watson, who was a great decision maker. Smith is actually quicker and more athletic, making him a better fit for Pearl's system. But, he has academic problems and hasn't passed NCAA requirements yet. Incoming freshmen Marques Johnson or Josh Tabb could replace Watson, so could returning junior Jordan Howell, but all would be a significant downgrade from Smith. Without Smith, the Vols are a dangerous team capable of duplicating last year's success. With him, they can realistically dream about the Final Four.

Is there a problem with the Kentucky program?

Mary C

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There certainly was last year. Look beyond the W-L columns and all the traits of inner turmoil were there.

The Wildcats lacked chemistry. The coaches tinkered with several different starting lineups. Their most talented players struggled and were often benched. And their only effective big man wasn't even eligible until early January.

But, there is reason to believe that will all be changing.

Rajon Rondo's departure to the NBA might be a classic addition-by-subtraction move (notice how Florida lost stars Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh, and their backups ended up leading the Gators on an improbable national title run). He was UK's best player, but also it's most volatile. He never got along with Tubby Smith and openly feuded with teammates during games.

Tubby has infused his team with new blood, and it's not made up of the prima donnas. He signed six recruits - all play hard and play defense. Four-star guards Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks do much more. The versatile Jasper can play three positions and might be the answer to replace Rondo.

They'll also have big man Randolph Morris for an entire season (he missed the first 14 games last season due to an NCAA suspension). After shaking off some rustiness, Morris showed signs of being a reliable threat on the inside, scoring in double digits in 10 of the Wildcats' last 11 games.

There's also the emergence of senior forward Bobby Perry, who scored 45 in two games in the NCAA Tournament.

If Tubby can develop some frontcourt depth and a reliable floor general by midseason, the Wildcats could be very dangerous.

Andrew Skwara is the national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. To send him a question or comment for his Mailbag, email him at askwara@rivals.com.



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