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October 3, 2006

Mailbag: Wisconsin should be much improved

These days, any talk of Big Ten basketball usually starts with Ohio State. The Buckeyes landed Rivals.com's No. 2-ranked recruiting class and the No. 1 overall prospect, 7-footer Greg Oden - who has been called the best big man to come along in decades.

But, could the arrival of Oden and his talented teammates be overshadowing a Wisconsin team that's even more dangerous? The Badgers have much more experience and depth.

And what about the ACC, where North Carolina and its No. 1-ranked recruiting class have garnered most of the spotlight. Will perennial power Duke give them some competition for the league title? Can Virginia be a contender?

All those questions and more are answered in this week's mailbag.

Andrew's Mailbag
It seems as if Wisconsin is often overlooked early in the Big Ten picture. With added depth at guard, namely Jason Bohannan from Iowa and the underrated Trevon Hughes, do you think the Badgers can make a run at the Final Four?
Grant from McAllen, Texas
Absolutely. Don't buy into all the hype surrounding Ohio State. The Buckeyes will probably be ranked higher in the preseason polls, but Wisconsin is the best team in the Big Ten.

While all the other top programs in the league lost their top players, the Badgers return almost everyone.

That includes the best player in the league: ultra-athletic wing Alando Tucker. The senior, who has raised his scoring average in each of his first three seasons, is the only returning player from the All-Big Ten first and second teams.

Tucker also has a worthy sidekick. Point guard Kammron Taylor, who averaged 14.2 points per game, keeps defenses from focusing too much attention on Tucker (19.0 ppg). They form one of the best duos in the nation.

Several valuable role players are also back, including center Greg Stiemsma and small forward Marcus Landry - who should help cure the depth problems that plagued them down the stretch last season. The Badgers were 14-2 at midseason when they lost Stiesmsma because of personal issues and Landry to academic problems. The Badgers went 5-10 without them.

Stiesmsma, one of the league's best low-post defenders, is back and Landry is eligible again. Both participated in the team's trip to Italy in August.

Bohannon is a big 3-point threat who is also a solid ballhandler. Throw in Hughes - a true point guard - and coach Bo Ryan has his deepest, most balanced and most talented team.

That is scary considering Ryan has a reputation of getting teams to overachieve. He owns the best winning percentage (.759) of any coach with 20 years of experience.

Does Virginia have what it takes to be a contender in the ACC, seeing as they have all of their key players back along with a few decent recruits coming in? Graham from Richmond
Yes, but finishing in the upper third of the ACC and earning an NCAA Tournament bid is where the dreams of Cavaliers fans should end.

Guards Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds form one of the nation's top backcourts. Each can carry the team offensively on any given night.

Versatile forward Jason Cain is one of the league's more underrated players. A glue guy, Cain does a great job getting to the glass and can guard a number of positions.

A solid five-man recruiting class adds at least three players who will make immediate impacts: top 100 small forwards Will Harris (who could start) and Jamil Tucker and shooting guard Solomon Tat.

Still, the Cavs will be plagued by the same problem they have struggled to overcome the last few years: lack of an inside presence. Since Travis Watson left in 2003, they have consistently lost rebounding battles and failed to develop a scoring threat in the post.

That will prove coslty when they face the ACC's better teams and anyone else with a good and sizeable front line.

Do you think Duke can possibly compete with North Carolina for the ACC title?
Steven from New York City
Definitely not. The Tar Heels are the most talented team in the nation and they may wind up being the deepest, too. They have a legitimate chance at going undefeated in the league.

The Blue Devils have a top-10 caliber team once again, but they still have depth issues in their frontcourt, a problem that will get exposed at least a handful of times this season. Josh McRoberts is the only returning post player with any significant experience. Incoming center Brian Zoubek probably isn't ready to play significant minutes yet. In other words, if McRoberts gets into foul trouble the Blue Devils will have serious problems.

UNC, thanks to the addition of a stellar six-man recruiting class, has capable back-ups at each position and even a third option at some spots.

There are also other questions for the Blue Devils. Are Greg Paulus and McRoberts really ready to be the leaders of this team? How will the offense operate after being run almost solely through J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams for three years.

Highly-touted freshman shooting guard Gerald Henderson could provide a lot of the answers. I saw Henderson play at the Kentucky Derby Festival Classic in Louisville, Ky., an event that featured several big-name recruits. Henderson was clearly the best player there. He's explosive, very athletic and plays with the toughness and savvy you'd expect from a veteran, all of which make him very difficult to guard. He is ready to step in and contribute immediately.

Henderson could be the piece Duke needs to reach a 10th consecutive Sweet 16, but he won't be enough to get them past UNC in the league standings.

Still, Blue Devils fans can find solace in plenty of other places. I am one of several college basketball writers who said the Tar Heels might miss the NCAA Tournament last season. As it turned out, they finished second in the league and were a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Why is it that Memphis never receives the credit it deserves. I am in Iraq and I watch AFN (American Forces Network) and it's always Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State and Georgia Tech. Why don't they look at the good in coach (John) Calipari and his program? Antonio Alsobrooks from Memphis, Tenn.
I think it has more to do with Conference-USA than Memphis. The league seems to lack an identity and a solid following.

Even before the Big East raided Conference-USA, the league seemed to get consistently snubbed by the NCAA Tournament committee on seeding. Ask former member Charlotte - which was often seeded No. 8 or No. 9 in the NCAA Tournament despite very successful season. Heck, Memphis was locked out of the Big Dance despite a 22-9 record in 2002 (they went on to win the NIT).

Now, C-USA has been surpassed by the WAC, Mountain West and even the emerging Missouri Valley Conference when it comes to the RPI hierarchy. Most view the conference as Memphis by a wide margin, UAB, and a bunch of subpar programs.

There's also a lot less exposure. Thanks to what may have been the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation, Memphis didn't have to worry about that much last year and it showed when they landed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But nobody wants to show games involving Rice, SMU and East Carolina in January, February and March, regardless of who they are facing.

I don't think the media has it out for Memphis or that there is something wrong with the program. In the 1970s, Memphis (then known as Memphis State) was widely considered one of the best basketball programs in the nation. But since the power conferences have emerged, C-USA teams like Memphis have struggled for recognition.

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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