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October 10, 2006

Mailbag: Breaking down the best players

In the 2005-06 season, Duke's J.J. Redick and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison seemed to be locked in a tight duel for national player of the year from start to finish.

With both stars gone, who will follow in their footsteps?

That question and others are answered in this week's mailbag.

Andrew's Mailbag
Who do you believe will be the National Player of the Year in college basketball. Also, who do think will be the Player of the Year in the major conferences?
DeVontae Palmer from Flowood, Miss.

LSU's Glen Davis has the best odds of coming away with the Wooden Award.

First and foremost, the versatile big man is all over everyone's radar after a breakout season that included 19 double-doubles and the Tigers' first run to the Final Four in two decades.

A 30-pound weight loss the previous offseason sparked much of Big Baby's success. After dropping 20 more pounds following the Final Four run, he should be more dangerous. Davis wore down a bit at the end of last season, posting one double-double in his last six games. Coaches and players were raving about his new frame and the added agility he showed at the Nike All-American camp in July.

The loss of sidekick Tyrus Thomas (No. 4 pick in the NBA draft) and veteran guard Darrel Mitchell will mean more touches and more shots for Davis. It will also mean more double and triple-teams, but that didn't slow the junior down much last season. Davis' ability to step outside and hit long jumpers makes it tough to put multiple defenders on him.

The Tigers should still have enough weapons to be a top-10 team, a necessity to keep Davis in the running for player of the year honors. Transfers Dameon Mason and Terry Martin will be instant scoring threats on the wing, and versatile small forward Tasmin Mitchell is poised for a breakout season.

Florida center Joakim Noah, who turned down a chance to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, is obviously a strong candidate. However, his team's great balance could hurt his chances at winning an individual award. None of the Gators take a lot of shots, and power forward Al Horford could wind up having a season comparable to his frontcourt partner.

The same thing goes for North Carolina big man Tyler Hansbrough. With the addition of a six-man recruiting class loaded with elite recruits, minutes and shots will be much more spread out in Chapel Hill.

A good dark horse candidate would be Nevada's combo forward Nick Fazekas. The senior is coming off another strong campaign (21.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg), and the Wolf Pack have their best team since he joined the program. Anyone doubting that someone can win the award from a small school just needs to check out what Adam Morrison did last season.

When it comes to conference player of the year awards, I like Wisconsin's Alando Tucker in the Big Ten. The senior wing is the leader of the most experienced team in a league that lacks star power. Ohio State's Greg Oden, who is expected to return from a wrist injury in mid-December, could give Tucker a challenge if he can get healthy by the start of Big Ten play.

There are plenty of solid candidates in the ACC: Boston College's Jared Dudley, Florida State's Al Thornton, Virginia's Sean Singletary and Hansbrough. I'd give Hansbrough the edge because the mega-talented Tar Heels look like a lock for the league title.

Expect Marquette point guard Dominic James to emerge as the best player in the Big East. Most defenders in the league had trouble handling the explosive sophomore last season. With Steve Novak gone, James will be asked to carry the team offensively.

There is no clear front-runner in the Big 12, but I think Texas Tech guard Jarrius Jackson will edge out Kansas guard Mario Chalmers and Jayhawks small forward Brandon Rush. Another candidate, but one who will fall short, is Texas A&M guard Acie Law. Like the Gators and Tar Heels, the Jayhawks thrive on balance - which won't allow Chalmers or Rush to put up gaudy stats. If the Red Raiders can get back to the NCAA Tournament, it will be too tough to ignore Jackson's impressive numbers. Last season he was unstoppable at times, averaging a league-high 20.5 points per game. He also shot 44 percent from 3-point range.

UCLA guard Arron Afflalo is the early favorite in the Pac-10. Afflalo looks poised for a breakout year with the loss of trusted point guard Jordan Farmar. Don't count out a pair of small forwards though. USC's Nick Young and Oregon's Malik Hairston, who both can single-handily take over games, could be contenders. They both play for talented dark-horse teams.

Where do you think UCLA will finish in the Pac-10 and in the NCAA Tournament?
Nick from Newport Coast, Calif.

Some are listing Arizona as the favorite in the Pac-10, but I think the Bruins will successfully defend their league title. They are more balanced, have better chemistry and play much better defense.

Afflalo gives them one of the best shooting guards in the nation and an offensive weapon defenses must respect.

Power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute might make an even bigger difference. The Cameroon Prince made immense improvements last season on his way to becoming the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. His ability to guard multiple positions makes it tough to create matchup problems against the Bruins.

Losing Farmar obviously hurts, but his backup - Darren Collison - played a significant role last season. Collison's tremendous speed will make the Bruins more dangerous in transition.

The Bruins are capable of making another deep run in the Big Dance, but I don't expect them to get back to the national title game. That takes a lot of breaks, many of which they got last season (see Alabama and Gonzaga games). The lack of a scoring threat on the inside is also a problem for the Bruins.

How much of role do you think DeMarcus Nelson will play for the Blue Devils this season?
Jarrod from Sacramento, Calif.

Nelson could be the X-factor for Duke. It's easy to forget, but the junior wing was a McDonald's All-American who arrived with huge expectations. A string of injuries have slowed down his career, but he remains a valuable weapon.

The arrival of five-star shooting guard Gerald Henderson diminishes Nelson's role a bit. Henderson is a much more potent scorer and will probably start immediately.

Still, Nelson has the size and strength to guard a variety of players. His toughness a key with coach Mike Krzyzewski will also lead to significant minutes and a steady role. If Nelson can finally stay healthy and regain the athleticism and explosiveness that made him an elite recruit, he could start alongside Henderson. A return to top form by Nelson would give the Blue Devils a scary tandem on the perimeter.

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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