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January 16, 2007

Mailbag: UConn pays price for weak schedule

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Connecticut usually puts together one of the nation's toughest non-conference schedules each season.

But after losing four starters and signing a recruiting class that included eight freshmen, the Huskies chose to spend most of November and December at home facing a string of small schools.

Was it the right move? We discuss that, along with the strength of the Pac-10 and pick out who has the nation's top backcourts in this week's mailbag.

Andrew's Mailbag
You criticized Jim Calhoun in a recent article for having a weak non-conference schedule. Although Connecticut played mostly cupcake teams in November and December (except Mississippi), you have to consider that there are eight freshman and five sophomores on the roster - and no upperclassmen (outside of walk-ons). Give the Hall of Famer a break. He knows his team is going to take time to develop. Also, you can't punish him for having two games against LSU and Indiana moved from December to January to honor TV contracts. Or would you argue they should have given up the national media attention and the recruiting benefits?
From: Craig Johnson, Hartford, Conn.
Fan of: Connecticut
UConn is so young that Calhoun had to scale the schedule back some, but he went overboard by not leaving the state of Connecticut or playing a single team with legitimate hopes of playing in the NCAA Tournament before Big East play started.

Look at Texas. The Longhorns, who start four freshmen, are even younger than the Huskies. They went out and played one of the nation's toughest non-conference slates. They took on Michigan State, Gonzaga and LSU on neutral sites, played host to Arkansas and traveled to Tennessee.

The Longhorns emerged much more prepared than most for the rigors of conference play, cruising to double-digit wins in each of their first three Big 12 games.

UConn looked lost from the start in its Big East opener at West Virginia, trailing nearly the entire game before falling 81-71. The Huskies had won all six of their previous meetings.

Seven days later, the untested Huskies were exposed on the road again. They held a lead for most of the first half at LSU, but completely apart in the second half and wound up losing 66-49.

I'm not saying Calhoun needed to play a handful of top 25 teams, but you can't keep scheduling the Quinnipiacs and Texas Southerns of the world either.

Especially not when you are UConn. The elite programs have a responsibility to go out and play some of the top teams in other conferences. It creates exciting and unique matchups, gives fans a chance to see the Huskies play who normally wouldn't and provides us with another way to judge one league against another.

All in all, it's good for the game and it's good for the Huskies.

Does Virginia Tech have the best backcourt in the nation?
From: Julio, Hampton, Va.
Fan of: Virginia Tech
If I just needed one defensive stop to seal a win, Virginia Tech's Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell would be the first two guards I'd select. You won't find a pair of better defenders in any backcourt. Both are great on the ball or off of it.

But when judging everything, UCLA has the top overall backcourt. Marquette would be my second choice, followed by Virginia Tech, Oregon and Kansas.

UCLA's combination of Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo are the most well-rounded. Few players can match Collison stride for stride for 94 feet. One of the fastest players in college basketball, Afflalo has made the Bruins' offense much more potent, igniting more fast breaks and putting together scoring tears of his own. Afflalo is a pure scorer and a clutch shooter who has the athleticism and savvy to beat defenders in a variety of ways. Both are also good defenders.

Marquette has an unfair advantage since they run a three-guard lineup with Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal. James is really the player that makes them special. Nobody is more explosive or has a better first step.

Gordon and Dowdell are much more than just great defenders. They are both major scoring threats and create offense for others. But, you won't see either taking over games offensively like the guards from UCLA or Marquette have.

How good is the Pac 10? I know they have been top-heavy in the past, but it seems there is a good amount of depth this season.
From: Jack in San Francisco, Calif.
Fan of: Cal
Take the top three teams from any conference and the top three from the Pac-10 and the Pac-10 wins that battle every time.

Third-ranked UCLA, No. 9 Oregon and No. 11 Arizona are all legit Final Four threats.

The middle-of-the-pack has gotten a facelift as well.

USC possesses the talent to be a dark horse, especially with the recent addition of Gabe Pruitt (averaged 17 ppg last season). They nearly knocked off Oregon and UCLA in consecutive weeks.

Washington State isn't nearly as talented, but they are just as dangerous. The overachieving Cougars have already won more games (15) than in any of the previous 10 seasons.

Washington is the best team in any conference with a 1-5 record in league play. If they can find a way to climb out of that deep hole, they will be high on the list of teams coaches don't want to face in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Stanford has also improved. The Cardinal has won three close games in a row over Virginia, Washington State and Washington by a combined five points, a strong sign that the young team is learning how to win.

Cal isn't as strong as last season without Leon Powe, but they can still knock off just about anybody in the league when they play well.

That's where the depth ends. The bottom of the league is certainly the Pac-10's weak spot.

Arizona State and Oregon State usually wind up being easy wins for the rest of the league. Other than the Beavers' win over the Sun Devils, the programs are a combined 0-10 in league play.

You wouldn't say the same for the SEC - where programs like Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Mississippi are capable of upsetting some of the league's top teams.

That's why I'd give the SEC a slight edge over the Pac-10. The Pac-10 is a little stronger at the top, but it isn't quite as deep.

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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