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September 25, 2007

Hoops Mailbag: Big East primed for big year

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He is working to get you ready for the season and answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
September 11: Tar Heel Pride
September 4: Balance and defense
August 28: The Post-Durant Era
August 21: Preview time job
August 14: The tougher job

As usual, the Big East is loaded with preseason buzz.

Georgetown and Louisville, which finished first and second last season in the league standings, are being hailed as potential Final Four teams. The Hoyas return four starters from a team that reached college basketball's promised land, and the Cardinals bring back every key player from a 24-win team.

Syracuse and Marquette are both well inside the Rivals.com Preseason Top 25, too. The Orange added the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class, and the Golden Eagles got a boost when star point guard Dominic James pulled out of the NBA Draft.

We haven't given up on Connecticut, either, despite last year's disappointing 17-14 mark. The Huskies are 21st in the Rivals.com poll, which will be updated shortly after the start of practice to reflect any news (such as Ronald Steele's decision to redshirt). But it seems as though some observers aren't looking for much out of UConn, a program that had won at least 20 games the previous nine seasons.

Was last season a fluke or the beginning of a trend? We answer that question, along with others about whether another freshman can be the national player of the year, if Kansas' Sherron Collins can become a star and whether UAB has a strong enough nonconference schedule to warrant an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.


'UConn' not ignore them

Why is no one talking about UConn? All of their top players are returning, they are talented and now they're experienced

-- Shane from Tolland, Conn.

I think much of the media believes UConn can't improve by a wide margin because of the reason you brought up everybody is back. That might be bad news considering the Huskies missed the postseason in 2006-07 for the first time since Jim Calhoun's first season in 1986-87.

There are no high-profile recruits coming to save the program. Calhoun must work with what he has, and there are doubts surrounding many of the key players. It starts with point guard A.J. Price, a former four-star recruit who missed two seasons because of health problems and a run-in with the law. Calhoun billed Price as one of the nation's top point guards and there was talk of him making a quick jump to the NBA. But he didn't look anything like that kind of player last season. He was inconsistent, scoring four or fewer points in eight games. Price struggled with his shot, making 38.7 percent - including just 27.3 percent of his 3-point attempts.

That was typical of the whole team, which has a glaring need for a good 3-point shooter. The Huskies shot 32.1 percent from 3-point range, 14th in the Big East.

You could take the view that UConn still is UConn, but that's the mistake many of us made last season. The Huskies lost four first-round picks off their 2005-06 team and had one of their youngest teams of the Calhoun era. While the Huskies were picked to finish fifth in the Big East in the preseason coaches poll, they wound up 12th, going 6-10 in league play.

We do believe they are going to be a lot better. If there weren't so many questions surrounding Price, I would have pushed for them to be higher than 21st in our poll. The Huskies remain one of the nation's most talented programs. Their roster includes two former five-star prospects and six four-stars.

They have a reliable big man in Jeff Adrien, who averaged nearly a double-double last season (13.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg). Sophomore center Hasheem Thabeet will average somewhere around five blocks a game. As a raw project last season, the 7-foot-3 Tanzanian averaged a Big East-high 3.8 blocks a game (third nationally). Sophomore Jerome Dyson also should make some strides after spending much of last season as the team's No. 1 option on offense.

UConn won't be the UConn of old until it can solve its point-guard issues and get some better shooters. But consider last season's downward turn an anomaly.

Who's this year's Durant?

Do you think a freshman, such as O.J. Mayo or Eric Gordon, could win national player of the year, as Kevin Durant did last season? And how big of an impact do you think this freshman class will have?.

I expect at least one freshman to be in the hunt for the player of the year award. Gordon, Mayo and Kansas State's Michael Beasley (Rivals.com's No. 1 prospect) are joining teams that need them to put up big numbers immediately. They are also on top 20-caliber teams.

What Durant pulled off last season also should make it easier for writers to vote for another freshman.

I don't know if you ever will see a freshman class have as big an impact as last season's. The class of 2006 headlined by the top two picks in the NBA Draft, Greg Oden and Durant was the best in recent years. The group happened to arrive at a time when many teams were trying to fill massive holes. Texas and Ohio State lost four starters apiece; Villanova had lost two draft picks, which paved the way for a big season from Scottie Reynolds.

Freshmen will play a big role in 2007-08, too. Gordon, Mayo and Beasley will be in the national spotlight all season. Plus, two other top-10 prospects will be playing key roles in the title hunt: UCLA's Kevin Love and Memphis' Derrick Rose.

Love gives the Bruins exactly what they have been missing in the Ben Howland era, a true inside presence. Rose, a multi-dimensional playmaker, might be Memphis' best player from Day One. That's impressive considering the Tigers return all the starters from a 34-win team.

Can Collins break out?

Kansas' Sherron Collins looked like one of the top freshmen in the country last season. Do you think that a player with his abilities and teammates could develop into one of the best in the country?

-- Luke from Albany, N.Y.

Yes, but not for at least another season. There are few guards as explosive and powerful as Collins. But there are even less who are surrounded by more talent and depth.

Collins is part of one of the nation's top backcourts. Put senior Russell Robinson, junior Mario Chalmers (the Big 12's co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2006-07) or Collins on any other team in the Big 12, and the player probably would have little trouble landing on the All-Big 12 team. But because they are teammates, their playing time and stats suffer. Collins started just three games last season, and he still managed to finish fourth on the team in scoring (9.3 ppg) and third in assists (2.9 apg).

Collins has the potential to be an All-American someday. But until Robinson exhausts his eligibility, Collins won't get the necessary minutes or responsibility needed to prove it.

UAB's NCAA Resume

UAB coach Mike Davis reportedly had some difficulty putting together a tough nonconference schedule. Is the announced schedule strong enough that a good record can lead to an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament?

-- Todd from Birmingham

Absolutely. If Davis had problems putting together a tough schedule, it doesn't show. The Blazers will face four BCS-league programs, going to "neutral courts" to meet Florida State (Daytona Beach) and Kentucky (Louisville). They also play host to Cincinnati and travel to USF.

Games with Rhode Island, a possible NCAA Tournament team, and Eastern Kentucky - a low-major school that reached the field of 65 last season - also should boost their RPI.

An improved Conference USA, which landed just one NCAA bid last season, also should help. Memphis will be a top-five preseason team. UAB will be much better, thanks to the addition of three high-profile transfers. Southern Miss looks ready for a breakthrough season after a young team won 20 games last 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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