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January 22, 2008

Vols happy to have Crews back in lineup

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
Jan 16: Possibly perfect
Jan 9: Grading Gonzaga
Dec. 28: Terrapin troubles

On most teams, someone averaging 6.5 points and 4.6 rebounds would be described as a role player. On deep squads, he might even be labeled a non-factor. But not at Tennessee.

Sophomore center Duke Crews, the man responsible for those pedestrian stats, recently was cleared to play by team doctors after missing more than a month because of a heart condition. Tennessee fans are eager to find out what Crews can add even though eight of the wins in the Volunteers' current 11-game winning streak came without him.

We answer that question along with inquiries about what mid-major team will move into national prominence in the second half of the season, why Texas A&M suddenly is struggling in Big 12 play, what to make of the surprising teams near the top of the Big East standings and whether USC's upset of UCLA was a sign that the Trojans are ready to make the most of their talent in this week's mailbag.

Full Crew(s)

Tennessee recently found out it's getting big man Duke Crews back. How much can he help?

Doug from Chattanooga, Tenn.

More than the numbers let on. Crews doesn't score a lot and he isn't going to start stringing together double-doubles, but he brings an element of toughness on the inside that nobody else on the roster provides.

Ole Miss, a good rebounding team with a deep frontcourt, was able to overpower the undersized Vols on the inside a couple of weeks ago. The Rebels dominated the boards, which nearly led to an upset at Thompson-Boling Arena. If Crews had been healthy, the Vols wouldn't have reversed things, but they wouldn't have been nearly as vulnerable in the paint, either.

Once Crews gets back to playing shape in a couple of weeks, the Vols will be tougher defensively. He's a legitimate shot-blocking threat and a good rebounder.

Under the radar

The past couple of years, a mid-major team seemed to come out of nowhere and surprise everybody. Who should we be watching out for this season?

Dan from Alexandria, Va.

Keep an eye on South Alabama. The Jaguars are riding a lot of momentum, having won 11 games in a row.

Most of those wins have come against Sun Belt teams, but the Jaguars are capable of pulling off a big upset. They nearly beat Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, two of the best teams in the SEC, and did manage to beat Mississippi State; the Bulldogs are riding an eight-game winning streak of their own, which will help the Jaguars' RPI.

The Jaguars have a special player in senior guard Demetric Bennett, who might be the most underrated player in the nation. In the games against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, he averaged 30.6 points.

The Jaguars also will have the added benefit of playing the Sun Belt tourney on their home floor in Mobile, Ala.

Trouble in Aggieland

What is wrong with Texas A&M? The Aggies were cruising along in their non-conference schedule, but they got thumped by Texas Tech and Kansas State on the road.

Jon in Austin, Texas

I'm baffled as well. I saw Texas A&M dominate in the Preseason NIT and thought the Aggies would be able to overpower most opponents with their size and depth inside.

Looking back, playing eight consecutive home games probably wasn't a good idea. But the main problem has been their offense. The whole team seemed to go cold at the same time against Texas Tech and Kansas State. The Aggies shot below 40 percent from the field and below 60 percent from the free-throw line in both games.

I think more than anything, they miss Acie Law IV. Whenever they needed a basket the past few seasons, they would just spread the court and let Law work his magic. The Aggies are more well-rounded now, but they don't have a go-to scorer anymore. Donald Sloan, their only guard who can create a shot off the dribble, might be able to fill that role someday, and getting him more looks may be the answer.

Conference cluster

West Virginia, Cincinnati and DePaul are tied for second place in the Big East. Are all three for real? Who do you think will make the NCAA Tournament out of that group?

Mike from Cincinnati

I'm a believer in West Virginia. Bob Huggins has made the Mountaineers a better defensive team (he has tinkered with a handful of zones for the first time in his career), and he has made good use of some savvy guards he inherited from John Beilein.

They Mountaineers also are the deepest team in that group. They didn't have much trouble beating USF on the road even with small forward Joe Alexander, their best player, out with a groin injury.

I'm not sure what to think with Cincinnati. Deonta Vaughn has become one of the top guards in the Big East. But can a team that went 2-14 in league play last season really turn it around that quickly with many of the same pieces? I have a tough time believing they have improved that much. Plus, a weak non-conference resume is going to hurt the Bearcats if they land on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

I'm convinced DePaul is an imposter. This is the same team that lost to North Carolina A&T and nearly got beat by Northwestern in November. Last week, the Blue Demons needed a late rally at home to beat Rutgers.

I expect WVU to be the only team in that trio to reach the Big Dance.

Building block?

Will USC's victory at UCLA propel the Trojans to greater consistency, or will we look back at that game as just a sign of the great potential this team had?

Will from San Francisco

I'm going with the first option, meaning beating the Bruins will be a sign of things to come for the men of Troy.

You just don't see opponents go into Pauley Pavilion and shoot 60 percent from the field during the Ben Howland era (USC was only the second team to reach that number), especially not against what may be Howland's most talented team.

The Trojans have the pieces to be a contender in the Pac-10, from star guard O.J. Mayo to ultra-talented forward Davon Jefferson, who exploded for a career-high 25 points against the Bruins, to underachieving big man Taj Gibson, who has yet to look like the player who outdueled Tyler Hansbrough in a head-to-head battle last season. That's why we picked the Trojans ninth in our preseason top 64.

With a great X's and O's coach in Tim Floyd, who got plenty of teams to overachieve at Iowa State, I'm confident the Trojans will get better and better.

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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