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November 26, 2008

Mailbag: Can a Big Five team knock off Villanova?

Got a question? Click here to send it to Skwara's Mailbag

Mention the words "Big Five" in the Midwest or the South and people probably think you're referring to some kind of fast-food combo meal. But anyone who has spent a basketball season in Philadelphia knows exactly what the term means.

The Big Five is made up of five Philly-area schools: La Salle, Penn, St. Joseph's, Temple and Villanova. The quintet played one another every season from 1955-1991, generating some intense rivalries that were reheated when the round-robin series was brought back in 1999.

Villanova has been the class of the Big Five in recent seasons, and the gap between the Wildcats and the rest of the group appears to be widening. Villanova returns all five starters from a team that went to the Sweet 16.

That has many Philly basketball fans wondering if Villanova will cruise past its Big Five opponents this season. The Wildcats and Penn open up Big Five play Tuesday at The Palestra, one of the most famous venues in college basketball.

This topic and others are addressed in this week's mailbag.

Big Five surprise?

Steve from Philadelphia : Is there any way that someone will knock off Villanova and win the Big Five this season?

The Wildcats are a safe pick to win the Big Five, but I think they'll lose one of the matchups.

None of the other teams is as talented, deep or experienced as the Wildcats, who have a realistic shot at the Final Four. Still, each remains dangerous. La Salle lost by only eight points to No. 2 Connecticut at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Temple is one of the Atlantic 10's top teams and senior Dionte Christmas (23.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg) is one of the top wings in the nation. St. Joseph's has one of the nation's top centers in senior Ahmad Nivins (18.7 ppg, 12.7 rpg). Penn went to Chapel Hill and managed not to get embarrassed by national title favorite North Carolina, losing 86-71. The Quakers went point-for-point with the Tar Heels after halftime; each team finished with 38 second-half points.

Slow start

Shane from Lexington, Ky. : Are you worried about B.J. Mullens? For someone who was supposed to go No. 1 overall in the NBA draft this year, he really has not showed up in the Buckeyes' first two games (Delaware State, Bowling Green). In fact, he doesn't even start. What's going on with him?

Mullens' lack of playing time and production is a bit disconcerting. I didn't expect him to have the kind of start that Greg Oden or Kosta Koufos the two 7-footers who preceded him at Ohio State had, but I didn't expect him to play only 11 minutes and score just two points against the likes of Bowling Green, either.

Two factors are holding Mullens back. For starters, he isn't as advanced at this stage in his career as Oden or Koufos. He also has a guy in front of him playing pretty well. Sophomore center Dallas Lauderdale blocked a total of 13 shots in those first two games.

Mullens will start playing more as the Buckeyes get deeper into the season, but he needs more time to develop. Hopefully, he'll stay in college for at least another season.

Ultimately, Mullens will be just fine. He's an athletic 7-footer who runs the court well. Once he adds some go-to moves and grows more comfortable, he'll start playing more and posting some impressive stats.

Title hopes

Hunt from Memphis, Tenn. : What do you think of Gonzaga's national championship chances?

I can't consider the Zags a serious title contender. For all their consistency when it comes to making the NCAA tournament their streak of 10 consecutive trips to the field of 65 is eclipsed by only five other programs (Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State) they normally don't go far once there.

In the past seven seasons, the Zags have only gotten past the second round once, when Adam Morrison - the best player in school history - carried them to the Sweet 16 in 2006. They've been bounced out of the first round in each of the past two seasons.

Gonzaga probably has its most talented team and I really like the balance. The Bulldogs have six players who are capable of leading the team in scoring in any given game. But they aren't much different from the team that lost to Davidson 82-76 in the first round last season. Only one starter (power forward David Pendergraft) didn't return.

I think Gonzaga will reach the Sweet 16 and could go as far as the Final Four with a few breaks going their way. But wishing for a national title is a little too much.

Giant killer?

Joel from Baton Rouge, La. : Davidson looks tough. Could they upset a top-ranked team like North Carolina?

Davidson is capable of beating anyone because the Wildcats have Stephen Curry. He can take over any game, regardless of the opponent.

Curry seems to have gotten even better since carrying the Wildcats to the Elite Eight last season, when he averaged 32 points in four NCAA tournament games. Curry had 44 points last week while nearly leading the Wildcats to an upset at Oklahoma; the Sooners escaped 82-78.

Davidson faces two more top 25 teams: Purdue as part of the John Wooden Classic in Indianapolis on Dec. 20 and a road trip to Duke on Jan. 7. If Curry plays anything like he did against the Sooners and with his consistency it's possible the Wildcats have a chance to win both matchups.

Reason to worry?

Gregory from Houston : How do you think Auburn will do this year? They've already lost to Mercer at home.

The Mercer loss isn't as troubling as it may look at first glance. Mercer also won at Alabama, which was picked as the co-champs (along with LSU) in the SEC West by the league coaches. The Bears also took Georgia Tech to overtime.

What's been a real reason for hope for Auburn has been the play of big man Korvotney Barber, who was leading the country in field-goal percentage (72 percent) when he suffered a season-ending wrist injury last December. Barber averaged 16.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in the Tigers' first three games, numbers that helped the Tigers to wins over Missouri State and George Washington.

With a healthy Barber and a particularly weak SEC West no team in the division looks like an NCAA lock the Tigers have a real shot at turning things around and becoming a division contender.

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com. Got a question for Andrew's Mailbag? Click here to drop him a note.

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