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August 21, 2007

Andrew's Mailbag: The tougher job

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll be working all summer to get you ready for the season and answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
August 14: The sleeper picks
July 29: Talent isn't everything
July 20: Devilish questions
July 8: Two favorites in the Big Ten
June 22: Tough second act

No coach will be under a bigger spotlight next season than Kentucky's Billy Gillispie.

Every year the Wildcats coach faces enormous pressure and expectations, but after Tubby Smith's controversial exit from Lexington, combined with Florida coach Billy Donovan turning down the job, the college basketball world is particularly anxious to see what comes next for the Big Blue nation.

But, the amount of attention on the place Gillispie departed is growing as well.

Texas A&M went from a Big 12 doormat to a national power under Gillispie's watch, winning 27 games and advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2006-07. They went winless in league play in 2003-04, the season before Gillispie arrived.

What can we expect from the Aggies in the post-Gillispie era? Is a downward turn inevitable? Or, could they continue to improve? The latter isn't out of the question. Four starters are back and they've added a stellar recruiting class.

We explore those questions and more in this week's mailbag:

ANDREWS'S MAILBAG
THE NEW REGIME

Do you feel the combination of Donald Sloan and Dominique Kirk can replace All-American Acie Law IV at point guard for Texas A&M? Kirk is one my all-time favorite Aggie players, but he is far from a natural point guard. Acie carried us in many games last year and his absence will be felt. Josh Carter is a catch-and-shoot guard, so it is critical we have someone that can create off the dribble. Is there a freshman that you feel could make an impact?

Also, who wins more games this year: Billy Gillispie at UK or Mark Turgeon at A&M?

Rayford Alton Whitlock from Pomroy, Texas
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I'm not going to waffle on the first question. There may not be a combination of any two players on any team in the nation that could replace Law. He was a tremendous leader and one of the best clutch shooters we've seen at the college level in recent years.

Sloan has plenty of talent and is the future at point guard for the Aggies. But I think this could be a rocky season for the explosive sophomore. This will be his first year running the team and making critical decisions. Plus, there is the pressure of replacing Law and playing under a new coach. Look for him to go through some ups and downs while learning all the nuances of being a floor general in 2007-08 and then with some more experience really blossom the following year.

Kirk, who will continue to play more on the wing, is the one who should be pegged for a breakthrough campaign. Kirk has mainly been known as a defensive stopper but expect him to start consistently contributing more on the offensive end. The senior scored 16 points in the Aggies' first-round NCAA Tournament win over Penn last season and put up a career-high 21 points in the following round in a win over Louisville.

Still, the responsibility of attacking the basket will mainly fall on Sloan. None of the members of the Aggies' five-man recruiting class excels at penetrating.

That's not to say the newcomers won't provide help. Five-star center DeAndre Jordan (7 feet, 240 pounds) will give the Aggies a bigger interior presence than they ever had under Gillispie. Adding Jordan to a roster that includes proven senior Joseph Jones (13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds last season) and promising sophomore Bryan Davis (former four-star recruit) could give the Aggies the best frontcourt in the Big 12.

As far as the question on the coaches, I'll lean slightly toward Gillispie. Turgeon has more experience and depth to work with, but the Aggies lost one of the nation's top coaches and one of the nation's top players. That double whammy will force them to take a step back, possibly two steps back.

LOWE MAN WINS?

Even though N.C. State returns a lot of talent, can the Wolfpack replace the steady hand of Engin Atsur and get back to the NCAA Tournament?

-- Dan in Apex, N.C.
-----

There's no doubt that second-year coach Sidney Lowe and his young team would love to have the savvy Atsur back, but they proved the four-year starter wasn't a critical component last season.

In fact, N.C. State got plenty of experience playing without Atsur. Bothered by a hamstring injury nearly all season, he missed 12 full games and was limited in many others.

Perhaps that explains the Wolfpack's shocking run to ACC Tournament title game. Despite an ineffective Atsur in the semifinals he scored just three points on 1-of-6 shooting the 'Pack pulled off a 72-64 upset of Virginia Tech. With Atsur hobbling around on one leg in the final he scored three points again on 1-of-3 shooting the 'Pack still managed to put a scare into then-No. 8 North Carolina before falling 89-80.

There isn't anyone on the roster with Atsur's combination of skills and experience, but he can be replaced collectively. Iowa State transfer Farnold Degand is a point guard who practiced with the team all of last season and will be the favorite to take over the starting job. Junior Courtney Fells is a capable ball handler and sophomore Brandon Costner, one of the nation's most promising young players, can also bring the ball up court if needed.

With a rising star in Costner, three other starters returning and the addition of five-star prospect J.J. Hickson, Lowe has enough pieces to get the 'Pack into the field of 65.

FINDING THE FIT

With the departure of both Dion Harris and Lester Abram (longtime starters), do you think four former three-star recruits (Jerret Smith, Jevohn Shepherd, K'Len Morris and Ronald Coleman) and the addition of Corperryale Harris (four-star recruit) will be enough to cover those responsibilities? Will Harris be able to step in right away? Can the frontcourt of Epke Udoh and DeShawn Sims become one of the most dominant in the Big Ten?

-- Sane Washington from Ann Arbor, Mich.
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Sane, don't concern yourself too much with talent level or the lack of experience Michigan brings back. The Wolverines' future, particularly their immediate future, depends much more on how quickly the players can pick up new coach John Beilein's unorthodox system.

Beilein has won at every level. That includes the Big East, a better basketball conference (sorry Big Ten fans), where he took a West Virginia team with less talent deep into the NCAA Tournament twice.

The point I'm trying to make is that Beilein doesn't need high-profile recruits or veterans to win. But, he does need players who fit his style, which includes an offense predicated on constant motion and a 1-3-1 zone defense that is about as tricky as you will see in college basketball. That all requires good ball handlers, good outside shooters and most importantly, guys who really know their X's and O's.

Does the personnel on the Michigan roster fit those descriptions? Probably not. All but one player was recruited by former coach Tommy Amaker (now at Harvard), a coach with a far different style and vision for the program.

Guys like Smith and Morris are going to have to reinvent their games to a certain degree. The same may be true for younger players like Harris and Udoh. All are going to have to learn to be more unselfish and play a more team-oriented style.

The faster that happens the faster you'll see Michigan start contending in the Big Ten. I'm guessing it's going to take at least a full year for Beilein and his system to really take shape in Ann Arbor. In his first year at West Virginia, the Mountaineers were 14-15. But, don't rule out a magical turnaround. In Beilein's first season at Richmond in 1997-98, the Spiders won 23 games and upset South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament.

THE STICKING POINT

Andrew, what position in college basketball may we possibly see increased depth or no drop-off at all because of the new draft rules? Certainly, big guys will be in demand, but do you think guards, especially point guards, may now become more seasoned instead of a Sebastian Telfair situation?

-- William in Chapel Hill
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I'm in tune with your way of thinking.

Big men, particularly ones who can play in the post in the NBA, are going to become more scarce than ever before. Former Washington center Spencer Hawes is the perfect example. Even in one of the deepest drafts we've seen in years this past June, Hawes was taken with the 10th pick. This was after a freshman season where Hawes averaged 14.9 ppg and 6.4 rpg. Those are solid numbers, but hardly eye-popping stuff.

If the draft wasn't so deep Georgetown's 7-2 Roy Hibbert wouldn't have stayed in college. The best centers left would have been Stanford's Brook Lopez, Memphis' Joey Dorsey and Nebraska's Aleks Maric. They're all solid players, but none reminds you of anyone great.

I think you'll see point guards, especially those who are slightly undersized, stay in college longer as well. The position is loaded this season with Mississippi State's Jamont Gordon, UCLA's Darren Collison, Texas' D.J. Augustin and North Carolina's Ty Lawson each coming back. Marquette's Dominic James and Virginia's Sean Singletary have both put together impressive college careers, but they each chose to pull out of the draft and return too.

Mike Conley Jr., who bolted from Ohio State after just one season, is an anomaly. You just don't see freshmen with that maturity and that high of a basketball IQ.

CRIMSON QUESTIONS

Will one of Alabama's three freshmen start this year? If so, which one, Senario Hillman, Rico Pickett or Justin Knox? Will Ron Steele and Richard Hendrix be high draft choices if 'Bama has a decent season? Is Mark Gottfried overrated or underrated?

-- James Johnson for Birmingham, Ala.
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I don't think you'll see any of the freshmen start.

The Tide is very deep in the backcourt with the return of Steele (if he's healthy) and wings Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley, who each averaged 12.6 ppg last season. Hillman, the most talented of the three recruits, will probably get steady minutes and be a role player. Pickett will also see a little action as they prepare for eventually replacing Steele.

Knox, who ironically is the lowest ranked of the trio, could end up playing more than both. With the loss of big man Jermareo Davidson, the Tide is much more in need of size and frontcourt depth, something the 6-9 Knox might be able to provide.

If Steele can return to his sophomore form, he'll be a first-round pick. Steele has good size (6-3, 185) and a great feel for the game. I would say he could even go in the lottery, but it looks like it's going to be a great draft for point guards (see the question above).

Hendrix is a borderline first-round pick at best because of his lack of height. The 6-8, 265-pound junior won't be nearly as effective in the paint in the NBA.

As far as Gottfried, I would lean toward underrated. Gottfried isn't thought of as one of the SEC's top coaches, but he's turned Alabama into one of the league's top programs. The former UCLA assistant is a very good recruiter and while he may not be an X's and O's genius, he's more than capable of taking the Tide deep into the NCAA Tournament. In 2005-06, with just seven scholarship players, the Tide was a basket away from knocking off eventual runner-up UCLA in the second round.

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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