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December 1, 2006

Mailbag: Ohio State and UNC may meet again

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North Carolina's 98-89 win over Ohio State in Chapel Hill on Wednesday night left college basketball fans salivating for more.

The marquee matchup of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge more than lived up to the hype. There was plenty of offense and plenty of great plays on both sides of the ball, with most of it coming from the highly touted freshmen who made up the nation's top two recruiting classes in 2006.

But what would happen if we added Greg Oden to the mix and threw in a neutral court? Could it be even better?

We'll touch on that, along with Maryland's 8-0 start and Alabama star Ronald Steele's injured knee in this mailbag.

Andrew's Mailbag
After watching the Ohio State-North Carolina game, I think you can determine those are two of the best teams in the country. Do you think we will see both teams in the Final Four and how enticing would a rematch be, this time with Greg Oden playing?
From: Jay, Falls Church, Va.
Fan of: Virginia

Just how good will Ohio State be with Oden? That's what I was thinking about eight minutes into the game. By the final buzzer, I was convinced they are going to the Final Four.

The Buckeyes, playing with almost no interior presence, put a serious scare into one of the nation's most talented teams - in one of the most intimidating places to play.

The Ohio State perimeter play was extremely impressive.

Point guards Jamar Butler and Mike Conley consistently beat their men off the dribble, got into the lane and kicked the ball out to teammates for wide-open 3-pointers.

The result was a long-range shooting clinic. Five different Buckeyes hit at least two 3-pointers and the team went 13-of-26 (50 percent) from beyond the arc.

What's going to happen when opponents have to collapse on Oden? Even more open looks for the Buckeyes' deep bevy of shooters.

The scary part is the Buckeyes don't need Oden to dominate. They don't need him to score 20 points a game or even be their No. 1 offensive option. They just need him to be a presence in the paint.

That shouldn't be a problem for the 7-foot-1, 255-pounder. Often criticized for not shooting the ball enough in high school, Oden prefers to focus on defense and rebounding.

Once the Buckeyes start getting help in those departments they will start dominating. A down year in the Big Ten, combined with a very strong non-conference schedule, should help Ohio State capture a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

I'm not quite convinced the Tar Heels will be joining the Buckeyes in Atlanta site of the 2007 Final Four just yet.

Gonzaga exposed a big weakness and created a blueprint on how to slow down Tyler Hansbrough in their upset over the Tar Heels two weeks ago. Bulldogs center Josh Heytvelt (6-11, 240) was the main source behind Hansbrough's problems. Heytvelt's height and physical style of play proved to work well against the UNC star.

Freshmen Tywon Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Brandan Wright are all special talents who are each going to be significantly better by March, but the team is still built around Hansbrough.

He is their first option on offense and their biggest difference-maker. Until Hansbrough proves that the Gonzaga game wasn't a fluke I'm not penciling the Tar Heels too deep in my bracket.

That's not to say I'm not hoping Carolina doesn't make it far. After all, it's probably the only way we'll see an OSU-UNC rematch.

Now that the Terps are eight games into the season, how do you predict they will do this year? What are their strengths and weaknesses that would result in that outcome?
From: Mark, Richmond, Va.
Fan of: Maryland

Well, you don't have to worry about Maryland falling on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble again. I know it's still early, but it's clear they are far improved from the last two seasons - which both ended with trips to the NIT.

Combine Maryland's strong showing with Boston College's poor start - and the way Duke has looked as of late - and I think the Terps could finish second in the ACC. With North Carolina's talent, first place is an unrealistic goal for every other team in the league.

The Terps' resurgence can mostly be credited to the point guard combo of Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez. They've made everyone around them better, especially D.J. Strawberry. The veteran guard is one of four Terps scoring in double figures.

Maryland showed its balance, depth and a new toughness in a 72-66 win at Illinois on Tuesday. Playing without their best post player and leading rebounder Ekene Ibekwe - who sprained his ankle - the Terrapins managed to pull away in a tight road game.

The freshmen played like battle-tested veterans. Hayes dished out six assists. Vasquez scored 17 points. Bambale Osby added 10 points and grabbed eight boards in his first start.

The Terps' don't have any glaring weaknesses. They've got size and speed. They've got good outside shooters and good ballhandlers. But they do lack a go-to scorer, which tends to be a must in the deeper rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Will Alabama be hurt with Ronald Steele's injured knee, or is he out just for caution against these lower rated teams?
From: Chris, Birmingham, Ala.
Fan of: Alabama

If Alabama were playing anybody from the big six conferences or one of the better mid-major programs, Steele would have been suiting up and likely playing heavy minutes instead of sitting out the last two games.

After playing three games in four days, the tendinitis in Steele's knee was acting up and coach Mark Gottfried wanted to rest him. Gottfried hopes Steele will be as healthy as possible when the SEC schedule begins.

Alabama doesn't want a replay of last season when Steele averaged a remarkable 39 minutes a game. The star point guard and the rest of a team wore down in the last couple weeks of the 2005-06 season. The Crimson Tide lost five of its last nine games.

Playing without Steele is helping the development of some key young guards this season. Freshman Mykal Riley (22) and sophomore Alonzo Gee each scored 22 points in the Tide's 75-61 win over Louisiana-Monroe on Tuesday.

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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