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June 22, 2007

Mailbag: Freshmen have a tough act to follow

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.
June 6:
  • New faces, new hopes
  • There is no shortage of hype with the incoming freshman class.

    There's Michael Beasley at Kansas State, who raised the already enormous expectations surrounding the nation's top-ranked prospect with this MVP performance at the 2007 McDonald's All-American game.

    USC's O.J. Mayo was being hailed as a future NBA superstar three years ago.

    But neither had a better summer on the AAU circuit than Eric Gordon, who landed at Indiana after a heated recruiting battle.

    Does this mean the freshman class could be even better than last season's stellar crop? That group included Kevin Durant, the 2006-07 Rivals.com Player of the Year, and Greg Oden - Rivals.com's Defensive Player of the Year.

    National writer Andrew Skwara answers that question, along with others about how South Carolina can keep the top in-state players at home, how Arizona can reach its lofty expectations, what the departure of four transfers means for Mississippi State and Indiana's Big Ten title hopes in this week's mailbag.

    Setting a high bar

    This past year was a very good freshman class, perhaps the best we've seen in quite a while. Do you think the incoming class is going to be just as good or better? I personally think it will be the best ever.

    -- Keith Trawick, Willingboro, N.J.

    Trying to top last year's class is almost impossible. The first year of the NBA age limit happened to coincide with the arrival of a very special class.

    Kevin Durant put together quite possibly the best season freshman in history. When do you think we'll see a freshman finish in the top 10 nationally in scoring and rebounding again? Or sweep the national player of the year awards?

    A player like Greg Oden is a once-in-a-generation talent.

    But, it goes much deeper than Durant and Oden.

    Consider that each had classmates who emerged as national standouts - point guards D.J Augustin of Texas and Mike Conley Jr. of the Buckeyes.

    In the Pac-10, seven freshmen averaged well into double figures in scoring. High-profile recruits like Arizona's Chase Budinger, Washington's Spencer Hawes, USC's Taj Gibson and Stanford's Brook Lopez joined a trio of newcomers that arrived with far less fanfare - California's Ryan Anderson, Oregon's Tajuan Porter and Arizona State's Christian Polk.

    Expecting that kind of depth again is unrealistic, but that's not to say this won't be a very strong class.

    Kansas State's Michael Beasley, Indiana's Eric Gordon, Memphis' Derrick Rose and USC's O.J. Mayo are probably all one-and-done type players.

    But, unlike Durant and Oden, they'll be stepping onto teams with experience and proven talent (Memphis and USC would be national title contenders without Rose and Mayo). They won't have to carry the load immediately.

    Same goes for UCLA's Kevin Love and Duke's Kyle Singler, who are ranked among the top-10 prospects in the class of 2007. They'll be the third or four options in their offenses.

    That won't be the case for Arizona State's James Harden and Iowa State's Craig Brackins. Both five-star prospects join struggling programs and will have a chance to play and shoot the ball about as much as they want. Look for each to put up huge numbers.

    Getting over the Gamecock hump

    What can South Carolina do to get over the hump in basketball? The state puts out a lot of talent, but for some reason the kids aren't coming. Why?

    Christopher Day, Orlando

    Coach Dave Odom believes he has found an answer by going the transfer route.

    Five transfers will be eligible for the Gamecocks this season, including three former Mr. Basketballs from South Carolina guards Devan Downey (Cincinnati) and Zam Frederick II (Georgia Tech) and forward Mike Jones (Syracuse). Downey, who averaged 12.3 points and 2.0 steals a game in his lone college season, and Jones (who must sit out the first semester) were top-50 prospects.

    Winning with that group could be key to Odom saving his job which is probably on the line. The Gamecocks went 14-16 last season and were in the NIT and won it the two previous seasons.

    Seeing homegrown talent lead USC to the NCAA Tournament will make the state's top high school players believe they can do the same. More and more will start seriously considering the Gamecocks.

    Getting Arizona tough

    What is the key to Arizona's success this year? Is it the development of Jordan Hill, consistent play from Jawann McClellan or a combination of both?

    Alex from Chambersburg, Pa.

    I think you're probably overanalyzing a little. Getting a breakout year from a specific player or two isn't the program's problem. Somebody always steps up every year for the Wildcats, who never lack talent.

    Playing good, hard-nosed defense is what they have been lacking most. Last season, it reached new lows with the 'Cats ranking ninth in the Pac-10 in points allowed (72.5 per game), sixth in opponents' field-goal percentage (44 percent) and eighth in opponents' 3-point field-goal percentage (35 percent).

    They gave up way too many easy baskets and didn't have the toughness that teams which make deep NCAA Tournament runs possess.

    That's why Lute Olson added Kevin O'Neill to his staff. A defensive-minded coach, O'Neill (who has been a head coach at Tulsa, Marquette, Tennessee and Northwestern) will bring a lot of intensity and discipline.

    It's similar to the move Billy Donovan made when he added Larry Shyatt (another former head coach) to his staff in 2004. The Gators, who have also never had trouble scoring points, improved on defense soon after Shyatt arrived.

    Dealing with loss

    How will the transfers Vernon Goodridge, Bernard Rimmer and the Delk twins affect Mississippi State? Are they still a preseason top 25 team?

    Matthew from Mobile

    Here's the short and sweet answer: Not much.

    Reginald (9.7 ppg) and Richard (5.7 ppg) Delk were the only two of those four who were part of the regular rotation last season, and both are replaceable.

    The return of multi-dimensional star Jamont Gordon makes the Bulldogs a contender in the SEC West. No single player may have done more for his team last season. Gordon averaged 16.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists a game and posted a slew of near triple-double performances.

    Big man Charles Rhodes (13.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) decided to stay in school, so the Bulldogs will have one of the best post players in the SEC. Rhodes entered the NBA Draft, but didn't sign with an agent.

    Gordon and Rhodes will be surrounded by a handful of promising role players. Guards Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough and center Jarvis Varnado all contributed as freshmen last season. Almost any coach will tell you that players make their biggest improvement from the first to second year.

    Put all that together, and I think you've got a legitimate top-25 team.

    A Hoosier resurgence?

    Do you see Indiana as an early favorite to win the Big Ten with the return of D.J. White and the arrival of Eric Gordon?

    Jake Tucker from Evansville, Ind.

    Absolutely. Defending champ Ohio State is reloading with gaudy talent, but they have to take a big step back with the loss of Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr.. So will Wisconsin with the departures of Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor.

    Some may see Michigan State as on par with the Hoosiers. The Spartans signed a trio of four-star guards. However, I might trade them all for Gordon - even if it is only for one year. He is simply that good.

    Explosive and athletic, Gordon also has a great shooting touch and deep range. He excels at attacking the basket. He'll be a scoring threat from the perimeter from Day One and will be one of the Big Ten's best players.

    Gordon's arrival will also help free up White, who saw his share of double teams last season. The two could form the best inside-outside tandem in the nation.

    Indiana doesn't have the depth or experience that some of the other Big Ten teams feature, but second year-coach Kelvin Sampson excels at developing valuable role players. Expect at least two of the Hoosiers' five other recruits to emerge as solid contributors.

    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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