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September 4, 2007

Andrew's Mailbag: The Post-Durant era

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 28: Preview time
August 21: The tougher job
August 14: The sleeper picks
July 29: Talent isn't everything

What will the post-Kevin Durant era bring at Texas? Longhorns fans began asking that question before Durant even played in his first college game.

Sure, it was great to have Durant, who averaged 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds a game last season on his way to capturing consensus national player of the year honors. But what now? How do you regroup after losing the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft?

Rivals.com's Andrew Skwara explores those questions, along with others involving Ole Miss second-year coach Andy Kennedy, the impact of Syracuse's top 5 recruiting class, how Oregon will replace star guard Aaron Brooks and if Duke can overcome a lack of frontcourt depth in this week's mailbag.

ANDREW'S MAILBAG
LIFE AFTER DURANT

With Kevin Durant gone, who will step up for Texas? How will the incoming freshmen help the sophomores?

Sky Monkey from Austin, Texas
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Believe it or not, I think Texas could actually finish higher in the Big 12 standings without Durant (they went 12-4 in conference play and were third in 2006-07). The only team clearly better is Kansas.

The Longhorns are the second-most talented squad in the league. Every player is back except Durant. That includes six of the other recruits that helped make up the nation's No. 3-ranked recruiting class in 2006. Coach Rick Barnes and his staff went out and added the No. 22-ranked class in 2007, which features three top 100 prospects.

I fully expect a great season from Durant's former sidekick. Sophomore D.J. Augustin didn't get a ton of publicity last season due to Durant's incredible year, but he deserved it. Playing with the savvy and poise rarely seen in a freshman point guard, Augustin ranked fourth in the nation with 6.7 assists per game, had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, averaged 14.4 points a game and shot 44 percent (45-of-102) from 3-point range. His game and cool demeanor remind me a lot of former Ohio State star Mike Conley, who left college after one year and was the No. 4 pick in the NBA Draft. Augustin will never be picked that high, but he will be a special player at the college level.

The return of junior shooting guard A.J. Abrams (15.5 ppg) gives the Longhorns a second major scoring threat, a key for any team to get deep in the NCAA Tournament. Abrams doesn't do much well except shoot, and his shot selection can be poor at times, but when hot, he's dangerous.

Expect significant improvement out of sophomores Justin Mason and Damion James. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound James, a former five-star recruit, played a passive role on offense last season, focusing on setting picks and crashing the boards, but he has the skills and frame to be a versatile scorer.

But, the key to duplicating last season's success or doing even better may hinge on that status of freshman power forward Gary Johnson, who has enrolled in classes but hasn't been "cleared to participate in any physical activities." The four-star recruit would give the Longhorns the toughness they lacked on the inside last season.

With Johnson, look for the 'Horns to contend for the Big 12 title and get another high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Without, they'll still be among the league's top teams and get back in the field of 65.

KENNEDY CAN

Ole Miss had a very much improved team last season under first-year head coach Andy Kennedy. He took a group that should only win 12 games and turned it into a 20-win program. They lost three senior starters after graduation, but do you see Kennedy being able to take his incoming recruits and what is left of last season's team and turning this year's squad into another 20-win team and possibly making an NCAA Tournament run?

-- Justin C. from Oxford, Miss.
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It's tough to pick against any Kennedy-coached team beating the odds. Just look at what he has done in his first two years as a head coach.

As an interim coach at Cincinnati two seasons ago, the Bearcats finished a last-second Gerry McNamara 3-pointer short of an NCAA Tournament bid (see the 2006 Big East Tournament). Kennedy kept the team focused following the controversial exit of longtime head coach Bob Huggins and during a year where the Big East sent a record eight teams to the NCAA Tournament.

That performance earned Kennedy the job at Ole Miss, where he took virtually the same team that went 14-16 and 4-12 in the SEC under Rod Barnes in 2005-06 and led them to a 21-13 record and an 8-8 mark in league play.

But, I still can't see Ole Miss getting into the 2008 NCAA Tournament. The two teams Kennedy inherited had the majority of their best players coming back. That's not the case for the Rebels. Those three senior starters you mentioned combined to average 32.2 ppg last season. Point guard Todd Abernethy was also the leading assist man, dishing out 5.5 apg.

The Rebels added a seven-man recruiting class which features a pair of junior college transfers and four-star forward Malcolm White but it's not capable of replacing all of that offensive production.

Expect the Rebels to perform better than predicted and reach the NIT again, but the NCAA Tournament is a reach.

ORANGE GET YOUNG

Will Syracuse's No. 4-ranked recruiting class including Jonny Flynn and Donte Greene bring them to the top of the Big East? Can Eric Devendorf finally take control of the team?

-- David from Scarsdale, N.Y.
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The top of the Big East is wishing for a little too much, but Syracuse won't be sweating out Selection Sunday again.

Flynn is the first real point guard Syracuse has had in recent years, which should help boost an offense loaded with offensive-minded players. His impressive performance at the U-19 World Championships in Serbia last month is a good sign of things to come for the Orange. Flynn played the second-most minutes on the American team and also finished second in steals and assists.

Nobody will benefit more from Flynn's arrival than guard Paul Harris. The former five-star prospect is poised for a breakthrough season. Flynn and Harris played together in high school.

Greene was also part of the U-19 American squad, but didn't play much. Don't read into that. His lack of minutes was more of a depth issue. The 6-9 Greene will be a big weapon on offense with his smooth shooting stroke and graceful moves.

Devendorf will probably emerge as the leading scorer, but he won't have to carry the offense with such an influx of talent. In fact, the junior's most important role may be providing leadership to such a young team.

The Orange lack the inside force to take home another Big East title or make another Final Four run, but on the perimeter they will overmatch nearly every team on their schedule. Look for a 20-plus win season. Come late March, the biggest concern for Orange fans will be what seed their team will get in the NCAA Tournament.

MISSING BROOKS

With Oregon's ability to spread the floor with shooters at every position how much will losing Aaron Brooks really hurt the Ducks, considering the signing of Kamyron Brown at point guard?

-- Jeremy Bucktavius from Ashland, Oregon
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Brown is a promising prospect from one of the nation's top prep programs, but it would take a really special recruit to replace what Brooks gave the Ducks.

Brooks was a difference-maker. Few opposing guards could stay with him one-on-one, and he excelled at attacking basket. Armed with a variety of floaters and runners, Brooks was a dangerous scorer. He broke the 30-point barrier four times last season.

The Ducks have three players all capable of taking turns carrying the scoring load in guards Tajuan Porter and Bryce Taylor and small forward Malik Hairston. They've also got a good presence in the paint, thanks to the return of big man Maarty Leunen, who put together some solid performances in the Pan Am games this summer.

But, they don't have anyone who can replace Brooks. That translates into taking a step back.

BIG MAN SEARCH

What effect do you expect Duke's post depth (or lack thereof) will have on Coach K's team this season? Is a top-10 finish a legitimate expectation?

-- Stan from Wilmington, N.C.
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One of the most popular questions this off-season has been who is the second-best team in the ACC? To me, it's not much of a debate.

Duke has the best collection of guards in the league with the return of senior DeMarcus Nelson (14.1 ppg), junior Greg Paulus (11.8 ppg) and promising sophomore Gerald Henderson (former five-star recruit) and the addition of freshman Nolan Smith (four-star recruit).

Freshman small forward Kyle Singler, the No. 5-ranked prospect in the class of 2007, will add a new dimension to Duke's offense with his versatility and refined skills.

But, as usual, a lack of depth in the post which seems to be turning into a trademark of coach Mike Krzyzewski teams will be the Blue Devils' weakness. In recent years, Coach K has struggled to build a solid amount of big men. Duke star center Shelden Williams was under a lot of pressure to stay out of foul trouble his last two seasons in 2004-05 and 2005-06 because of the lack of an adequate backup. Josh McRoberts, a finesse power forward, found himself in a similar situation last season. McRoberts was Duke's only effective player with the size to play in the post, leaving the team at a heavy disadvantage when he came out.

With the departure of McRoberts, who was a second-round draft pick, Duke may face a real dilemma on the inside. Sophomores Lance Thomas (6-9, 225) and Brian Zoubek (7-0, 230) should be able to help on the boards and on defense, but neither has the game to be an inside scoring threat yet. Same goes for Singler and freshman forward Taylor King (a 3-point specialist), who are better suited for the perimeter.

It's a shame, because Duke didn't need another Shelden Williams to climb back into the top 10. Its stellar backcourt could have compensated for an average frontcourt. But, the lack of balance is too great to rejoin the elite ranks of college basketball.

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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