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October 8, 2008

Mailbag: Who should be ranked No. 2?

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

Who is No. 2? That may be the most popular question in college basketball.

North Carolina sits atop every preseason poll. With every starter returning from a team that reached the Final Four, nobody is picking against the Tar Heels.

But there are a lot of conflicting opinions on who will be North Carolina's chief challenger. Each of the other teams from the 2008 Final Four lost at least three starters. Defending national champion Kansas lost all five.

Rivals.com ranked Connecticut No. 2 in its most recent top 25. Purdue, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and UCLA are also considered among the top contenders.

But many Louisville fans are wondering why they're team isn't being mentioned more, and they can make a strong argument. The Cardinals return three of their top four scorers from a team that was tied with North Carolina midway through the second half of their Elite Eight matchup.

We take a look at why the Cardinals aren't getting more love for the No. 2 spot in this week's mailbag.

We're No. 2!

James from Louisville, Ky. : I understand why North Carolina is a heavy favorite to win the national championship next season, but how is Louisville not an obvious pick for No. 2. They have a very deep backcourt with Edgar Sosa, Jerry Smith, Andre McGhee, Reginald Delk and Preston Knowles. Knowles came up huge in the postseason, and I predict him to be a huge player in the next couple of years. If you look up front you've got Terrence Williams and Earl Clark making things easy for an uber-talented pair of freshman centers, Terrence Jennings and Samardo Samuels.

Talent is not the issue for the Cardinals. In fact, heavy favorite North Carolina may be the only team in the nation with more talent.

But it remains unclear if they are going to be able to utilize all that talent. None of their guards has shown the ability to consistently set other players up and last season they ran much of their offense through departed center David Padgett, who was a very good passer for a big man.

Who will be the facilitator? Who will create shots for all of Louisville's scoring weapons? Those are the main questions holding the Cardinals back from being a little higher in the preseason polls.

Replacing Padgett's leadership is another valid concern. When Padgett missed time with a knee injury last season, the Cardinals' chemistry suffered severely. When he returned, they were far more cohesive.

Big contract

Kim from Harrisburg, Pa. : Pittsburgh just extended coach Jamie Dixon's contract all the way through 2015-16 and gave him a raise. Was that really necessary? Dixon was already making $1.3 million per year and his previous deal went through 2012-13.

I'm not going to say it was "necessary," but I definitely believe it was a good move. Dixon is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. Other schools have shown interest in Dixon and the odds are against finding someone to replace him who could do just as good a job.

Since Dixon took over for Ben Howland five seasons ago, Pitt has gone 132-40. That's an average of 26.4 wins a year. The Panthers have reached the NCAA tournament every year. Those kinds of results should make Dixon one of the highest-paid coaches in the Big East.

I know the Panthers have yet to get past the Sweet 16 under Dixon, but I believe it's only a matter of time before they do. His teams are always tough and play solid defense, the kind of traits you need to make deep postseason runs.

The breakthrough could happen this season. Pitt returns one of the top trios in college basketball with guard Levance Fields, forward Sam Young and center DeJuan Blair. If the Panthers do reach the Final Four, I'm sure nobody will be complaining about Dixon's new deal. In fact, the boosters will probably be pushing for another extension and a bigger raise.

Vanderbilt in 2008-09

James from Nashville, Tenn. : What do you expect from Vanderbilt this year?

A third- or fourth-place finish in the SEC East and a trip to the NIT are the most likely scenarios. Vandy didn't lose just SEC Player of the Year Shan Foster. Point guard Alex Gordon and power forward Ross Neltner, who were major pieces of a team that won 26 games and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, are also gone.

Australian center A.J. Ogilvy gives Vandy a big piece to build around, and he'll actually be surrounded by more talent than before. The Commodores landed their best recruiting class of the Kevin Stallings era, signing four high school prospects who all are ranked among the top 100 in the 2008 class. The group was ranked No. 15 nationally.

If those freshmen develop quickly, and junior guard Jermaine Beal, who is the biggest key for 2008-09, has a breakthrough season, Vandy could snag an NCAA tournament bid. The road will be a little easier because the SEC won't be nearly as strong as last season.

But Vandy fans should really be looking toward 2009-10. By then those talented freshmen will have a year of experience, and Beal and Ogilvy will be entering their third season as starters. That's the kind of team that could do some serious damage in the NCAA tournament.

How high for Purdue?

Alex from Michigan City, Ind.: Where do you see Purdue at the end of the season? Will they be Big Ten champs? How far do you think they will go in the NCAA tournament?

I'm not as high on Purdue as some of my colleagues or other members of the media. The Boilermakers are going to contend for the Big Ten title and go back to the NCAA tournament. I don't doubt that at all. They return virtually everyone from a team that finished second in the league and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. That team was extremely young, with four freshmen part of the rotation, so the logical thinking is that they have lots of room to improve.

Some analysts have gone as far to predict that Purdue will be in the Final Four and be in the national title hunt. I'm not buying into that. The Boilermakers upgraded their talent level with a great 2007 recruiting class, but they still don't have the talent you see on other teams that will be in the preseason top 10 like Connecticut, Notre Dame, Oklahoma or UCLA. Another team in the Big Ten Michigan State has more talent.

Basically, it comes down to Purdue lacking difference-makers. Their best player, Robbie Hummel, averaged 11.4 points per game last season. They are a good team and will finish among the top two in what will be another down year in the Big Ten, and they'll probably reach the Sweet 16. But they lack the kind of special player needed to reach the Final Four.

New start

Bobby from Baton Rouge, La. : How will John Brady fare in his first season as coach at Arkansas State?

Saying Brady has his work cut out for him would be putting it mildly. The former LSU coach inherits a team that is losing its top two scorers Adrian Banks and Ryan Wedel, who combined to average 33.5 points per game and is coming off a 10-20 season.

The good news is that the Western Division of the Sun Belt lacks a really strong team and is wide open. The Red Wolves will welcome former Vanderbilt forward JeJuan Brown, who was ranked among the nation's top 150 prospects coming out of high school. Brown, who made a stop in the junior college ranks before coming to Arkansas State, has the physical tools to help immediately.

Still, I don't think Brady has enough firepower to contend for a division title or a postseason bid. He needs a year or two to stockpile some talent and get the kind of players who fit his style.

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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