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May 14, 2008

Rebuilding or reloading at Mississippi State?

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
May 7: Chance to rise
Apr. 30: Smith starts strong
Apr. 25: Coach 'em up

Mississippi State could lose as many as three starters from a team that won the SEC West and reached the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Each was a double-digit scorer.

So, are the Bulldogs headed for a rebuilding season? Is there any way they could defend their crown?

We explore that question in this week's mailbag, along with others about former USC guard O.J. Mayo, the West Coast Conference, Syracuse and Connecticut's backcourt.

ANDREWS'S MAILBAG
Rebuilding Bulldogs

Mississippi State could return only two starters because Charles Rhodes exhausted his eligibility, Ben Hansbrough transferred to Notre Dame and Jamont Gordon entered the NBA draft (he has not signed with an agent). We are left with the nation's defensive player of the year, Jarvis Varnado, and 3-point specialist Barry Stewart. How do you think the Bulldogs will do next season losing so much in what could be looked on as the weaker of the SEC's two divisions? And who do you think will have to step up?

Andrew from Starkville, Miss.
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Without Gordon, I just don't see how the Bulldogs are going to find the offense needed to win SEC games. They don't have anyone else who can create off the dribble and would lack a go-to scorer.

If Gordon were to return, they still are going to need others to carry more of the scoring load since Rhodes (17.4 ppg) and Hansbrough (10.5 ppg) combined to average 27.9 points this past season.

Coach Rick Stansbury told me they are counting on Varnado to make some offensive strides next season. I don't see Varnado ever being a dominating scorer, but he could certainly raise his scoring average into the 10-13 range (it was 7.9 this past season).

If Varnado doesn't improve offensively, his presence in the paint still will make it tough to score on the Bulldogs. He led the nation with 4.6 blocks per game and the Bulldogs were second in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (37.0 percent).

Stewart should be able to raise his average from 11.5 into the 14-16 range. He is a good outside shooter, and Gordon's ability to penetrate and draw defenders leads to a lot of open looks for Stewart.

Reserve guards Ravern Johnson (2.5 ppg) and Phil Turner (4.0 ppg) are capable of contributing more, and a recruiting class that features junior college transfer Jacquiese Holcombe and four-star recruits Romero Osby and Demarquis Bost will provide some help.

So will playing in the SEC West, which doesn't appear to have any top-25 teams for next season. I expect the Bulldogs to contend for the division title again. But if Gordon leaves, I expect them to sink to the bottom of the pack.

No big deal?

I have been reading articles about O.J. Mayo receiving gifts, and I can't believe that this is actually news. Every big-name player from USC and UCLA is receiving something. Why is this such a big deal?

Jared from San Diego
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While I definitely don't agree that all the "big-name players" from USC and UCLA are on the take, it wasn't a surprise to find out about the allegations swirling around Mayo.

Rodney Guillory, the man accused of giving Mayo gifts and cash, engineered Mayo's move from Huntington, W.Va., to Los Angeles, and that sent up warning signals. It was Guillory who originally told USC coach Tim Floyd that Mayo wanted to attend the Pac-10 school. At the time, the Trojans weren't even recruiting him.

I don't doubt there are similar situations at other schools. There are far too many players being influenced by the wrong groups of people. The difference here is Mayo appears to have gotten caught. That creates the possibility of severe punishment for USC. We are talking about the loss of scholarships and the chance to play in the postseason, maybe even something worse.

Former USC running back Reggie Bush is facing similar allegations, which adds more attention to the Mayo story.

WCC watch

Who do you think will win the West Coast Conference next season? Gonzaga, Saint Mary's and San Diego all made the NCAA Tournament this past season and return just about everybody. Can the WCC get three bids again, and is this a conference on the rise?

Wes from Oakland
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The amount of talent and experience returning in the WCC next season is staggering. San Diego returns every player. Saint Mary's returns four of its top five scorers. Gonzaga could bring back as many as six of its top seven scorers if point guard Jeremy Pargo chooses to pull out of the draft.

Still, I don't think we will see three teams from the WCC reach the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Last season, the conference had the perfect storm of sorts with Gonzaga and Saint Mary's locking up at-large bids and San Diego going on a surprising run to the WCC Tournament title.

Gonzaga still has a big edge in talent over the rest of the league. If Pargo stays in school, the Zags could be among the nation's top 15 teams. Without Pargo, they still will be the league favorite. They probably would have to again lose in the league tournament for the WCC to have two teams with a chance to earn at-large bids.

But regardless of who wins the 2009 WCC tourney, I think you will see this mid-major league send two teams to the field of 65. That would be a sign of great progress, considering the WCC has been a one-bid league for so long.

'Cuse counted out

Why didn't Syracuse make your preseason top 25? The Orange have Jonny Flynn, Paul Harris, Arinze Onuaku, Kris Ongenaet, Antonio Jardine, Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf returning, not to mention freshman Mookie Jones. Donte Greene was good, but his departure won't hurt 'Cuse as much as it will hurt him. He has virtually no inside game, his shooting touch is way too inconsistent and he doesn't play great defense.

Anthony Amo from Charlotte, N.C.
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Whenever you take arguably the best player off a team that went to the NIT, it's tough to envision them improving a great deal. Greene ranked first on the team in scoring and blocks and third in rebounding.

I do think Syracuse will be better. The return of Devendorf and Rautins both recovering from ACL tears surely will help fix the depth issues in the backcourt that plagued the Orange down the stretch this past season. Flynn had to play almost 40 minutes in every game over the last month.

But I don't see how they can go from an NIT to the top 25 without Greene especially not with the Big East poised to be extraordinarily tough next season. Six of the league's teams are currently in the Rivals.com top 15 and three are in our top four.

Overrated?

For the most part, I think that your analysis is excellent, but having UConn No. 1 in your preseason rankings is wrong for the very same reason that you think it's a good idea. The Huskies are returning much, if not all, of the roster from this past season. Their guards have underachieved for a while. Look no further then the first-round exit they had in the tourney as proof. Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet are a good one-two punch on the inside, but I think these guards leave a lot to be desired.

Steve Fursa, from parts unknown
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Guard play certainly isn't UConn's strength, but I think you are being a little too harsh. I thought point guard A.J. Price finally lived up to the lofty expectations. Midway through Big East play, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said Price was the best point guard in the Big East, and that's coming from a coach who has a reputation for not handing out compliments.

If Price hadn't torn an ACL 10 minutes into their first-round matchup with San Diego, who knows how far the Huskies would have advanced? Without Price, they lost by one in overtime.

Plus, with a proven frontcourt led by the likes of Adrien, Thabeet and Stanley Robinson, Price and the guards don't need to do anything incredible. As long as they are solid and limit mistakes, the Huskies' big men can lead the team a long way.

One small question

I was wondering what you thought about smaller guards entering the draft, like D.J. Augustin, A.J. Abrams and Ty Lawson. What do guys at that size need to be able to do in order to make it in the league?

Jamie from Charleston, S.C.
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I'm not sure there's much they can do. There is a very small percentage of players in the NBA who are under 6 feet and most are journeymen at best.

Earl Boykins, who is 5 feet 5 and perhaps the poster boy for the 6-foot-and-under club, has played for eight teams in a 10-year career. The 5-9 Abrams would tower over Boykins, but that's still far too short to consistently get off your shot in the NBA. That's a problem considering Abrams is a shooting guard in an undersized point guard's body.

Lawson is a 5-11 point guard, making him only 2 inches shorter than 6-1 Mike Conley, the No. 4 pick in the 2007 NBA draft. But those 2 inches are the difference between seeing over defenders and being able to get off the floaters and runners they used so well in college.

Of that trio, the 5-11 Augustin probably stands the best chance of making it at the next level because he can play point guard or shooting guard. The Orlando Magic's 5-11 Jameer Nelson (listed at 6-0, like Augustin) has emerged as a better-than-average NBA point guard, but he has a bigger body and more strength.

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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