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August 22, 2006

Mailbag: Why no respect for the Orange?

Could Syracuse actually be better without Gerry McNamara? Nobody would dare ask that question last season, but with the return of the every other key player and the addition of another top 25 recruiting class at the Big East program it sounds reasonable.

Also, can LSU and star center Glen Davis get back to the Final Four? How do the incoming freshmen in the Big East rank to previous groups? And, what can the commitments of four top 100 seniors do for a struggling Big Ten program?

The answers to these questions can be found in this week's mailbag.

Andrew's Mailbag
The 'Cuse is returning four starters from its Big East championship team and bringing in one of the top recruits in the nation. Why isn't there more hype about this team?
Evan from Syracuse

The answer can be found in the one starter who isn't coming back: Gerry McNamara.

There were better players last season, but no player may have meant more to his team. The gritty guard single-handedly carried a program on the verge of heading to the NIT all the way to the Big East Tournament title. The Orange leaned on his leadership, clutch shooting, passing, savvy, hustle and pretty much every other ability a player can display on the basketball court.

Another reason is we all got a glimpse of what the 'Cuse would look like next season without their star. With McNamara trying to play hurt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament he played just 23 minutes and shot 0-of-6 from the field the Orange trailed 12th-seeded Texas A&M nearly the entire game and were upset 66-58.

The Orange still rank among the league's most talented teams. Shooting guard Eric Devendorf was one of the Big East's top freshmen last season, and big men Terrence Roberts and Demetris Nichols have the physical tools to be the league's top inside duo.

Plus, highly touted freshman Paul Harris will make a big impact. The 6-foot-4 guard might be the most versatile player in school history, capable of playing three positions and guarding four. His toughness will be a huge asset as well.

But, the same question still lingers: Who will be the leader? The Orange have all these talented pieces, but still seem to lack one player, particularly a true point guard, who can tie it all together.

Andrew, how do you see my (LSU) Tigers doing next year? Do you think they can contend for the SEC Title and go deep in the tourney?
Patrick from New Orleans

Go ahead and make hotel reservations in Atlanta, site of the 2007 Final Four. But, go in early March for the SEC Tournament, because LSU won't be making it back.

The Tigers will make another run at the league title, thanks to the return of a leaner version of the Big Baby. Reigning SEC Player of the Year Glen Davis, who could have been a lottery pick, now weighs around 280 pounds and he'll be even better than the big man who racked up 19 double-doubles last season. How much better? Think National Player of the Year.

Davis is still surrounded by a considerable amount of talent as well. Versatile small forward Tasmin Mitchell is one of the league's most promising young players and is poised for a breakout season.

Transfers Dameon Mason (Marquette) and Terry Martin (Texas Tech), who both play shooting guard, will contribute immediately - although Martin won't be eligible until January. Mason averaged 11.9 points a game two seasons ago for the Golden Eagles.

The problem is the void left by the departure of Tyrus Thomas, the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft, and underrated guard Darrel Mitchell. Both were difference-makers and there is nobody left to fill their roles.

Thomas was the ideal sidekick for Davis. The explosive power forward excelled in the areas Davis didn't, especially when it came to blocking shots. The Tigers heavily recruited five-star power forward Darrell Arthur, who like Thomas is long, lanky and very athletic, but ultimately lost out to Kansas.

That means sophomore Magnum Rolle, the only other post player on the roster with any experience, must start and play heavy minutes. Coach John Brady has been hyping Rolle as the next Thomas. While the former backup does have plenty of potential, he's still a big downgrade.

Losing Mitchell could be an even bigger blow. He was the team's only major 3-point threat last season. A clutch shooter, he made three game-winning jumpers (including a crucial 3-pointer in the final minute to beat Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA Tournament). Maybe more importantly, he also provided great leadership.

Point guard Tack Minor, who returns after sitting out last season with a knee injury, is back - but he's nothing like Mitchell. Minor is a streaky shooter at best 37 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range in 2004-05 who struggles with decision-making and taking care of the ball (3.6 turnovers that season).

There are no other real options behind Minor. Four-star combo guard Scottie Reynolds, a solid ball-handler and shooter, took a recruiting visit to LSU with Arthur but would up at Villanova.

Put Reynolds and Arthur in yellow and purple and LSU is part of the small group of schools in the national title hunt. Without them - and without Mitchell and Thomas - they are still a very dangerous squad, one well inside the top 20. That said, the team lacks the necessary pieces to make a deep run in the Big Dance.

How good is the Big East freshman class compared to other years?
Josh from State College, Pa.
It lacks the high-profile names that the league attracted in its glory days, but it's certainly one of the deepest ever.

You could credit the league's recent expansion, but take away the worst four classes and there is still a remarkable collection of talent.

Fifteen of the league's 16 schools signed at least one of the nation's top 150 prospects (Rivals150) and 10 landed at least two. The one that didn't, Cincinnati, signed a class full of the nation's top junior college players.

Connecticut lost three first-round draft picks and its top six scorers, news that would send most programs into rebuilding mode. But, thanks to an eight-man class perhaps the deepest in the Jim Calhoun era the Huskies will remain a contender. Five-star small forwards Stanley Robinson and Curtis Kelly have NBA potential. Four-star guard Jerome Dyson will be one of the league's biggest stars in a couple of years.

Rick Pitino reeled in four top 100 prospects at Louisville, including five-star power forward Derrick Caracter and McDonald's All-American Earl Clark.

Georgetown, Villanova and Syracuse all put together top 25 classes.

Vernon Macklin has as much potential as any post player in the class outside of Greg Oden and Brandan Wright, and Macklin wasn't even the Hoyas' highest-ranked signee (DaJuan Summers).

Villanova was in desperate need of a instant 3-point threat after losing Allan Ray, Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry and they found a big one in former Oklahoma signee Scottie Reynolds.

Five-star guard Paul Harris has received most of the pub when it comes to Syracuse's class, but future teammate Mike Jones is ranked the No. 40 prospect in the class.

There are a host of other freshmen who will challenge for starting jobs and play big roles, including Marquette'sLazar Hayward, Rutgers' Hamady N'diaye, Seton Hall's Eugene Harvey and West Virginia's Desean Butler and Wellington Smith.

What do you think about Purdue's recruiting class and will this class translate into more wins?
Evan from South Bend

Programs coming off back-to-back losing seasons aren't supposed to land top 10 recruiting classes, especially ones built on local talent. That's what makes what Purdue coach Matt Painter and his staff have done so impressive.

Indiana's coaching switch certainly helped, but nobody expected the Boilermakers to land four of the top five prospects in Indiana, all of whom are ranked among the top 75 in the class of 2007.

The class isn't just an unorganized stockpile of talent either. It has balance and is full of different parts, the kind you can build an entire team around.

The future star is shooting guard E'twaun Moore, a fluid athlete who does everything well and has a great feel for the game.

Small forwards Robbie Hummel and Scott Martin - high school teammates at Valparaiso High - are the classic No. 2 options. Neither is capable of carrying a team, but they are highly skilled and capable of scoring from all over the court.

Center JaJuan Johnson (6-10, 200) brings the size and the presence the Boilermakers are lacking down low. He's raw offensively and may never be a major scoring threat, but he will make a big impact defensively.

That core alone would push any Big Ten team into the upper half of the league standings. If Painter can add a couple more solid pieces, the program could get back to the Gene Keady glory days as soon as the 2008-09 season.

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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