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August 29, 2006

Mailbag: Basketball gaining on football in SEC?

Midnight madness remains more than six weeks away, but it's already obvious what the most popular topic of the preseason will be: Can Florida repeat?

Gators fans weren't expecting a national title last season and the experts didn't think much of Florida, either. The Gators were left out of the preseason AP top 25.

But with seven of the players from last year's eight-man rotation back, the Gators are likely to begin this season atop the poll. Many are wondering if we should expect a successful title defense.

UF's surprising run seems to have raised expectations for other basketball programs in the SEC. Could we ever see Alabama win a national title in basketball?

Another reader wonders why a coach like Bobby Cremins ended up at a mid-major school.

We answer all those questions in this week's mailbag.

Andrew's Mailbag
After last year's miracle season what do you think Florida can achieve this year?
Bob Stelzer, Jupiter, Fla.

The Gators are fully capable of repeating as national champs. In fact, they may have the best chance of going back-to-back since the last school to pull of the feat Duke in 1991 and '92.

Not many defending champs have ever brought back their entire starting five, especially one that includes a trio of future first-round picks Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer. No team may have ever had so many players say no the NBA, at least not since it became popular to leave early for the draft.

Valuable sixth and seventh men, like Walter Hodge and Chris Richard, are also returning.

However, what I like best about the Gators and what truly makes them so tough to stop late in the season is their balance.

Think of all the pieces that a Final Four team needs, and the Gators have an answer for just about every one.

Dominating big man? Check. The 6-foot-11 Noah can single-handily take over games (see the 2006 Final Four), especially on the defensive end.

Looking for a sidekick? Check. The 6-10 Horford is the ideal weapon to team with Noah. He excels at playing in the high post and is also an excellent rebounder (averaged a team-high 7.6 boards last season).

Need a 3-point specialist? Check. Lee Humphrey is about as automatic as you can find from beyond the arc. He led the SEC in 3-point field goal percentage (46 percent) last season.

What about a do-it-all wing? Brewer might be the nation's most versatile player. He does a great job of moving without the ball and slashing to the hoop, but the junior is also a solid outside shooter, rebounder and passer. Brewer's biggest strength is on defense, where he routinely shuts down the opposing team's best player.

True point guard? Taurean Green fits that description.

What about depth? Hodge can play both guard positions and the bulky Richard (6-8, 245) gives them more size. A four-man recruiting class will probably produce a player or two that can come in and give Florida some quality minutes as well.

It's as if Billy Donovan has purposefully not recruited two players in the last three years who do the same things.

The Gators do face a daunting obstacle though. No conference has more talent coming back than the SEC. Tennessee could be even better than last season with the addition of a top-10 recruiting class. LSU, which brings back the league's best player in Glen Davis, and Alabama both have realistic Final Four hopes. South Carolina nearly beat the Gators three times last season and they didn't even make the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky isn't the Kentucky of old, but remains a major threat, too.

Just trying to survive league play might cost the Gators a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.

Ultimately, I think the Gators will win well over 20 games, win either the SEC regular season or tournament title and go deep in the NCAA Tournament. But, the odds of repeating are just to great to overcome. It takes too much luck to expect that again.

Will Alabama win a basketball national title?
Josh Holmes, Snead, Ala.

The inbox on my email will probably never forgive me for this please be merciful Alabama fans nor will anyone who ever shook Bear Bryant's hand. But I've been told I must answer these questions truthfully, so here goes.

I believe the Tide will win a national title in basketball before it happens in football.

Hear me out before you tune me out. The Tide reached the Elite Eight in 2004 before running into eventual champ Connecticut.

Since then, Mark Gottfried has been busy stockpiling big-time prospects. His next team will be more talented than the 2003-04 squad and features three of the best players in the league, point guard Ronald Steele and big men Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix who is poised for a breakout season.

Alabama high schools have begun to consistently produce a couple of elite prospects every year, and most are staying in-state. Steele is from Birmingham and Hendrix, who was heavily recruited by North Carolina, is also an in-state product.

More are on the way. Five-star juniors Jamychal Green and Xavier Gibson are both from Alabama, and so is the No. 1-ranked sophomore, DeMarcus Cousins. Expect at least one, and more than likely two, of those guys to suit up for the Tide.

Critics will point out Gottfried's deficiencies when it comes to in-game coaching. But, last year he took a team with just seven scholarship players to the NCAA Tournament.

Nobody is going to mistake Gottfried as an X and O's genius, but he is one of the best recruiters in any conference with a back yard full of talent. As long as he is coach the Tide will sneak into the national title hunt at least a couple of times in the next eight years.

Can you say the same for Mike Shula and the football program?

Bobby Cremins made Georgia Tech a power in the ACC, so why didn't he get offered a job in a major conference? Was he overrated?
Michael Laplaca from Fort Myers, Fla.
If Cremins wanted to coach in a major conference again, he would be doing that right now. North Carolina is never going to beat down his door, but truth is, he pulled his name out of several coaching searches. Many people thought he was never coming back, and he wasn't out there actively searching for a job.

The main reason the Silver Fox is coaching again was because of the unique situation at College of Charleston. Schools in South Carolina are near and dear to his heart. He left Georgia Tech for about a 24-hour period to coach for the Gamecocks, where he played for Frank McGuire, before returning to the Yellow Jackets. He has also had a home in nearby Hilton Head, S.C., for years.

The Southern Conference also is special to Cremins. He got his coaching start at Appalachian State.

At the College of Charleston he won't have the big-time pressure of coaching in the ACC or SEC.

Few schools could offer that kind of package, and without it Cremins would probably be on the golf course right now instead of the recruiting trail.

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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