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November 23, 2006

Mailbag: Jayhawks seeking early upset

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Florida versus Kansas was the game fans wanted to discuss most in the preseason. Even after the Jayhawks' shocking loss to Oral Roberts last week, that hasn't changed.

Now many are wondering if the matchup between the top-ranked Gators and No. 10 Jayhawks in Las Vegas on Saturday night (10:30 p.m. Eastern tipoff) can live up to all the hype.

Can Kansas keep it close? How are they going to slow down the Gators' imposing front court if they can't stop ORU?

We tackle those questions, along with others about Pitt's status as a top-five team, the lack of playing time for Duke freshman Gerald Henderson, and more in the latest mailbag.

Andrew's Mailbag
Does Kansas have a chance against Florida without Sasha Kaun and C.J. Giles?
George from Parsons, Kan.

Take away the 6-foot-11 Kaun and the 6-foot-9 Giles and the Jayhawks still have a chance. Add either one back in the fold and those chances increase significantly. That appears to be what's happening.

Kaun played his first game since injuring a knee in the preseason on Tuesday night. He scored seven points in nine minutes against Tennessee State. Already a thin team on the inside, Kaun's interior presence will be very valuable against the Gators - who boast far and away the nation's top frontcourt.

That said, Kansas has a much smaller margin of error and must play extremely well to win.

The veteran-laden Gators are more balanced, possess a big size advantage and play with better chemistry and execution.

The Jayhawks are still a young team that's learning how to stay focused (see their 78-71 loss to Oral Roberts last week). Plus, they have more weaknesses - like the lack of a solid scorer in the paint.

However, the Jayhawks do have a clear edge in the backcourt. If their guards can get hot from the outside and take control of the game, the score will be close in the final minutes. Throw in a big performance from freshman power forward Darrell Arthur - who has the combination of athleticism, size and skills to give the Florida big men some problems - and KU will have enough to pull off the upset.

Is this year's Pitt team for real? Even under Ben Howland the Panthers always seemed to underachieve in the NCAA Tournament (despite Big East tourney success). Can this team live up to its ranking? Is there enough inside depth behind Aaron Gray? Duece in Pittsburgh
Pitt answered a lot of those questions last week with its 85-68 win over Massachusetts, which is expected to challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth.

The Panthers were forced to play largely without Gray, who was limited to 17 minutes because of foul trouble and a cut on his lip. Pitt was still dominant, and led by double digits for nearly the entire second half.

Their tremendous depth simply was too much to overcome. Nobody scored more than 14 points, but four players finished in double figures (nine players have scored in double figures in at least one game already). Their bench combined for 24 points.

Few opponents can match up with Gray. Even fewer teams have as much balance and depth. At this point, I think the Panthers are the best team in the Big East and a legit Final Four threat.

The Panthers do have one big lingering question to answer: Who is their go-to guy? It's the one major void created by the departure of Carl Krauser. The gritty guard took plenty of ill-advised shots, but he also made a good share of clutch baskets.

You can make a case that Gray could take over that role. However, offense isn't his strength and it's a lot easier to double-team in the post than on the perimeter.

Too much balance can also be a problem. Eventually a guard, maybe Mike Cook or Ronald Ramon, must show they want the ball in their hands late in a tight game. Someone needs to emerge as a leader for the Panthers to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

What's up with Gerald Henderson? He hasn't impressed yet, but it seems to be more from a lack of opportunities than poor play. What's your take?
Sam Arlington from Durham, N.C.

I'm definitely surprised Henderson hasn't played more or been a bigger part of the team at Duke. I thought he would quickly emerge as one of their leading scorers and be one of the many freshmen making big impacts in the early stages of the season.

The emergence of DeMarcus Nelson is the major reason for Henderson's lack of production. Nelson, a junior small forward, plays the same position as Henderson and he's starting to show why he too was a McDonald's All-American.

Finally healthy after suffering a series of injuries his first two seasons, the versatile veteran has become Duke's biggest offensive weapon. Nelson is averaging a team-high 14.8 points a game.

But it's Nelson's defensive abilities that really separate him from Henderson, who has played just 14 minutes in the last two games. Man-to-man defense is heavily valued at Duke. Nelson is a terrific one-on-one defender who can guard several different positions.

Henderson will eventually start playing more, but probably at the two-guard spot - where he'll split time with freshman Jon Scheyer. I still think Henderson will start contributing and provide an offensive spark by the time ACC play starts. The Blue Devils will need contributions from Henderson and others if they're going to make their 10th consecutive trip to the Sweet 16.

Which game surprised you most last night - Marquette beating Duke or Georgia Tech beating Memphis? Ryan from Jacksonville, Fla.
I didn't think either outcome was surprising, although I certainly thought the Jackets were going to lose after seeing them go down by 16 points in the first half. Memphis was in total control of that game, but their youth and lack of size inside showed as the second half continued.

Marquette is exactly the type of team that can and will give Duke problems. The Golden Eagles have great speed and quickness in the backcourt. The Blue Devils lack good ballhandlers. Point guard Greg Paulus is above average at best and he looked overmatched against Dominic James.

Marquette does lack a post presence, but the Blue Devils couldn't really take advantage because they lack a physical force on the inside. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's club is only an average rebounding team.

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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