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July 8, 2007

Mailbag: Two favorites in the Big Ten

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll be working all summer to get you ready for the season and answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
June 22: Tough second act
June 6: New faces, new hopes

Which team do you like, Indiana or Michigan State?

That's the most popular question in Big Ten country. The Hoosiers and Spartans are gobbling up huge amounts of preseason hype.

Each has a chance to start the season in the top 10. But what about the rest of the league? Are we underestimating Ohio State? Who will emerge as the next surprise?

Rivals.com national writer Andrew Skwara tackles those questions - and ones about USC, Tennessee and others - in this week's mailbag.

Big two in the Big Ten

With all this talk about Indiana and Michigan State, other Big Ten teams are being overshadowed. Who else do you see making the NCAA Tournament from the Big Ten next year? Does Michigan finally hear its name called on Selection Sunday, or will it be the NIT for the Wolverines again?

-- Sane Washington from Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Big Ten will send at least four teams to the 2008 NCAA Tournament, possibly five. Expecting any more than five is unrealistic.

Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State should be locks. The Buckeyes remain one of the league's most talented squads, thanks to another top-10 recruiting class.

Wisconsin should also get back to the NCAAs despite losing Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor. Bo Ryan has taken nine consecutive teams to the Big Dance, some with far less talent.

After those four teams, there are question marks. Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State are NIT quality at best.

I fully expect John Beilein's system to work at Michigan, but the Wolverines are probably a year away from breaking their NCAA Tournament drought. They lost their top four scorers and have more to replace than any other team in the league.

Purdue's future looks great with the arrival off a top-10 class. However, the Boilermakers don't have a freshman who can take over games offensively. That's a problem with the departures of David Teague and Carl Landry (combined to average 33.2 points and 12.3 rebounds a game last season).

Illinois might have the next best chance of getting back to the field of 65. The return of Shaun Pruitt gives them a presence in the paint and a major force on the boards. Nobody else on the roster will scare opponents, but coach Bruce Weber excels at getting average players to overachieve.

Talented Trojans

How is USC a national title contender after losing Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt?

David from Springfield, Mich.

The one-word answer? Talent. A whole lot of talent.

O.J. Mayo is not only one of the best prospects in the class of 2007, he's also one of the most prepared. Polished and savvy, Mayo will be one of the best players in the Pac-10 as soon as the season starts. He may be better than Young was last season.

Taj Gibson also gives the Trojans one of the best and most promising big men in the nation. Remember, Gibson dominated UNC's Tyler Hansbrough in a head-to-head matchup in the NCAA Tournament. He and Mayo will create one of the nation's top inside-outside tandems.

Then there's forward Davon Jefferson, a five-star prospect originally from the class of 2006. USC is expecting Jefferson to be eligible in the fall. Jefferson has the physical tools to be an NBA star. If he can get focused, the Trojans will have three of the nation's most talented players.

Final Four Volunteers

Tyler Smith was just granted his appeal and will be eligible to play for Tennessee for the upcoming season. Smith is already joining a stellar lineup that includes Chris Lofton, Ramar Smith and others. Do you think the Vols have a legitimate shot at a Final Four berth?


Absolutely. Even without Smith, I thought the Vols had Final Four potential. With Smith, I think they are one of the favorites. I put them up there with North Carolina, Memphis and UCLA.

Tennessee has one of the best outside shooters in the game in Lofton. He is a special player who can single-handily win games.

Ramar Smith is very explosive. He is tough to guard one-on-one. He had some trouble making decisions with the ball, but most freshmen struggle in that area. Expect a much-improved version of the former five-star prospect.

Same goes for sophomores Wayne Chism and Duke Crews, who went through their growing pains at times last season. The big men really complement each other and give Bruce Pearl plenty of options when tinkering with lineups. Chism provides offensive lift and can stretch defenses with his shooting range. Crews provides muscle and an inside presence.

Tyler Smith gives the Vols a new dimension. Much like Dane Bradshaw (the only key player to replace), Tyler Smith can do a little bit of everything. He excels at creating offense for others, but he is far more athletic and much more of a scoring threat than Bradshaw.

Then there's the third Smith. JaJuan Smith is capable of scoring 20 points in just about any game. His athleticism and quickness are a good fit for the Vols' chaotic style.

How many other teams can boast a group like that? You can count the answer on one hand, and that's why anything less than an Elite Eight trip will be a disappointment for the Big Orange Nation.

Benefit of the doubt

How come preseason rankings have Florida so high? Does anyone realize how many players they lost? Winning the national championship has little bearing on how they will do this year since they lost their entire starting lineup.

Mike K from New York City

Guilt might be the best answer. The media ignored Florida two seasons ago. The Gators weren't in the AP's preseason top 25 in 2004-05 before going on to win their first national title.

Joakim Noah went from a little-used bench player to the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Al Horford went from a role player to one of the SEC's premier big men.

The team showed the kind of chemistry and unselfishness rarely seen at any level of the game.

After seeing that kind of magic, nobody wants to underestimate Billy Donovan. Don't expect another national title run from the Gators, but it's easy to envision them being in the top 25 by the end of the season.

Young role players like Dan Werner and Marreese Speights should make remarkable strides, and the nation's No. 1-ranked recruiting class will give Donovan plenty of new talent to mold.

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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