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November 23, 2007

Mailbag: Pac-10 doesn't dodge tough games

Arizona and USC may be labeled overrated, but nobody can call them cowards. The Pac-10 programs have put together two of the nation's toughest nonconference schedules.

The Wildcats make road trips to No. 3 Memphis and No. 4 Kansas while playing host to No. 16 Texas A&M and facing Illinois in Chicago. The Trojans will play host to Oklahoma and Kansas and meet Memphis in New York City over a brutal six-day stretch.

But what about the rest of the Pac-10? Did the eight other schools dodge tough opponents outside the league?

We explore that possibility and address questions about the lack of national attention for Mississippi State star Jamont Gordon, how good a young Florida squad can be and whether Kansas lacks balance in this week's mailbag.


More dodgers out West?

Everyone talks about the superiority of the Pac-10 conference, but no one ever talks about how all of the teams avoid any semblance of a hard nonconference schedule. The only two teams that show any moxy in their scheduling are Arizona and USC (who combine to challenge more top 25 teams than all of the other Pac-10 teams put together), neither of which is considered the class of the conference this year.

UCLA only plays two hard teams in Texas and Davidson (only Texas is ranked), Oregon and Cal top out there schedules with Kansas State (just now breaking the rankings), Washington State only plays Gonzaga, and Washington takes on depleted Pittsburgh. The other three teams don't have the nerve to test the waters. This is a joke, and I am just wondering why a league which continuously milks the slaughter of low major and mid major teams (that barely survive in their own conferences) is considered the class of college basketball?

-- Ryan from Atlanta

I think you are exaggerating more than just a bit here.

UCLA only plays two hard teams? UCLA beat two BCS schools on a neutral court this week. The Bruins won the College Basketball Experience Classic in Kansas City, beating Maryland 71-59 and No. 10 Michigan State 68-63. With more matchups against Texas (No. 15), Davidson, Michigan and Atlantic-10 power George Washington, the Bruins nonconference schedule is far from a joke.

That so-called "depleted" Pittsburgh team (ranked No. 17) that Washington is facing returns four starters from a 29-win team. The Huskies lost to No. 16 Texas A&M on Wednesday in the Preseason NIT in New York City and will face an extremely talented Sryacuse team (the Orange start three former five-star recruits) in the consolation game on Friday. They also have road trips scheduled to Oklahoma State (perhaps the toughest place to play in the Big 12) and LSU.

The only Pac-10 school that could be labeled as having a particularly weak nonconference schedule is Washington State. Gonzaga is the only top-caliber team the Cougars face, and Baylor is the only BCS opponent. With all five starters back from a school-record 26-win team, the Cougars should have sought better competition.

However, it's tough to blame second-year coach Tony Bennett for dodging tough opponents in November and December. It would be tough to blame any Pac-10 coach for doing the same. The league is remarkably deep this season, with eight teams having a legit chance at an NCAA Tournament bid (Arizona State and Oregon State are NIT bound at best). The league schedule alone virtually guarantees that every Pac-10 team will have a respectable RPI.

Overlooked Bulldog

Why is nobody talking about Jamont Gordon from Mississippi State for National Player of the Year? Gordon's been near the top of the SEC in scoring, rebounding and assists since being a freshman. If he was playing for Duke or North Carolina he would be a household name by now. Where is the love?

-- Carl from Nashville,Tenn.

There's no doubt Gordon is underrated. I'm still baffled that he was not among the 30 players invited to the Pan American tryouts this past summer. There's no way Gordon is not one of the top 30 players in the college ranks. There's no way he's not among the top 20.

But national player of the year awards aren't given out to guys who lead their team to the NIT. Putting up gaudy stats isn't enough.

For Gordon to start getting appreciated as one of the nation's top players, the Bulldogs need to climb into the top 25 and stay there. Instead of spending another season on the NCAA Tournament bubble, they need to make a run at a high seed. Simply put, Gordon needs to win and win a lot more. Then, the love will come.

By the way Carl, we certainly haven't forgotten about Gordon. He has been the No. 1 point guard in our power rankings since the preseason.

Good Gators?

How do you think the young Florida Gator squad (Nick Calathes and Co.) will fare in a relatively weak SEC conference? P.S. Will Marreese Speights leave for the draft after this season?

-- Evan from Gainesville

Ask me again in five weeks. I know that sounds like I'm dodging the question, but with a soft nonconference schedule it's going to be at least a month before anyone - Billy Donovan included - has a good gauge on what kind of team Florida has this season.

The Gators won't leave the state of Florida until their 13th game, a road trip to youth-laden Ohio State on Dec. 22. UF crushed Rutgers (88-63) on Saturday, but the Scarlet Knights will be fortunate to reach the NIT. The Gators' only other BCS opponent outside the SEC is Florida State, which has already lost to Cleveland State and South Florida.

As far as Speights, I think the draft is going to be a legitimate possibility. Remember, Joakim Noah went from a little-known reserve to a lock for the lottery in just one season. Speights also has the size and game to play at the next level. But, like his predecessor, I expect him to stick around for his junior year. The Gators are stocked with young talent and will have a chance to make another run at a national title in 2007-08.

Looking for balance

Isn't Kansas a little unbalanced with only one player with skills and size to play in the small forward position (Brandon Rush)?

-- Diego Rodriguez from Spain

I know a lot of coaches who would love to have Kansas' "lack of balance." Even with guard Sherron Collins (a former McDonald's All-American) out with a foot injury, the Jayhawks still have one of the nation's best backcourts.

But, you raise a good point. Rush is the team's only inside-outside scoring threat. Rush is the only Jayhawk who can guard athletic wings. In fact, coach Bill Self called Rush the team's best defender, even though guard Mario Chalmers was the Big 12's co-Defensive Player of the Year last season (he shared the honor with Oklahoma State's Marcus Dove).

Consequently, keeping Rush - who tore an ACL in the offseason - healthy is pivotal. The Jayhawks are a very good team without Rush, but they have the chance to be a great team with him.

Too much hype?

Everybody is making a big deal about the numbers Michael Beasley is putting up, but he hasn't played anyone good yet. What kind of stats do you think Beasley will have against schools from the bigger conferences?

-- Evan from Kansas City

I think all the commotion about Beasley's gaudy start is justified.

Most of the other highly touted freshman in the 2007 class began their college careers against small schools, but none of them put together numbers like Beasley. He scored 32 points and grabbed 24 rebounds against Sacramento State. He followed that with a 30-point, 14-rebound performance against Pittsburg (Kan.) State and a 28-point, 22-rebound outing versus Western Illinois.

I don't care who you are playing, numbers like that are special.

Yes, Beasley's stats are going to fall some once K-State faces stiffer competition which will happen soon with K-State playing in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando this weekend. K-State also faces matchups next week with Oregon, Notre Dame and Cal, but don't expect a dramatic slide in Beasley's production.

There's a reason no other Big 12 player scored 34 points in their first college game. There's a reason he's averaging 30 ppg and 20 rpg. Beasley is a special player and he's going to have a very special season. How special? Think about the year Kevin Durant (who averaged 25.8 ppg and 11.1 rpg) had last 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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