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October 15, 2008

Mailbag: Searching for sleepers

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Picking who will win the national title in college basketball usually isn't that tough. Each year, only around a dozen teams have a realistic shot. This year it may be even fewer.

Finding the so-called "sleepers" is the real challenge for prognosticators. For one, there are a lot more candidates out there. In this era of parity, it's tough to rule anyone out, especially after George Mason reached the 2006 Final Four. There often isn't much indication of someone being on the verge of a breakout year either. The indications are often just the opposite. Washington State won 27 games in 2006-07 with virtually the same team that won just 11 games the previous year.

So, who will be the Washington State of 2008-09? What teams are we overlooking? We pinpoint a handful of sleepers in this week's mailbag.

Sleeper search

Vance from Belle Vernon, Pa. : Can you give me your top 10 BCS sleepers and your top 10 non-BCS sleepers for the 2008-09 season? Since we're talking D-I all-inclusively, I'll use the term BCS for lack of a better one to use.

Don't feel any shame in using a football term like BCS here, Vance. I'm sure the smaller schools much prefer it over the dreaded "mid-major" label. I'm going to go five deep on each side of this question (with 10 each, anybody should be able to hit on a couple).

As far as BCS schools, I really like two from the SEC West: LSU and Ole Miss. The Tigers have the most talent in the division and were playing really well at the end of last season. They also have a new coach with solid credentials in Trent Johnson, who took Stanford to the Sweet 16 last season. The Rebels, led by sophomore point guard Chris Warren, are going to be particularly strong on the perimeter. If their post players prove to be better than expected, they will land in the NCAA tournament.

Three other teams that stick out are Missouri, Vanderbilt and Washington. Missouri is young but has upgraded its overall athleticism, which should allow coach Mike Anderson to press frequently like he did at UAB. Expectations are down a bit at Vandy with the loss of three starters, including 2007-08 SEC Player of the Year Shan Foster. But the Commodores have made some of their best runs under Kevin Stallings in what were supposed to be down years (see their Sweet 16 appearance in 2006-07). The Commodores are also welcoming a terrific recruiting class that includes four prospects in the top 100. Washington has an extremely experienced team that has underachieved in the past. With a little better free-throw shooting and some defensive improvement, the Huskies could have a breakthrough year.

For non-BCS schools I like Cleveland State, Creighton, Kent State, Northeastern and San Diego State. Cleveland State could take advantage of a wide-open Horizon League. Butler, which normally dominates regular-season play, lost four starters. Creighton is in a similar situation in the Missouri Valley Conference. Most of the top teams in the MVC are dealing with big losses while Creighton returns the bulk of its rotation. Kent State could turn out to be the best team in the group. The Golden Flashes already had the best team in the MAC before adding junior college transfer Tyree Evans, who may be the most talented player in the league. Northeastern was one of the nation's most-improved teams last season and has the experience to make another big leap. San Diego State returns all five starters and is capable of snagging an at-large NCAA tournament bid.

Title hopes

Greg from Youngstown, Ohio : Thad Matta has been at Ohio State for four years. In that time, he has two Big Ten tournament titles, a Final Four win and an NIT championship. He has pulled in some amazing talent in future classes. Do the Buckeyes have a chance at a national title in about three or four years?

As long as Matta and his staff keep recruiting so extraordinarily well they have brought in more talent than perhaps any other program over the last three years the Buckeyes will eventually work their way back into the national title hunt.

But that won't be as easy with the loss of assistant John Groce, who took the head coaching job at Ohio in the offseason. Groce was Rivals.com's 2005 Recruiter of the Year and played a pivotal role in that incredible class that included Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook.

Matta also needs some of his players to stick around a little longer. Losing guys like Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft, is expected. But Cook (the No. 21 pick in that same draft) could have used another year in college. The same goes for 7-footer Kosta Koufos, who also bolted after one year and was taken with the No. 23 pick in the 2008 draft. More than likely, 7-foot freshman B.J. Mullens, the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2008 class, will follow suit. Mullens is already projected as a lottery pick.

More than Memphis

John from St. Louis : Besides Memphis, what other Conference USA teams have a shot at making the NCAA tournament this season?

I'd say at least four teams have a realistic shot in what should be the best year we've seen from Conference USA since many of its top programs took off for the Big East. UAB (No. 36), Tulsa (43), Southern Miss (46) and UTEP (54) each earned a spot in the Rivals.com preseason top 65.

UAB is getting a big boost with the return of former first-team all-league guard Paul Delaney III, who missed nearly all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. I spoke to coach Mike Davis last week and he believes Delaney is back to 100 percent. A slasher who excels off the dribble, Delaney will help open up more space for senior wing Robert Vaden, one of the top outside shooters in the country.

Tulsa generated some momentum after winning the first College Basketball Invitational last season. The key for the Golden Hurricane is getting a breakthrough year from athletic center Jerome Jordan.

Southern Miss returns virtually everyone from a young squad that won 19 games, including guard Jeremy Wise, one of the best players most fans haven't heard of.

UTEP is capable of beating just about anyone because senior wing Stefon Jackson can score 30-plus points on any given night. Jackson may be the best player in the league (and yes, that includes Memphis' prize recruit Tyreke Evans).

Recruiting worries

Brendan from Brooklyn, N.Y. : Recruiting is a big key in today's game, but why is it so hard for Notre Dame to recruit good players who can play early instead of players who are five-star recruits who can step out right after high school?

I think a lot of the answer has to do with the recruiting approach of Mike Brey. You don't see the Irish in the mix with many of the top 10 or top 20 prospects each year. Instead, they focus on a lot of guys who have been ignored by the high-profile programs but are still top 150 recruits with the potential to be good, if not great college players.

So far, that approach is working. A slew of three- and four-star prospects have led Brey and the Irish to back-to-back NCAA tournaments. They will be a preseason top 10 team this year and are led by Luke Harangody, a three-star prospect whom Brey actually had to help convince he could play in the Big East.

Brey could certainly invest more time in chasing down one-and-done kind of players. But, that means going head-to-head with the North Carolinas and the Connecticuts of the world in recruiting battles, and his odds of winning those are slim. For a coach at a football-first school, I think he's doing about as good as he can with what he's got.

Looking ahead

Jared from West Lafayette, Ind. : What game are you most excited for in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge?

I'd have to go with the North Carolina-Michigan State matchup. It may not turn out to be the most competitive. North Carolina is capable of blowing out anyone in the country.

But, the unique setting is what makes it so intriguing. They will be playing at Ford Field, the site of the 2009 Final Four. That will allow for an enormous crowd. Having 40,000-plus fans is a possibility, which would be an incredible sight for a regular-season game in early December.

The Tar Heels could also be without starting guard Marcus Ginyard, which could add another twist. Ginyard had surgery for a stress fracture in his foot and is expected to return sometime in December.

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com. Got a question for Andrew's Mailbag? Click here to drop him a note.

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