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September 19, 2006

Mailbag: Freshmen Trojans will fill void

USC's basketball program will be getting plenty of attention in the early stages of the upcoming season.

After the death of point guard Ryan Francis - who was shot in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., during the offseason - many are wondering how the team will respond.

Can they overcome the loss? Will it motivate his former friends and teammates? Just what should we expect from the Trojans?

Kentucky fans are starting to wonder if the Wildcats' offensive woes will ever be fixed. Could the new recruiting class be the solution?

Also, what type of expectations should a perennial power like Michigan State have after losing three players who have been the face of the program the last three years?

All those questions and more are answered in this week's mailbag.

Andrew's Mailbag
How do you see USC rebounding after the sudden and tragic loss of Ryan Francis? Also, which incoming player do you think will have a big impact on the team. Lastly, how do you see them doing in the Pac-10?
Mike from Los Angeles

Don't be afraid to have high expectations. I'm confident this is the season that Tim Floyd gets the Trojans back into the NCAA Tournament, backed by an inspiring story.

Three weeks ago, the program had some glaring holes. But two pieces of news during the first week of classes went a long way in fixing their problems. Freshmen Daniel Hackett and Taj Gibson were both ruled eligible by the NCAA Clearinghouse within a four-day span.

Hackett gives the Trojans what they desperately lacked: a point guard. Francis' death and Gabe Pruitt's academic suspension for the first semester left the team without anyone who could run the offense.

Hackett graduated from high school early so that wouldn't be the case. Originally part of the class of 2007, the former four-star prospect took summer classes to graduate early. He gave up his senior year of high school and a chance to be a McDonald's All-American.

Hackett knew just how much he could help the team. His father, Rudy (a former star at Syracuse), is USC's strength and conditioning coach. Daniel Hackett had spent much of the last two years hanging around Francis and the rest of the players.

The younger Hackett will be a great fit. A savvy and unselfish player, he plays like a coaches' son, excelling at making those around him better.

The 6-foot-8, 210-pound Gibson will provide immediate help on the inside, another area where the Trojans lacked depth. He's raw offensively, but he'll be a threat to block shots and should be a big rebounding asset.

The Trojans don't need Gibson or Hackett to handle much of the scoring load. Junior wing Nick Young, who averaged 17 points and seven rebounds last season, can single-handily take over games. Senior shooting guard Lodrick Stewart (12 ppg) gives them a dangerous No. 2 option.

Throw Pruitt's 16 points per game back in the lineup and the Trojans look like a dark horse contender for the Pac-10 title. Pruitt should be eligible in mid-December.

There's also talk of five-star commit Davon Jefferson enrolling by the second semester. One of the most athletic prospects in the class of 2006, the 6-foot-7 small forward would make an instant impact.

Of course, all this optimism is assuming the team has had enough time to grieve. It's tough to tell how any team would respond in this situation. Francis was very well-liked and the players and coaches were shaken up for weeks after his death. But playing games again will probably be a good remedy and a welcome distraction for any pain they still feel.

Will Kentucky finally overcome its offensive woes, and will the freshmen be able to step up and be counted on this season? Aaron from Lexington, Ky.
The Wildcats will be an average offensive team at best, at least until they can overhaul their personnel and start getting some easy buckets in transition.

The loss of Rajon Rondo, who never seemed to jell with his teammates, might actually improve their chemistry. However, they still need a pass-first point guard who can create scoring chances for others.

Tubby Smith plans on trying out Ramel Bradley at the point, but he is much better suited for the wing. Bradley is best at taking big shots, not setting them up for others.

Freshman Derrick Jasper may be the long-term solution, although he can play multiple positions. Jasper will contribute this season regardless of where he plays. The four-star recruit is a superb defender, which will land him on Smith's good side early.

Jodie Meeks will also play significant minutes, but Perry Stevenson - who is physically gifted but painfully skinny - will likely spend most of the year on the bench.

With Paul Davis, Maurice Ager, and Shannon Brown now out of the mix, how good can the Spartans still be without the key trio? Also, does Drew Neitzel have the talent to lead the Spartans at point with the tenacity, focus, and overall skill the way Mateen Cleaves did in 2000?
Sam from Minneapolis

The Spartans are headed for the three words rarely associated with the Tom Izzo era: A rebuilding year. Their only saving grace may be the plethora of other Big Ten teams in similar situations. Ohio State and Wisconsin are the only teams in the league worth fearing.

Neitzel is the type of player who needs to be surrounded by athletic scorers, which the Spartans lack badly. He cannot carry a team or be a big playmaker like Cleaves.

The expectations will change drastically by this time next year. The Spartans' 2007 recruiting class looks like it will rank among the nation's best. A trio of four-star prospects have committed, including Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen, their backcourt of the future.

Once that group arrives on campus, the Spartans will be in position to start another long line of deep drives into the NCAA Tournament.

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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