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September 26, 2006

Mailbag: A Big 12 changing of the guard

No conference starts this season with more question marks than the Big 12. A record six head coaches enter the league, and the group is a diverse bunch.

There's a big name in Kansas State's Bob Huggins, who has been away from the game for more than a year.

At Oklahoma State, a son replaces a coaching legend as Sean Sutton takes over the reins from Eddie.

Mike Anderson is getting his long-awaited shot to coach with the big boys, making the jump from UAB to Missouri. Doc Sadler, another former Conference-USA coach, left UTEP for Nebraska.

Greg McDermott makes the leap from the mid-major ranks, going from Northern Iowa to Iowa State. The young gun is Oklahoma's Jeff Capel, who at 31 is the third-youngest coach in Division I.

We take a look at how Huggins has already transformed the K-State program and project which of the new hires will wind up doing the best and the worst in this week's mailbag. We also answer questions about the state of Maryland's program, and what the 10-year contract that Marquette and its coach Tom Crean agreed to earlier this week means for the Golden Eagles.

Andrew's Mailbag
Bob Huggins has already got a verbal commitment from Michael Beasley (No. 1-ranked prospect from the class of 2007), so how long will it take to get the Wildcats to the top of the Big 12? Also, of all the coaching changes that happened, which school made the best move? Which school made the worst?
Sam from Minneapolis

When Huggins took the job in March, I was thinking a string of middle-of-the-pack finishes, with an NCAA Tournament trip sprinkled in every three or four years, would be the best he could muster with the Wildcats.

It wasn't a knock on Huggins. I didn't think anyone else could do better.

We are taking about a program that had fallen off the college basketball map. How was Huggins going to lure players to Manhattan, Kan? Plus, there were the questions of how a guy with Huggins' past would be accepted in one of the most conservative areas of the country.

I underestimated the power of Huggy Bear. Heavily.

Once the high-profile coach arrived at K-State, everybody seemed to want a piece of the program. The schedule includes three nationally televised games. Ticket sales are soaring. The Wildcats have emerged as major player in the recruiting world, threatening to put together one of the nation's top classes next year.

They landed a commitment from Michael Beasley, Rivals.com's No. 1 ranked senior, after hiring Beasley's former AAU coach - Dalonte Hill - away from Charlotte.

There's also talk that Bill Walker, the nation's No. 2-ranked small forward, may enroll at K-State mid-season. The Ohio High School Athletic Association ruled that Walker's eligibility had expired because he played varsity basketball out of state before enrolling at Cincinnati's North College Hill High. With accelerated classes, Walker could graduate soon.

Even the mega-hyped O.J. Mayo - Walker's friend and former high school teammate - says he's considering the Wildcats, although he's visited USC twice.

Huggins also conjured up some recruiting magic with what little time he had to work with the Class of 2006. He landed two of the best players that were still available: five-star center Jason Bennett (who at 7-foot-2 will be the tallest player in the Big 12) and four-star junior college guard Blake Young.

Consider that K-State returns all its key players from a team that went a respectable 15-13, and the Wildcats should make a run at an NCAA Tournament bid. Throw in Walker and they'll be a Sweet 16 contender.

By the time Beasley and another group of big-time recruits arrive for the 2007-08 season, the Wildcats will be a real threat to capture the Big 12 title. Expect that to remain the same even after Beasley bounces to the NBA the following summer.

The image of K-State and the atmosphere surrounding the program has changed quickly. With some more exposure and a little success, it will be easier for Huggins and his staff to reel in more elite recruits.

The hiring of Huggins may prove to be the best move, but my second choice would be Missouri landing Mike Anderson.

At UAB, Anderson's Blazers won at least 21 games in his last four seasons and reached the NCAA Tournament in the last three. Anderson's success also carried over into the tournament. UAB posted a shocking upset of top-seeded Kentucky in 2004 and a first-round upset of LSU the following year.

Wouldn't you like to see what this guy can do with some Big 12-caliber talent? After all, he built the UAB program on a long line of sleeper recruits.

Anyone who thinks Anderson's up-tempo system and full-court defensive pressure won't work in the Big 12 just needs to look at how Bruce Pearl and his "controlled chaos" did in the SEC in his first year.

The worst new hire in the Big 12 would have to be the most surprising one. Oklahoma was handcuffed by impending probation, but hiring Jeff Capel was a risky move.

Most of the key pieces of the top-five recruiting class that Kelvin Sampson and his staff had built left soon after Capel took the helm. Five-star forward Damion James, four-star power forward Jeremy Mayfield and four-star guard Scottie Reynolds, who were all released from their letters of intent, desperately wanted to play for a big-name coach with a history of producing NBA players.

While he may fit into those categories eventually, Capel doesn't fit that bill now. I believe the former Duke point guard will be a good coach at a high level someday he did very well in his four years at VCU but not in this situation. He inherits a massive rebuilding project (the Sooners lose three of their top four scorers) at a proud program that will have little patience after year one. That would be a tough job even without the inevitable recruiting restrictions that will come.

Is Maryland an NCAA Tournament team and will Gary Williams feel the heat if they don't make it this year?
J.J. Young from Algiers

The Terps don't look like an NCAA Tournament team on paper, but I believe they'll sneak in largely because they finally got a true, unselfish point guard. That is a player that Maryland lacked during the previous two seasons, which ended in NIT trips.

Freshman Eric Hayes is eerily reminiscent of Steve Blake. He doesn't have Blake's great vision yet, but he does possess a high basketball IQ and a penchant for setting up teammates.

That's key for a team full of scoring weapons, many of which struggle to create their shot. If Hayes can earn the starting job and develop quickly, 3-point specialist Mike Jones will get more open looks. D.J. Strawberry, who has long played out of position at the point, would also be able to use his speed to make more plays on the wing and in transition.

As for Williams, he has much more job security than most would have in his situation. Being a Maryland grad helps, and the 2002 national title bought a ton of slack - more than enough to survive a third consecutive NIT trip.

Marquette looks like it is making strides towards the right direction, so the question is was it the right move to extend Tom Crean's contract? Is this team ready to make a run in the NCAA Tournament?
Sam from Minneapolis

Before anyone starts complaining that I'm answering two questions from one guy in the same mailbag, let me just say I had to pass over several other questions from the curious man from Minneapolis. Plus, his inquiries were the best of the bunch.

Locking Crean up to a long-term and very lucrative deal was a huge step forward for a program that often has a tough time getting in the national spotlight. Crean is one of the best basketball minds in the business. While he'll never be a great recruiter, his teams constantly overachieve.

Any time a big coaching search opened up, Crean's name was always mentioned. Now, the rumors won't even have a chance to start circulating.

The Eagles have an opportunity to be one of the better teams in the Big East, especially if their prize recruit Lazar Hayward can play. The talented wing is in school, but he may be ruled ineligible by the NCAA Clearinghouse.

Even with Hayward, this team has a ceiling that probably ends at the Sweet 16 due to the lack of a real inside force. Crean wants to play four guards and create matchup problems like Villanova did last season, but his backcourt isn't that deep or that talented.

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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