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November 7, 2007

Mailbag: Sampson does it again

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He is working to get you ready for the season and answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.

The 577 illegal phone calls Kelvin Sampson and his assistants made to recruits while at Oklahoma were bad enough. But to make the same mistake again Indiana told the NCAA last month that Sampson and his staff made 35 illegal calls last year seems incomprehensible to some fans. How could he possibly break the same rule again?

We explore that question and the future effects of Sampson's most recent violations in this week's mailbag, while also tackling inquiries about whether UCLA's Ben Howland or Arizona's Lute Olson is a better coach, UMass' future under second-year coach Travis Ford and whether Auburn fans should be expecting a breakthrough season from their Tigers.


Turmoil town

Why is Kelvin Sampson such a cheater? How does he still have a job? And how do his illegal phone calls hurt the Indiana basketball program reputation?

-- Anonymous from Bloomington, Ind.

The only answer to your first question is that Sampson has an obvious disregard for the rules. There is no valid excuse for his most recent violations. Sampson should know more about the NCAA's guidelines involving phone calls to recruits than any other coach.

That's what you'd think, at least, after Sampson and some Oklahoma assistants were found guilty of making hundreds of improper phone calls. Sampson was banned from calling recruits or participating in off-campus recruiting for a year. Oklahoma lost scholarships, and Sampson's previously clean image as a tireless worker who gets the most out of his players was tarnished.

Indiana isn't going to fire Sampson (unless, of course, he makes more illegal phone calls). IU officials don't want to have to start up their third coaching search in seven years (predecessor Mike Davis wasn't permanently hired until 2001). Moreover, Sampson appears to be on the verge of putting the Hoosiers back among the elite programs. Power forward D.J. White and guard Eric Gordon, Rivals.com's No. 2 prospect from the 2007 class, are going to be one of the nation's top inside-outside tandems.

But that doesn't mean people within the Indiana athletic department aren't upset. Indiana athletic director Rick Greenspan put his reputation on the line when hiring Sampson, whom the school knew was being investigated by the NCAA at the time. The Hoosiers took away Sampson's $500,000 bonus for his latest infractions and fired an assistant.

Still, it's Sampson's rep not Indiana's that is taking the worst hit. Fellow coaches are starting to question his ethics. At Big Ten Media Day, Purdue's Matt Painter's said, "As far as the rule, you get to call (high school seniors) twice a week. It's not that difficult."

Painter is right. Regardless of whether Sampson goes violation-free for the rest of his career, a growing number of people always will see him as a cheater.

Minutemen minute

How good do you think UMass has a chance of being this year with some key seniors returning and a strong freshman class?

-- Luke from Albany, N.Y.

No better than a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Atlantic 10 should be expected.

I think Travis Ford is one of the top young coaches in college basketball, and the program built up a lot of momentum last season with a 24-win campaign that included a trip to the NIT. But the Minutemen are about to take a step back at a time when most of the league is on the rise.

UMass loses its top two players: Stephane Lasme (the A-10's 2006-07 player of the year and a second-round NBA pick) and Rashaun Freeman. Few duos meant more to their team. Lasme and Freeman combined to average 27.8 points, 17.8 rebounds and 5.5 blocks.

It's the wrong season to try to replace that much production. The A-10 hasn't looked this strong since its glory days in the 1990s. Xavier, which was a free throw away from reaching the Sweet 16 last season, returns a backcourt that would rank among the best in most major conferences. Rhode Island, Saint Joseph's, Fordham and Dayton each return their top players and have veteran-laden rosters. I wouldn't be surprised to see two, maybe even three, of those teams reach the NIT.

You also have to figure Saint Louis will be better with X's and O's guru Rick Majerus in charge.

UMass will remain competitive, thanks to the return of senior wing Gary Forbes (13.0 ppg) and an eight-man recruiting class that ranked among the best at the mid-major level. But this is a season for Minutemen fans to be patient. In a couple of years, you'll be contending for the league title again provided Ford doesn't get lured away by a BCS school.

Howland debate

You called Ben Howland one of the Pac-10's top coaches in your last mailbag. Howland is a great coach, but he is not a Hall-of-Fame coach. He took over a storied program that was just waiting for the right coach. He didn't build a national power from the ground up from nothing. Calling him the best coach is just stupid.

-- Steve from Phoenix

Lute Olson should certainly be considered one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history, and he is the architect behind one of the greatest turnarounds ever. But given the choice right now, I'd take Howland.

Arizona's recent struggles have me wondering if Olson, who is on an indefinite leave of absence, hasn't lost the touch that used to make the Wildcats a near-constant threat to reach the Final Four. His past two teams have underachieved badly, each failing to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The talent level isn't the problem; rather, it has been a lack of chemistry and poor defense - areas where coaching really comes into play.

Howland has taken UCLA to back-to-back Final Fours. His teams have great chemistry and play great defense. The Bruins haven't had any more talent than Arizona. Plus, Howland has won consistently with far less talent. His last two teams at Pittsburgh went 57-11. He strung together three 20-plus win seasons at Northern Arizona before that.

Still not sold? Check out the head-to-head matchups. Howland is 4-0 against Olson over the past two seasons.

In need of more

I have been somewhat keeping up with Auburn basketball over the years, and this year seems to the most anticipated year for Auburn basketball in the Coach Lebo Era. Should I be excited as an Auburn fan or should I guard my optimism?

-- Lionel in St. Louis

I'm afraid you're going to have to keep that optimism in check once again.

Until last week, it looked as if fourth-year coach Jeff Lebo was going to have his best team yet. But that's when news broke that the Tigers would be losing one of their best players. Forward Josh Dollard (12.5 ppg) is out for the season for undisclosed medical reasons. Forward Quan Prowell (11.4 ppg) also will miss the first six games because he violated a team rule.

The Tigers aren't going to fall apart. They return some reliable weapons and plenty of experience. Point guard Quantez Robertson (5.1 apg) is a solid distributor, and wings Rasheem Barrett (11.0 ppg) and Frank Tolbert (11.8 ppg) and big man Korvotney Barber (11.3 ppg) can all score. But to make a serious run at an NCAA Tournament bid, the Tigers needed every key player to contribute again. With Dollard and Prowell playing relatively well last season, they were just 17-15.

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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