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December 21, 2007

Syracuse forced to move forward after injury

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
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Two seasons ago, when Syracuse star Gerry McNamara was labeled overrated, coach Jim Boeheim said rather emphatically that the Orange wouldn't win 10 games without McNamara.

Now, many fans are wondering how many games the Orange will win without junior guard Eric Devendorf, who suffered a torn ACL in his left knee last week and will miss the rest of the season.

Devendorf isn't quite the player McNamara was, but he was one of the top guards in the Big East and is a major loss. Devendorf ranked second on the team in scoring (17.0 points per game) and assists (3.9 per game).

We explore just how damaging Devendorf's loss may be to the Orange in this week's mailbag, along with why Auburn hasn't been able to turn its program around under coach Jeff Lebo and why Kansas doesn't get the same respect as other elite programs.

We'll also take a look at Saturday's showdown between Memphis and Georgetown and discuss some of the nation's most underrated coaches.

Orange outlook

How do you think Syracuse will do without Eric Devendorf?

Sean Byrne from Spencer, N.Y.

Devendorf, a junior who will miss the rest of the season, was an offensive-minded player who could put up points quickly. But Syracuse has plenty of other players who can score. The Orange scored 125 points in an easy win over East Tennessee last week, and that was with Devendorf missing nearly the entire second half.

The Orange's problems are on defense. Massachusetts (107) and Rhode Island (91) combined to score 198 points in wins at the Carrier Dome. The Minutemen and Rams had little trouble breaking down the 2-3 zone and finding open shots.

While Devendorf never has been much of a defender, his departure does create some depth issues in the backcourt. Guard Andy Rautins is also out for the season with an ACL tear, and it looks as if guard Josh Wright, who has missed practices and a game, won't be playing again, either.

But this is not a devastating loss. Unless Syracuse starts playing better defense, it is going to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big East again.

Prediction time

Who wins Saturday, Memphis or Georgetown? What are your keys to the game and what will you be looking for from each team?

Aaron from Washington, D.C.

I like the Hoyas, in large part because of what we saw out of Memphis against USC earlier this season. The Trojans were able to slow the tempo with a number of zone defenses that gave the Tigers problems.

Nobody is better at slowing things down or forcing teams to play their tempo and style than the ultra-patient Hoyas. Plus, they are a veteran-laden team, the kind that doesn't get rattled on the road.

Memphis needs center Joey Dorsey to stay out of early foul trouble. Dorsey is the difference between Memphis being a good defensive team and a great defensive team. A shot blocker who intimidates most players around the basket, Dorsey is capable of shutting down Georgetown center Roy Hibbert.

Georgetown needs to make sure they get the ball into the hands of point guard Jonathan Wallace when Memphis presses. Outside of Wallace, the Hoyas lack good ballhandlers and can be exposed by full-court pressure.

My prediction: Hoyas 68, Tigers 63.

Tiger troubles

Why is it so hard for Auburn to rebuild a program that was doing well for so long? Is coach Jeff Lebo really that bad, or was he left with little to no help to rebuild? Also, will the new arena being built help bring in new recruits?

Ronnie from Flomaton, Ala.

Apparently, your definition of "doing well for so long" differs from the rest of the universe.

Lebo didn't take over a program riding a wave of success. It was more like a wave of inconsistency. Two seasons before his arrival, the Tigers made a surprising run to the Sweet 16, nearly knocking off eventual champ Syracuse. But that came after a losing season (12-16 in 2001-02) and was followed by a .500 campaign (14-14 in 2003-04).

No coach was going to turn things around at Auburn quickly. Jeff Capel (now at Oklahoma) was offered the job, but chose to stay at Virginia Commonwealth instead - and he had plenty of reasons to do so. Not only was Auburn facing an NCAA investigation (it wound up losing one scholarship), the cupboard also was bare. Lebo's first team was in dire need of talent and size. He was starting almost from scratch.

Some of the blame for the slow rebuilding process belongs to Lebo. He has struggled at times to get his players to buy into his system. A number of players have transferred in recent years, including Toney Douglas, who averaged 16.9 points per game as a freshman before leaving for Florida State.

Moreover, Lebo isn't a great recruiter, a necessity for any program to engineer a quick turnaround (i.e., Tennessee with Bruce Pearl or Ohio State with Thad Matta). His four recruiting classes have included only two top-100 recruits. In-state rival Alabama has landed eight over the same time period.

But Lebo is a good coach, particularly when it comes to X's and O's. He won at Tennessee Tech and Chattanooga. Given time, I think he will win at Auburn as well.

As far as the new arena, I don't think it will have a big impact on recruiting. Coaching, style of play and the history of a program still are more important than facilities to most prospects.

Under the radar

Even though Kansas is ranked No. 3 in the country, the Jayhawks don't seem to be getting the respect of North Carolina, Memphis or even Georgetown. Do you think they can win it all? And why don't they get more respect?

Matt Mitchell from Kansas City

Lack of postseason success is the only acceptable answer. All the other teams you mentioned above have gone deep into the NCAA Tournament on multiple occasions in recent seasons.

Coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks, who did make the Elite Eight in 2007, still are associated more with postseason failure. The first-round losses to Bucknell and Bradley in 2005 and 2006, respectively, remain fresh in the minds of the media and the fans.

Until the Jayhawks and Self get to the Final Four, they always are going to be viewed with some skepticism.

Can Self win it all? I have my doubts. If it doesn't happen this season, I don't think it ever will. After this season, the Jayhawks are going to lose most of their nucleus. Underrated point guard Russell Robinson will be gone, and Brandon Rush almost undoubtedly will leave for the NBA. At least one other player, either Mario Chalmers or Darrell Arthur, will make the jump as well.

Worthy of attention

Is Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings the most underrated coach in college basketball? I've watched him take unheralded recruits and consistently have them perform at a high level in the SEC and NCAA Tournament.

Greg Mikrut from Chicago

Stallings certainly is up there. A small group of coaches have done as much with equal or less talent.

One of the guys in that group is Boston College's Al Skinner, who I'd say is the most underrated. He has been to six of the past seven NCAA Tournaments without ever signing an "elite" recruit. But his name never seems to come up in discussions of the nation's top coaches.

Other guys in the group would be Nevada's Mark Fox, BYU's Dave Rose and Arizona State's Herb Sendek.

You also could make a case for Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, who always seems to have the Badgers contending for the Big Ten title but still seems to get overlooked.

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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