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June 4, 2008

Syracuse hopes to start dancing again

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
May 28: Hopeful Heels
May 21: What about Rice?
May 14: Building Bulldogs

Donte Greene ended any chance of keeping his college eligibility intact when he signed with an agent last week, crushing the fading hopes of Syracuse fans in the process.

Greene showed great promise as a freshman last season. He was the leading scorer (17.7 ppg) for an Orange team that finished tied for eighth in the Big East and narrowly missed out on an NCAA Tournament bid. He scored in double figures in all but four of the Orange's 35 games and made a team-high 90 3-pointers.

So, without Greene, can the Orange muster the offense needed to land an invitation to the field of 65?

We address that question in this week's mailbag, along with others about whether Arizona's Chase Budinger should stay in the draft, moving the 3-point line back next season, the SEC's sleeper in 2008-09, why Connecticut has signed a number of African players in recent years and how two freshmen will do at Arkansas next season.

ANDREWS'S MAILBAG
Tournament return?

Does Syracuse have enough firepower to get back to the Big Dance?

Sal from Niagara Falls, N.Y.
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Absolutely. If Syracuse fails to reach the NCAA Tournament for what would be the third consecutive time next season, the last possible excuse should be a lack of firepower.

Even with the early departure of Greene, who's a probable first-round pick, the Orange are loaded with major scoring threats. They return three double-digit scorers from last season: point guard Jonny Flynn (15.7 ppg), versatile forward Paul Harris (14.5 ppg) and center Arinze Onuaku (12.7 ppg). There's also the return of veteran shooting guard Eric Devendorf, who was averaging 17.0 points before tearing his ACL in December.

Flynn is a dynamic playmaker who can create his own shot as easily as he can create shots for others. Harris does a great job creating contact and drawing fouls. He led the Big East with 237 free-throw attempts last season. Onuaku brings great size and has the potential to score more. Devendorf is a good 3-point shooter, something the Orange missed when he was lost.

The last thing the Orange need to be worried about is offense. The first thing is defense. They gave up 74.3 points a game last season, which ranked 14th in the Big East. Massachusetts set the record for most points scored in the Carrier Dome, which opened in 1980, in a 107-100 win over the Orange.

What to do ...

Do you think Chase Budinger should stay in the draft?

Luis from Tucson, Ariz.
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If I were Budinger, I'd lean toward leaving. He isn't a lock for the lottery, but he is projected to go somewhere between the 12th and 25th picks. He's 6 feet 7, can shoot the ball and has a great vertical leap. It's tough to imagine anyone with that combination of size and skills slipping out of the first round. Sticking around Arizona for his junior season seems like a shaky proposition. Lute Olson is back, but he inexplicably got rid of assistants Josh Pastner and Miles Simon. Former interim coach Kevin O'Neill, who was supposed to succeed Olson, is gone, too. With so much change, how can Budinger or any Wildcat for that matter know what the team or the atmosphere in Tucson will be like in 2008-09?

Changing of the arc

With the 3-point line moving back, do you think players who can consistently hit mid-range jumpers become a more valuable commodity?

Bobby from Murray, Ky.
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I'm afraid the lost art of the mid-range jumper will remain just that although former Memphis guard Chris Douglas-Roberts did put on a mid-range clinic the past few seasons.

Most of the college coaches I've spoken to don't expect the new 3-point line to create many changes. Many told me they won't alter their approach on the offensive or defensive end.

I think you will see a few more big men get the red light from beyond the arc and some sub-par shooters will be exposed, but, by and large, most of the guards who arrive in college have the range to consistently knock down shots from 20-9. Some can shoot from NBA range (23-9 at the top, 22 feet in the corners).

Consequently, you still will see plenty of teams live and die by the 3-pointer.

SEC sleeper

What team in the SEC would you consider a sleeper? LSU has some talent and a good coach in Trent Johnson. Teams such as Ole Miss seem as if they are ready to make the jump to start competing for SEC championships. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous
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I don't think you can label Ole Miss a "sleeper." They spent a good bit of this past season in the top 25 and nearly snuck into the NCAA Tournament. If defending SEC West champ Mississippi State loses star guard Jamont Gordon (he entered the draft but has not signed with an agent), the Rebels will be picked by some to win the division. Arkansas, which finished second in the division last season, will be taking a step back after losing four starters.

LSU is a much better fit for the "sleeper" tag. A 13-18 record last season pushed the Tigers way off the national radar. They also are losing talented freshman Anthony Randolph, a projected lottery pick.

But LSU still has enough firepower to win the West. The Tigers have the SEC's leading returning scorer in guard Marcus Thornton (19.6 ppg) and one of the league's top big men in Chris Johnson (11.6 ppg, 2.6 bpg). Versatile wing Tasmin Mitchell, who averaged 13.2 points and 5.4 rebounds in 2006-07, returns after taking a medical redshirt last season because of an ankle injury.

Trent Johnson may not have been the right choice for the long term. Given his West Coast background - and the fact that ace recruiter Butch Pierre left to join Travis Ford's staff at Oklahoma State - Johnson may not be able to win the recruiting battles in his new backyard. But Johnson should be a great fit for the short term. He is a proven winner, having been to Sweet 16s at Nevada and Stanford, and he inherits a good blend of talent and experience.

Alabama is another team to keep an eye on. Point guard Ron Steele, who also took a medical redshirt last season, finally looked healthy at the NBA Pre-Draft Camp last week. If Steele pulls out of the draft as expected, he would join a team loaded with scoring weapons and desperate for a playmaker. Big man Richard Hendrix (17.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg) has entered the draft, but has not signed with an agent. Small forward Alonzo Gee (14.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is coming back. The Tide also are adding a top-15 recruiting class.

Market cornered

Doesn't it seem as if UConn is cornering the market on African-born big men? Hasheem Thabeet is from Tanzania, Ater Majok is from the Sudan, Charles Okwandu is Nigerian and there's also Emeka Okafor, who was a first-generation American.

Shane from Tolland, Conn.
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It certainly does.

I don't think it has as much to do with Connecticut making connections in Africa as it does with Jim Calhoun's penchant for taking raw post players, which fits the description of the prototypical African prospect.

I remember Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore (who spent 13 years on Calhoun's staff at UConn) telling me a story about Calhoun deciding to offer a scholarship to former center Hilton Armstrong (an American) after watching him play for the first time in person. Armstrong wasn't being heavily recruited at the time and this was in 2002, when UConn had become a place where big-name prospects dreamed of going. Armstrong was a little-known sub for his first three years, but he put together a breakthrough season as a senior and become a lottery pick.

Okafor, whose parents were born in Nigeria and moved to Texas, was a late-bloomer on the recruiting scene. Okafor, who would go on to become a Big East Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player of the 2004 Final Four, was seriously considering Vanderbilt when he chose to sign with the Huskies.

Young Hawgs

What kind of impact do you see Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clarke making at Arkansas next season? Both are freshmen, but I really admire the way they approach the game.

Anonymous
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They will play immediately, more out of necessity than anything else. Arkansas is probably among the five or 10 teams nationally losing the most talent. Four starters must be replaced, including point guard Gary Ervin and wing Sonny Weems.

Fortson, a 5-foot-10 point guard, could start, especially if coach John Pelphrey chooses to keep junior-to-be Patrick Beverley off the ball. Regardless, Fortson should see steady minutes. His toughness and tenacity on the defensive end gives him an edge over other freshmen. So does playing last season at The Patterson School, a prep school in Lenoir, N.C., that has produced a number of good high-major players in recent years.

Don't expect Fortson to be an instant star, though. He lacks size and polish. Moreover, point guard is the most difficult position to play in college basketball and he'll go through some growing pains, particularly when it comes to making decisions with the ball in his hands.

I think you will see Clarke be a contributor off the bench. He isn't as talented as Fortson, but he's a great outside shooter, perhaps the best Arkansas has had in a long time. That will make him a valuable weapon.

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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