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October 22, 2008

Mailbag: Villanova, others could change roles

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Take out the 8-9 matchups, and only five lower-seeded teams managed to win first-round games in the 2008 NCAA Tournament: No. 10 seed Davidson, No. 12 seeds Villanova and Western Kentucky and No. 13 seeds Siena and San Diego.

While everybody loves a Cinderella story, the coaches of those programs will all say they'd rather be the higher seed going into the first round. It means you had a better regular season and have a much better chance of advancing.

So, who out of that group has the best chance to put themselves in that position? Should we expect any to be a first-round favorite and win another game? We examine those questions in this week's mailbag.

Underdog to favorite

Bernard from parts unknown : Of the teams that pulled first-round upsets in last season's NCAA tournament, which do you think has the best chance of being a favorite in a first-round game and has the best chance of advancing?

Western Kentucky is the only one we can eliminate as a possible answer. The Hilltoppers are going to take a big step back after losing their top two guards, Courtney Lee (a first-round pick) and Tyrone Brazelton.

The other four look just as good, if not better. Siena, San Diego and Villanova return all five starters. Davidson still has the hero of its Elite Eight run, Stephen Curry, who may be the best guard in the country.

I think Villanova has a significant edge over the other three. Junior guard Scottie Reynolds gives the Wildcats leadership and a catalyst for their offense. Once Reynolds became more comfortable with the point-guard role at about the midway point last season, the Wildcats really started to excel. They also have a lot more room to improve than the others. Sophomore guards Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes both former five-star recruits have the potential to develop into go-to scorers.

Banking on Boston College?

Kyle from Boston : Do you see Boston College making any noise this season?

When you look at the Eagles on paper, the answer is a definitive no unless you count the student section making some noise at an NIT game or opposing student sections focusing their hatred on guard Tyrese Rice.

At least six other ACC teams (North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson) look significantly better than the Eagles. Some would argue that Maryland does, as well.

But BC's Al Skinner, one of the nation's most underrated coaches, has had a number of teams that weren't supposed to do much end up contending for ACC and Big East titles. Skinner excels at finding under-the-radar recruits who blossom into some of the best at their position. Wake was the only other ACC school to offer a scholarship to Rice, who exploded for 46 points (34 coming in the first half) in a loss to North Carolina last season. Jared Dudley, the 2006-07 ACC Player of the Year, wasn't even a top-100 prospect.

Sophomore guard Rakim Sanders could be the next to follow suit. Sanders, who was a three-star prospect, has the potential to give the Eagles a solid No. 2 scoring threat to team with Rice. He averaged 11.3 points last season.

But finding more perimeter firepower isn't the main concern; fixing the inside game is more important. The frontcourt looks even weaker with the loss of shot-blocking specialist Tyrelle Blair.

I admire Skinner, and he's fully capable of working some magic. But unless the post players are far better than advertised, I don't see how the Eagles can do any better than the NIT.

Rivalry ranking

Jeff from Las Vegas : Do you think that BYU-UNLV quietly has become one of the best rivalries in college hoops?

Absolutely. It's a shame that their games aren't nationally televised. Whenever the teams have played over the past three seasons, the intensity level is about as high as you will find. That they have met in the past two Mountain West Conference title games and that UNLV has won both on its home floor has helped to intensify the rivalry.

When asked about the rivalry at the Mountain West media days, I noticed the faces of coaches and players on both sides either immediately light up or tighten up. BYU coach Dave Rose said that while Utah remains the biggest rival for Cougars fans, he senses that beating UNLV has grown to mean more to his players and coaches.

BYU's nation-high 47-game home winning streak adds another interesting twist. The Rebels, who were the last team to win at BYU's Marriott Center (beating the Cougars 76-66 on March 5, 2005), might have a chance to end that streak when they visit Provo on Jan. 21.

Not this year

Griffin from Dover, Del. : Does Temple have any chance to be a repeat Atlantic 10 champ? The Owls do play a weak non-conference schedule. What's your take?

Xavier remains the team to beat in the A-10, and I think every coach in the league would tell you the same. Even with the loss of three senior starters from a 30-win team, the Musketeers easily remain the league's most talented team and Sean Miller has to be considered one of the top young coaches in college basketball.

Temple probably is the third- or fourth-best team in the league, so the Owls certainly have a legitimate chance to win the A-10 Tournament again if they get hot at the right time. But the odds aren't good. Senior swingman Dionte Christmas may be the best player in the league, but losing guard Mark Tyndale, who led the team in rebounding and assists and was second in scoring, is huge.

I wouldn't call the non-conference schedule weak, either. The Owls play host to SEC favorite Tennessee and MAC favorite Kent State, and travel to defending national champ Kansas and Villanova. Tennessee, Kansas and Villanova will be in the preseason top 25.

Hawkeye hopes

Joshua from Cedar Rapids, Iowa : I think Iowa can surprise this season. What do you think of the Hawkeyes?

I think Iowa fans should be surprised if their team gets into the NIT.

Second-year coach Todd Lickliter inherited little to work with when he arrived. The Hawkeyes were losing Adam Haluska and Tyler Smith (who transferred to Tennessee), two All-Big Ten selections who combined for 52 percent of the team's scoring. This season, the Hawkeyes must replace leading scorer Tony Freeman, a senior-to-be who transferred to Southern Illinois.

Lickliter isn't a dynamic recruiter such as Tennessee's Bruce Pearl, who's going to reel in a ton of talent and turn things around quickly. This will be a slow rebuilding project and fans need to remain patient.

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com. Got a question for Andrew's Mailbag? Click here to drop him a note.

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