The most confident fan base in college basketball should be found in Chapel Hill.
While most of the ACC appears poised for a downward turn – Duke is the only other ACC team that's a lock for the preseason top 25 – the Tar Heels appear to be getting better. Three of their top players return from a 31-win team. That includes the probable ACC preseason player of the year, Tyler Hansbrough.
But there is one lingering question for the Heels: Who will replace Brandan Wright? The former five-star recruit left early for the NBA after emerging as the ACC Rookie of the Year last season.
We explore that question, along with others on the strength of the Missouri Valley Conference, if Mississippi State can dominate in the SEC West, and who will be the SEC's most improved player, in this week's edition of the mailbag.
The Wright replacement?
Can North Carolina's Deon Thompson put up the same type of numbers Brandan Wright did last season?
-- Josh from Oregon -----
It depends on which numbers you mean. Thompson has no shot at matching Wright's 64.6 percent shooting, which was the sixth-highest in the nation and the sixth-highest in school history. I also doubt Thompson will average 14.7 points a game. With the return of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, Thompson will at best be the third or fourth option on offense.
On the flip side, Thompson has a good shot at surpassing Wright's 6.2 rebounds a game. With a good combination of size (6-8, 250 pounds) and soft hands, Thompson has the makeup to be a great rebounder. At the U-19 World Championships in Serbia in June, he led the American team with 6.1 rpg in just 20.7 minutes a game. Don't be surprised if he grabs more rebounds than Hansbrough, who has never averaged eight boards a game.
Thompson is a far different player than the lanky and cerebral Wright, who never fouled out of a high school or college game.
Thompson will give the Tar Heels more toughness and another back-to-the basket scoring threat to pair with Hansbrough. Roy Williams always makes a concentrated effort to get the ball inside to his post players, and his big men often steadily improve (see Sean May, Nick Collison and Raef LaFrentz). Thompson will make an impact similar to that of Wright, just in a different fashion.
Where's the MVC love?
How can you overlook the Missouri Valley Conference? The MVC will have four teams (Bradley or Illinois State, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Creighton) in the NCAA Tournament. It's a lot better than the A-10 or Conference USA (Rivals.com writers recently debated whether the A-10 or C-USA would be the better non-BCS conference in 2007-08).
-- Jim from Ft. Washington, Md.
I asked the same question when our staff here at Rivals.com sat down to put together our preseason rankings. Most argued that only one MVC team deserved to be in our Top 64 (Southern Illinois sits at No. 25), and ultimately it was difficult to disagree with their logic.
Other than Southern Illinois, the top programs relied heavily on seniors last season. The amount of top players who left the league is staggering.
Creighton lost its top four scorers. Nate Funk, Anthony Tolliver, Nick Porter and Dane Watts combined to average 51.7 points and 22.2 rebounds a game last season. Why do you think Dana Altman, who had turned down several head coaching offers before, briefly accepted the Arkansas job? With all Creighton was losing, he probably thought it might be a good time to finally leave.
Missouri State, which has fallen just short of an NCAA Tournament bid the last two seasons, loses three of its top four scorers. That includes lead guard Blake Ahearn, who shot a stellar 94.5 percent from the free-throw line.
New Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall inherits a team that must replace three starters. The Shockers also lost one of their top recruits when former coach Mark Turgeon lured former WSU-signee Denzell Bowles to Texas A&M.
Northern Iowa and Bradley are both losing a pair of double-digit scorers.
I can't buy into the whole "reloading" argument either. Rivals.com ranked the top 20 classes among mid-majors, and Creighton was the only MVC team to make it at No. 6.
What has made the MVC so strong in the past, particularly when it sent a mid-major record four teams to the 2006 NCAA Tournament, has been experience. Their rotations have been full of juniors and seniors, and consequently have had great chemistry. That's simply not the case this season.
Perhaps an MVC team besides SIU will surprise us and land on the NCAA Tournament bubble. But there is no doubt the MVC is no longer the premier mid-major league. The A-10 is loaded with veterans, and Conference USA had five schools among the top 20 mid-major classes.
MSU: Best in the (SEC) West?
Will Mississippi State be able to run away with the SEC West this year? They have a talented new center in Brian Johnson, who transferred from Louisville. Can the Bulldogs finally return to the good days?
-- Drew from Starkville, Miss.
Nobody is going to run away with the SEC West. Alabama could still be a factor, even without Ronald Steele - who announced Monday he is taking a medical redshirt year for the 2007-08 season. Arkansas is a top 25-caliber team. A veteran-laden Auburn squad will be improved. Ole Miss and LSU look to be headed for down years, but are still capable of pulling off upsets.
All things considered, a return to the MSU glory days looks plausible. The Bulldogs have a good blend of talent and experience.
Junior guard Jamont Gordon is the best player in the SEC not named Chris Lofton, and even that can be argued. Senior power forward Charles Rhodes gives the Bulldogs a reliable scorer and rebounder on the inside.
They lose some outside scoring punch with the departures of Dietric Slater and Reginald Delk (who transferred to Louisville), but sophomore guards Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough both showed plenty of promise last season. Johnson, who averaged 3.2 ppg at Louisville, isn't going to make a big impact. However, he will provide frontcourt depth.
The inside-outside duo of Gordon and Rhodes, combined with some solid role players, will lead the Bulldogs to their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2005. If Stewart and Hansbrough can handle bigger roles, look for a run to the Sweet 16.
Who do you foresee being the SEC's most improved player?
-- Nolan in West Memphis, Ark.
I'll go with Florida sophomore power forward Marreese Speights. Joakim Noah went from little-used freshman to a possible No. 1 overall pick after his sophomore year at Florida. Expecting that kind of leap is unrealistic, but look for a dramatic improvement. Speights spent most of last year guarding two of the nation's top big men – Al Horford and Noah – in practice. With the loss of five starters, the Gators need him to play heavy minutes immediately.
I'd pinpoint three other sophomore guards as candidates: Arkansas' Patrick Beverley, Tennessee's Ramar Smith and Vanderbilt's Jermaine Beal. Beverley was by far the top player on the U.S. team at the U-19 tournament. I wouldn't be surprised if he is an All-American. Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl has predicted that Smith will make the leap to the NBA before exhausting his eligibility. Beal is a former top-100 recruit who probably will move into the starting lineup.