September 3, 2008

Mailbag: Rough road ahead for Tennessee

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Over the past couple of weeks, a slew of teams have released their schedules, and we're starting to get a general idea of who is playing who and when and where. That, of course, leads to the question of who has put together the toughest schedules.

We examine a couple of candidates in this week's mailbag.

Bumpy road

Adam in Franklin, Tenn: What teams are playing the toughest schedules this season?

I doubt any team can come up with anything tougher than what Tennessee is facing.

The Volunteers are playing in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, which has a field that includes Georgetown, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Maryland, Oklahoma State and Siena. They also travel to defending national champ Kansas, Temple and Sun Belt favorite Middle Tennessee State and play host to Memphis, Marquette and Gonzaga in a separate game outside the Old Spice tourney. Georgetown, Gonzaga, Kansas, Marquette, Memphis and Michigan State will start the season in the top 25. Then there's the SEC schedule to worry about, too.

Georgia may have the second-toughest schedule. The Bulldogs likely will face Purdue (a top-15 preseason team) in the Preseason NIT and will go on the road to play Georgia Tech, Western Kentucky and Illinois. There also are home dates against Virginia Tech and Missouri.

No love for the MVC

Mitch in Angers, France: I noticed you ranked the top 10 conferences for this season and left out the Missouri Valley. How can that be? The MVC has ranked in the top eight of the RPI in each of the past four seasons. What do you want to bet it will make it five years in a row?

Conferences go through cycles, and the Missouri Valley is no different. The MVC has had some great seasons recently, but it's starting to slide.

Four years ago, the MVC sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament. Last year, it was just one; Drake shocked everyone by rolling to the regular-season and tournament titles.

Drake would be ecstatic to reach even the NIT this season. Three of their top five scorers are gone, and so is the coach (Keno Davis left for Providence).

Many of the other top teams are going to take a step back. Illinois State and Southern Illinois, which finished second and third, respectively, last season, are losing a number of their top players.

The MVC undoubtedly will be back, but this certainly isn't the season to put money on it.

How high can Mountaineers climb?

Brandon in Lewisburg, W.Va.: Since Joe Alexander departed for the NBA, a lot of people are overlooking West Virginia. With an incoming class of Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones and Darryl "Truck" Bryant, plus junior college transfer Dee Proby, added to the returning talent, how far do you see the Mountaineers going in 2008-09?

It is easy to overlook the Mountaineers. Not only are they losing Alexander, who played about as well as anyone in the last month of the season, veteran point guard Darris Nichols, a four-year starter, also is gone. Playing in what looks to be an even better Big East will make things even tougher.

Still, WVU fans shouldn't temper their expectations. The Mountaineers will have two of the better players in the league in shooting guard Alex Ruoff and power forward Da'Sean Butler. Last season's backup point, Joe Mazzulla, is more than capable of taking over for Nichols. Mazzulla had a near triple-double (13 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists) in the victory over Duke that sent the Mountaineers to the Sweet 16.

WVU is going back to the NCAA Tournament. How far the Mountaineers go when they get there depends on that great recruiting class you mentioned. Ebanks needs to live up the hype from Day One, and many of the others must contribute as well.

Coach K on the road

Ken in Atlanta: How much of a negative or positive impact does Coach K leaving to coach the U.S. national team have on Duke's recruiting? Does it help because he gets so much exposure or hurt because he wasn't there and may have lost ground on some big-time recruits?

Duke has had a particularly tough time recruiting post players in recent years, and you have to wonder if all the time Coach K has been spending with the U.S. national team has played a role. Ultimately, though, I think the pros outweigh the cons.

Winning a gold medal and coaching LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Co. undoubtedly catches the attention of the top high school prospects, along with the people who most influence them. I would not be surprised at all to see Duke land some great recruiting classes in the next couple of years.

Lowe's seat heating up

Damion in Rocky Mount, N.C.: Do you think North Carolina State is having buyer's remorse yet with Sidney Lowe? How hot will his seat be if the Wolfpack are subpar again this season?

Some N.C. State fans already have decided Lowe -- who was a starting guard on the school's 1983 NCAA title team -- isn't the man for the job, and others are starting to wonder. Ending last season on an eight-game losing streak, especially because the season began with such high expectations, will do that.

Take out the Wolfpack's shocking run to the ACC Tournament title game in Lowe's first season, and he hasn't done much since landing a job that a number of other candidates passed on first.

Lowe did land five-star recruit J.J. Hickson. But many blame Hickson, who left for the NBA after his freshman campaign, for causing chemistry problems last season.

I have to believe Lowe's job is in serious jeopardy. He needs to show improvement or this could be his last season in Raleigh.

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.
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