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October 9, 2007

Hoops Mailbag: Silver State debate

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He is working to get you ready for the season and answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
October 2: Balance and defense
September 11: Big year for Big East
September 4: Tar Heel Pride
August 28: Balance and defense

The Silver State is being disrespected. Well, at least the college basketball fans of its two biggest programs think so.

Nevada has been to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and UNLV is coming off a season that included 30 victories and a trip to the Sweet 16. So why didn't either program land in Rivals.com's top 64?

We answer that question, along with inquiries about Kentucky's potential with new coach Billy Gillispie and the nation's top outside shooter not named Chris Lofton in this week's mailbag.

ANDREW'S MAILBAG

Wolf Pack want answers

Doesn't Nevada make it to the NCAA Tournament nearly ever year? Isn't Marcelus Kemp still on the team? You're telling me the Wolf Pack isn't better than all of those East Coast-let's-play-Delaware Tech-10-times-a-year-fodder teams that you have listed near the bottom of Rivals.com's top 64?

-- Tim in Costa Mesa, Calif.
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Yes, yes and yes. There are several reasons for the third yes, but the main one is the loss of three-time WAC Player of the Year Nick Fazekas. I could write an entire story on the gaudy stats Fazekas posted. However, if you really want to understand his value to the program, look at the last team they had before the best player in school history showed up in Reno. The 2002-03 Wolf Pack won 18 games and went to the NIT. With Fazekas, the Wolf Pack won 25 or more games and made the NCAA Tournament in each of the next four seasons.

Losing point guard Ramon Sessions, who made the mistake of leaving early for the NBA (he was a late second-round pick), is another major blow. Sessions, who averaged 12.3 ppg last season, would have teamed with Kemp to give the Wolf Pack a solid one-two scoring punch. Instead, the team's next-highest returning scorer (JaVale McGee) averaged just 3.3 ppg.

Kemp is one of the nation's more underrated players. Few teams have a guard with his combination of strength and scoring prowess. But with no other weapons to worry about, opponents can design their defensive game plans around Kemp. Even if Kemp manages to overcome all that attention and have some big games, he simply won't have enough help to carry the Wolf Pack back to the Big Dance.

New Mexico State has replaced Nevada as the most-talented team in the WAC. Utah State also is better, thanks to the return of Jaycee Carroll - the top player in the league. The Wolf Pack are going to finish no better than third and likely will wind up in the NIT.

Rebels with a cause

UNLV always seems to get overlooked. And look what happened to Wisconsin when that happened. How can UNLV go from Sweet 16 to not being in Rivals.com's top 64? Oh, you probably didn't have them in there last season, either.

-- Steve from Las Vegas
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We didn't do a top 64 last season, but if we did, someone could have made a reasonable argument for UNLV to be included. They were returning several veterans from a team that went 10-6 in the Mountain West in 2005-06 and were adding Arizona State transfer Kevin Kruger, a terrific outside shooter who had averaged 15.0 ppg in the Pac-10. Nobody predicted the Runnin' Rebels would win 30 games, but improvement was expected.

This season, you can see a downward turn coming. Kruger is gone, as is leading scorer and rebounder Wendell White (14.4 ppg and 6.1 rpg).

Lon Kruger and his staff landed a good recruiting class, but that class may not remain intact. Five-star center Beas Hamga has yet to be released by the NCAA Clearinghouse. Even with him, the Rebels are young and full of question marks.

The Mountain West won't be nearly as deep as last season; that will help the Runnin' Rebels contend for another league title. However, they're nowhere near as potent as they were last season.

New-look Wildcats aiming high

Kentucky returns a great group of backcourt players in Joe Crawford, Ramel Bradley, Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper. With the addition of Patrick Patterson and Alex Legion, the Wildcats are going to be good, but how good? I wouldn't expect Jared Carter or Perry Stevenson to start, but maybe an underappreciated A.J. Stewart can. How good can the Wildcats be this season?

-- Jordan in Mt. Washington, Ky.
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Every week, I seem to get about five to 10 Kentucky questions - and they usually resemble this one. This week, I've decided to cave to the pressure of the Big Blue.

I believe Kentucky has a high ceiling. I think they could be the second-best team in the SEC Tennessee is the only team in the league that clearly is better and go as far as the Sweet 16, maybe even the Elite Eight.

There's little doubt this program was underachieving for a while under Tubby Smith, who now is coaching Minnesota. The backcourt is as talented and as deep as any in the SEC. Meeks will be a go-to scorer someday. Jasper is a good defender who can play on the point or the wing. Bradley and Crawford are experienced veterans who provide a scoring punch.

The key is finding adequate frontcourt play, which will be difficult. Patterson must be able to play heavy minutes immediately. He can't afford to develop slowly, and he can't afford to get into foul trouble. That's asking a lot from a true freshman. If either happens, the team will be far from reaching its potential. They also need the lanky Stevenson, who has shown the ability to be a good shot blocker, to contribute on the inside.

The fiery Gillispie will make Kentucky tougher. But the team never really lacked toughness under Smith, whose teams always were above average defensively. Scoring points and developing chemistry seemed to be the real issues. Those are the areas - along with developing depth in the post - that must be fixed for the Wildcats to get back among the elite.

Shooting for stars

Who is the best pure shooter in the nation besides (Tennessee guard) Chris Lofton?

-- Bill in Calhoun, Ga.
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I'm glad you took Lofton out of the equation. Otherwise, this would have been a short answer.

My choice would come from the mid-major ranks: Davidson's Stephen Curry. His father, former NBA veteran Dell Curry, was one of the best outside shooters I've ever seen. He has definitely passed his skills on to his son. Stephen broke an NCAA freshman-record with 122 3-pointers last season. Despite being the focus of most defenses during that campaign, he shot 40.8 percent from 3-point range.

Texas A&M's Josh Carter led the nation by making 50 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2006-07, but Carter doesn't shoot nearly as much as Curry and gets more open looks. Texas' A.J. Abrams (120) and Oregon's Tajuan Porter (110) combined to make 230 3-pointers last season, but I think those guys are more streaky and sometimes have poor shot selection.

Curry has just as much range as all those guys, doesn't take many ill-advised shots and is more reliable. I'll take him, regardless of the league (Southern) in which he plays.

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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