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October 2, 2007

Hoops Mailbag: Clemson misses countdown

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.
September 11: Big year for Big East
September 4: Tar Heel Pride
August 28: Balance and defense
August 21: The Post-Durant Era
August 14: Preview time
Plenty of fan bases couldn't understand why their teams weren't in Rivals.com's Top 64 Countdown, but no group was as perplexed as Clemson's.

The frustrations of Tiger Nation are understandable. After all, the Tigers return four starters from a team that won 25 games and reached the NIT final. Each of those players averaged double-figures in scoring, and two are seniors.

That same core helped Clemson get off to a 17-0 start last season.

As one Clemson fan, wrote, "Not top 30, sure. Not top 40, maybe. Not top 64? That's a joke."

We delve into our reasons for omitting the Tigers, along with exploring other questions about the lack of depth in the ACC, why the Horizon League isn't thought of as a premier mid-major conference and the expectations surrounding Cal now that big man Devon Hardin is healthy in this week's mailbag.


Notable omission

I would like to hear your logic on excluding Clemson from Rivals.com's Top 64 Countdown. They lose one starter from a 20-plus win team in the ACC and they're not considered one of the top 64 teams?

-- Andrew in South Carolina

The one starter the Tigers lost was their most valuable player. You could make a case that James Mays or Cliff Hammonds is better, but Vernon Hamilton is certainly tougher to replace.

That's largely because Hamilton played point guard, the most important position in college basketball. The Tigers don't bring back any other point guards with experience. Freshman Demontez Stitt, a three-star recruit, is the early favorite to win the job. Hamilton ranked second on the team in minutes played (31.5 mpg), scoring (12.3 ppg), assists (3.4 apg) and steals (1.9 spg) leaving big shoes to fill. Stitt isn't ready to come anywhere near replacing that kind of production, nor Hamilton's leadership.

Who is going to get the ball upcourt when faced with full-court pressure? Who is going to penetrate and create offense? Who will pressure opposing point guards? Unless he has some special talents such as Memphis' Derrick Rose, I highly doubt a true freshman is the answer.

The Tigers have a lot of experience and balance coming back, but without a steady point guard they won't be able to take advantage.

Their horrid free-throw shooting also creates some concern. The Tigers shot 57.8 percent from the line last season, the worst number in ACC history. Losing Hamilton, a career 54-percent shooter from the charity stripe, will help some in that department. However, three starters Mays, Hammonds and Trevor Booker each failed to reach the 65 percent mark last season. Those guys aren't going to magically turn into good free-throw shooters, which will translate into more losses in close games for the Tigers.

Competition lacking for UNC?

Having lived in North Carolina all my life, basketball is a huge part of my life. As a lifelong North Carolina fan (and graduate), I love to watch Carolina play competitive teams and this has never been a problem until the last few years. What has happened to the ACC? The ACC has been depressingly bad for several years now. Help!

Apparently, you took a year off from college hoops last season. The ACC had one of its best seasons ever, sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament. Two teams that didn't make the field of 65 Clemson and Florida State combined to win 47 games. Your beloved Tar Heels got beaten five times in ACC play.

This season, your fears will be validated. Outside of UNC, Duke may be the only ACC team in the preseason top 25. The league lost a stunning amount of its best players. Boston College (Jared Dudley) and Florida State (Al Thornton) each lost a first-round pick. Georgia Tech (Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton) lost two. Maryland must replace three double-digit scorers (D.J. Strawberry, Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe).

Virginia Tech is headed back to rebuilding mode after losing its stellar backcourt of Jamon Gordon (the league's 2006-07 Defensive Player of the Year) and Zabian Dowdell. Just about everyone will be rooting for Wake Forest, whose young players will have to deal with the sudden death of their coach, but the Deacons are still rebuilding themselves. There are even questions surrounding the Blue Devils, who are painfully thin on the inside.

UNC has a real shot at going undefeated in the ACC. The Tar Heels have one of the nation's top point guards (Tywon Lawson), one of the nation's top big men (Tyler Hansbrough) and a shooting guard (Wayne Ellington) with the tools to be a star. The roster also features some experienced role players and some promising young big men. Nobody else in the league can match that kind of firepower.

On the Horizon

I'm wondering why the Horizon League does not get more attention. I realize it's not a major conference, but it has sent teams to the Sweet 16 in three of the past four years (2003, 2005 and 2006) and has had other significant NCAA Tournament victories in the past decade.

-- Bob Murphy from Spring, Texas

Here's a short-and-sweet answer: a lack of depth. Conferences, particularly the mid-major leagues, are judged not on how far one of their teams goes in the NCAA Tournament, but rather how many teams reach the NCAA Tournament.

Once you got past Butler and Wright State last season, the rest of the Horizon League looked subpar. Loyola (Ill.) was the only other team to go above .500 in league play at 10-6. Wisconsin-Green Bay (18-15, 7-9) was the only other squad to finish above .500 overall.

In 2005-06, only two Horizon teams went above .500 in league play: Wisconsin-Milwaukee (12-4) and Butler (11-5).

If the Horizon League wants more respect, a couple of teams from the middle of the pack must emerge and start consistently competing for postseason bids. Until that happens, it always will be considered a step or two below the Missouri Valley Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association.

Bear market

What can we expect from Cal this season? I know they lost a good guard in Ayinde Ubaka, but Devon Hardin's decision to pull out of the draft should give them a big inside presence. Plus, Ryan Anderson was the best freshman in the Pac-10 last season (sorry, Chase Budinger).

-- Evan from San Francisco

I think more than likely Cal fans are going to find their team on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The Bears have a rising star in Anderson, who might have been the Pac-10 freshman of the year if the Bears had done a little better. The 6-10 forward with deep shooting range proved to be a big matchup problem for the rest of the league, averaging a team-high 16.4 ppg and 8.1 rpg. With the 6-11 Hardin back and healthy, Anderson will be able to spend more time on the perimeter - where he is most dangerous.

Hardin isn't going to be a big offensive threat, but he's a good shot blocker and rebounder. That is exactly what the team lacked the most last season.

If Ubaka were back, I'd feel more comfortable about Cal's chances of getting back to the Big Dance. But the guard play looks shaky, in part because of the departure of Omar Wilkes, who chose to stop playing and give up his final year of eligibility.

Sophomore Patrick Christopher has the talent to be an All-Pac-10 player someday and should emerge as a solid No. 2 option on offense. But I'm not sure Jerome Randle, the heir apparent at point guard, is ready to run the offense. The backcourt will be young and inexperienced.

Consider how strong the Pac-10 looks Cal (No. 33) is one of eight teams from the league in Rivals.com's preseason top 64 and I think the Bears are going to have an up-and-down year that will lead to a close call come Selection Sunday.

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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