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July 2, 2008

Mailbag: Why no love for the Hokies?

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
June 25: Aggie expectations
June 18: Surprise contenders
June 11: Terps in trouble

North Carolina will open the season as a heavy favorite to win the national title and Duke probably will start the season somewhere in the top 15. No surprise there.

The other ACC programs generating offseason buzz are Miami and Wake Forest. The Hurricanes return four starters from a team that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and the Demon Deacons are adding the nation's No. 3 recruiting class.

A Virginia Tech fan is wondering why the Hokies aren't getting more love. The Hokies also return four starters from a team that finished one game ahead of the Hurricanes in the ACC standings last season. Yet the Hokies didn't get an NCAA invitation.

Why does Virginia Tech keep getting overlooked? We delve into that question in this week's mailbag.

What about us?

It seems like no one is mentioning the Virginia Tech basketball team going into next season. All we really lost was Deron Washington (more of an emotional leader than a prolific scorer) off a team that got royally snubbed out of the tournament. We have one of the most underrated hot-shots in the country in A.D. Vassallo and a young but talented group of sophomores who had loads of playing time last season. How good can they be?

– Stephen from Blacksburg, Va.

I can understand why Hokies fans remain upset about this past season. If Tyler Hansbrough doesn't hit a last-second jumper to give North Carolina a two-point win over Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament, the Hokies may have been part of the field of 65. That's what prompted coach Seth Greenberg to utter one of the quotes of the year: "If you don't think this team is one of the top 65 teams in the country, you are certifiably insane."

Greenberg was right. But that doesn't mean he or you should feel slighted. The reality was that the Hokies' résumé didn't warrant an at-large bid. While they went 9-7 in ACC play, none of those victories came against the four league teams (North Carolina, Duke, Clemson or Miami) that went to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the Hokies did not have a single win over an NCAA Tournament team in the regular season (they did beat Miami in the ACC Tournament). They also had losses to three teams outside the top 100 in the RPI: Old Dominion, Penn State and Richmond.

I do agree with you about the Hokies being underrated this season. They were extraordinarily young this past season. Five freshmen were part of the rotation, including two starters: point guard Malcom Delaney and big man Jeff Allen. Delaney came on strong at the end of the season, scoring in double figures in the last five games. Allen was steady all year, ranking first on the team in rebounding and third in scoring; he also was second in the league in steals, a particularly impressive feat for a post player.

I don't think replacing Washington's offense will be a big concern. Vassallo proved he could be a go-to scorer last season, raising his scoring average from 11.1 points per game to 16.9. The big question is rebounding. The Hokies were an undersized team with Washington, who was a tremendous leaper. He was one of those guys who played much bigger than his listed height of 6 feet 7.

If the Hokies can find a way to stay competitive on the glass, I think shooting for fourth or fifth place in the ACC and an NCAA Tournament bid are realistic goals.

Doubting DePaul?

How do you see DePaul doing in both conference and non-conference play?

– Randall from Romeoville, Ill.

DePaul has yet to release its schedule, but regardless of how tough the non-conference portion is, I can't see the Blue Demons doing any better than an NIT trip - and even that will be difficult.

Coach Jerry Wainwright has won a couple of big recruiting battles. Sophomores Dar Tucker and Mac Koshwal are guys he can build the program around. I think Koshwal has the tools to be one of the top players in the Big East someday.

But the Blue Demons are losing leading scorer Draelon Burns (17.6 ppg) from a team that went 11-19. The most daunting challenge won't be replacing Burns, though.

The Big East this season could be one of the toughest conferences ever. The 16-team league lost only two players (Syracuse's Donte Greene and West Virginia's Joe Alexander) early to the NBA draft. Nearly every Big East team returns a good core of experience. Eight Big East teams are in the Rivals.com preseason top 25, and I think each has realistic Final Four aspirations.

Playing opponents of that caliber consistently is going to be too much for the Blue Demons. I'd expect them to hover around .500 for most of the season.

Off the hot seat?

Do you think Georgia coach Dennis Felton deserves some breathing room with the Bulldogs' run through the SEC Tournament? The program was in such bad shape when he got there. He has been unlucky with many of his own players, who have run into off-the-court problems. That wasn't his fault. Doesn't he finally deserve a year without having to worry about being on the hot seat?

– Jonathan from Statesboro, Ga.

I've heard fans and media give Felton a lot of credit for being a disciplinarian, but I'm not really buying it.

Remember that scene in Remember the Titans when the linebacker and captain criticizes the defensive lineman for playing selfishly? The defensive lineman reminds the captain that he is supposed to be the leader and that "attitude reflects leadership."

Well, under Felton's leadership, Georgia's players have run into an extraordinary amount of off-court problems. Guard Billy Humphrey recently was kicked off the team after his third arrest since November. That makes four players Felton has kicked off the team in the past three years.

Before the start of the 2007-08 season, three players (Takais Brown, Albert Jackson and Mike Mercer) were suspended for a total of 30 games for violating the school's attendance policy for student-athletes. Brown and Mercer later were booted off the team for unspecified reasons.

Two years ago, Channing Toney chose to transfer to UAB after he was suspended for the opener. A year earlier, Wayne Arnold was told to leave after being charged in a marijuana case also involving five Georgia football players. The football players were suspended for two games apiece.

My point: When does Felton get some of the blame for his players being in so much trouble? He recruited all those mentioned above except Arnold.

Moreover, while Georgia's shocking run to the SEC Tournament title last season was impressive, I think it was more a case of fool's gold. The Bulldogs were a bad team that got hot at the right time. In five years in Athens, Felton's overall record is 75-80 and he hasn't had a winning record in SEC play.

Even with the problems Felton inherited from previous coach Jim Harrick, he has had ample time to turn things around. I think the future of the program actually may have been better served by the Bulldogs making a quick exit in the conference tourney, which probably would have led to the search for a new coach.

One sport wonder

The MAC consistently produces some good football teams. Why can't they follow suit in basketball?

– Doug from Toledo, Ohio

Good question. The MAC seems to have the resources to be one of the top mid-major leagues. They have some history of sending teams on deep NCAA Tournament runs, and many of their schools are located in fairly fertile recruiting areas and near big cities. Their rosters often are loaded with experience, including many four-year players - an advantage that the Missouri Valley Conference has used to knock off many high-major programs that have to deal with more player turnover.

But MVC schools don't have Division I-A football programs, which means basketball takes precedent. Many of their teams have great fan support. Coaches such as Creighton's Dana Altman, Southern Illinois' Chris Lowery and Wichita State's Gregg Marshall have high-major-type contracts.

You don't find that in the MAC, where the football programs get the best resources.

Kent State coach Jim Christian left this offseason to take over a struggling TCU program. Christian was making $250,000 a year at Kent State. He will make between $600,000 and $800,000 at TCU. Christian replaced Stan Heath, who in his first year at Kent State took the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight. That shocking postseason run earned Heath the Arkansas job.

As for the league's stature, Ohio University coach Tim O'Shea left last week to coach at Bryant, a school that is beginning the transition to Division I.

Until the MAC starts shelling out the kind of money to hold onto their coaches, they will not start producing some of the top mid-major teams.

BIG (East) representation

I'm hearing that the Big East could send nine teams to the NCAA Tournament. Is that really possible?

– Dan from Mahwah, N.J.

Absolutely. I'd be surprised if the Big East doesn't send at least eight, matching the totals in 2006 and '08.

The league has more talent and experience than in either of those years. I expect all eight Big East teams in our current preseason top 25 to reach the NCAA Tournament.

The ninth team probably will be Syracuse. The Orange narrowly missed the past two NCAA Tournaments, and it's tough to imagine Jim Boeheim spending three consecutive seasons in the NIT. Even with Greene's loss, the Orange return one of the league's most talented rotations and get guards Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins back from knee injuries. Devendorf averaged 14.8 points two seasons ago, when Rautins added 7.2 points per game from the bench. Those two will help shore up the depth issues that hurt the Orange so much this past season.

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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