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December 7, 2007

Could Texas be better without Durant?

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
Nov. 30: No challenge?
Nov. 23: Pac-10 pride
Nov. 13: Rank the frontcourts

The concept that Texas could actually be better off without Kevin Durant is one even Longhorns fans have trouble grasping.

An 8-0 start that has featured wins over No. 10 Tennessee and No. 7 UCLA would indicate that's the case. But nobody can actually improve after losing someone as good as Durant, right?

We explore that question, along with ones about whether the Big Ten is overrated, when Michigan will return to the NCAA Tournament, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's substitution patterns and what kind of expectations we should have for Maryland and Miami in this week's mailbag.


Better off?

Do you think this season's Longhorns are better than they were last season, even without Kevin Durant? It seems like they are, but I'm still trying to figure out why. (Though maybe I shouldn't; I'm quite enjoying the run.)

-- Brandon Harvill from Austin, Texas

I've had a tough time coming to grips with the idea that a team can improve after losing a player like Durant. But after watching the Longhorns dominate a talented Tennessee team in person, then watching them beat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion last week, I'm convinced that is the case.

Durant's departure means point guard D.J. Augustin has the ball more, which has made the Longhorns more efficient and balanced on offense. A great ball-handler and playmaker, Augustin is having a lot more influence than he did last season. He makes a big decision on most of the possessions.

More important, Augustin has made this team his. He has become more of a vocal leader than Durant, giving a young team someone to follow. He isn't afraid to criticize or praise a teammate on the court.

Augustin, guard Justin Mason and power forward Damion James played a lot as freshmen last season. Players normally make their biggest improvements from their freshmen to sophomore seasons, and Mason and James are playing with a lot more confidence.

Texas still has some weaknesses. The Longhorns lack a shot-blocking threat and are an average rebounding team at best (that will change if freshman power forward Gary Johnson is cleared to play). But with Augustin in control and a bevy of improved role players, this team clearly has gotten better.

Not buying the Big Ten

I think the Big Ten is not only vastly overrated in football (Ohio State going to the title game is laughable), but in basketball as well. Do you agree? The media praises the league, but it doesn't prove it on the field or the court.

-- Ken Broward from Port Richey, Fla.

Not sure about the so-called media hype or the Big Ten's perception on the gridiron, but I concur when it comes to the league getting a little more love than it deserves on the hardwood.

Coaches from the six major conferences often like to say, "We're just as good as any other league out there." That's simply not the case with the Big Ten.

The ACC has won all nine of the ACC/Big Ten Challenges, including eight of the 11 games in each of the past two years. Big Ten supporters like to point out how well the league has done in recent NCAA Tournaments, but the reality is that the Big Ten isn't as deep as the ACC or the other BCS conferences.

That may never be the case more than this season. As usual, Northwestern is a pushover. Michigan and Iowa, which used to be contenders, are rebuilding. The Wolverines lost to Harvard, and the Hawkeyes lost to Louisiana-Monroe. Penn State hasn't been much better. The Nittany Lions lost all three of their games in the Old Spice Classic, against South Carolina, UCF and Rider.

Things aren't so great at the top, either. Even Indiana, perhaps the second-best team in the league, was beaten by 15 points at Xavier (80-65).

The Big Ten is going to get better. The coaches and the recent recruiting classes are too good for many of those teams to stay down much longer. But, for now, it is a level, maybe two, below the other BCS conferences.

Questioning Coach K

We hear all the hype about how Coach K has changed. There is talk that he will run more and go deep on his bench. He has the talent to do that, but he is not using it. In all the tough games, seven guys play heavy minutes, and others sit and watch. They will not be ready when crunch time comes. Why not play 10 guys, run an up-tempo style and play everybody significant minutes?

-- John Woods from Raleigh, N.C.

I think you raise a valid point about the short bench.

Duke has looked great so far, beating Illinois and Marquette in Hawaii, knocking off Wisconsin at home and edging Davidson on the road on its way to an 8-0 start. All four opponents could land in the NCAA Tournament.

But lack of depth has hurt Duke in recent seasons. J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams often were worn down by the end of the ACC Tournament. The same could be said last season for Josh McRoberts.

This is the time of year when coaches should be tinkering with their rotations. Getting freshmen Nolan Smith and Taylor King and sophomore Brian Zoubek some quality playing time is more important than winning a non-conference game right now. That trio hasn't played much against the top opponents.

At some point this season, some starters are going to get into foul trouble and those guys will be asked to play. If someone gets injured, they could even be asked to start. Unless they start playing more, they won't be ready.

Wishing for a Wolverine revival

Do you think with the hiring of John Beilein, Michigan will make it back to its supremacy of the early 1990s, or even to the Big Dance any time soon?

-- Mark from Zeeland, Mich.

Your Wolverines will be dancing again before the end of the decade. I have little doubt Beilein will turn the program around and turn it around quickly, regardless of whether he lands some of the state's top prospects. He has won wherever he has been.

In a recent survey of 82 Division I coaches (conducted by The Seattle Times), Beilein received the most votes for which coach is the best at formulating strategy and which coach wins the most with the least talent.

As far as returning to the glory days of Glen Rice and Chris Webber, you may have to wait another decade or two. Just getting to the Final Four looks like a distant dream for the struggling Wolverines right now. Reaching back-to-back Final Fours (which the Wolverines did in 1992 and '93) seems impossible.

Hurricane watch

What do you think of Miami's chances for success this season? With the football team's pathetic season over, a lot of us down here in Dade County have turned to basketball. Are we going to get disappointed again?

-- Andres from Coral Gables, Fla.

Not unless you consider being on the NCAA Tournament bubble disappointed and anybody who has supported Miami hoops in recent years surely wouldn't.

I thought the Hurricanes were going to spend most of the season hovering around the bottom of the ACC. But wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Providence in Puerto Rico and a 19-point drubbing of St. John's on Monday have proven me wrong.

With the return of center Anthony King (he received a medical redshirt last season), the 'Canes have a presence in the paint they lacked. The emergence of sophomore guard James Dews (ranked the No. 100 prospect in the 2007 class) has given them another perimeter scoring threat to team with Jack McClinton. Dews has hit half of his 3-point attempts (15-of-30).

Teaching the Terps

How soon do you think a young Maryland team can overcome the steep learning curve?

-- Lawrence from Potomac, Md.

I think you'll see a much-improved Maryland team a month from now. They lost three senior starters, each of whom averaged double-figures in scoring. Anyone in that situation would need time to adjust.

Sophomore guards Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez were starters last season, but now they are being asked to play bigger roles. Sophomore forward Landon Milbourne has gone from barely playing to the starting lineup. Three freshmen (guards Cliff Tucker, Adrian Bowie and center Braxton Dupree) have been added to the mix.

The Terps are going to need a few more weeks to find a new identity, but I'm confident they will find it. Hayes has a high basketball IQ, and Vasquez is a playmaker who makes his teammates better. With the ball in their hands, this team will only get better.

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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