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October 1, 2008

Mailbag: Michigan State fans hoping for more

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Most fan bases would be ecstatic with one trip to the Final Four every four seasons.

But, Michigan State isn't most fan bases. MSU fans who last saw their beloved Spartans go to the Final Four in 2005 and lose to eventual champion North Carolina in the semifinals are eager to find out when they will be back to college basketball's promised land.

Spartans supporters have good reason to be excited. Seven of the top nine scorers return from a team that went to the Sweet 16 last season, and the talent-laden program has added another top-25 recruiting class.

Just how far will the Spartans go? Is this the year they get back to the Final Four? We examine those questions and much more in this week's mailbag.

Final Four return?

AJ from Portsmouth, N.H.: Do you see Michigan State becoming a Final Four team anytime soon?

I have my reservations about the Spartans. I know they have a history of thriving in the postseason under Tom Izzo, but they have woefully underachieved in the regular season in recent years.

The Spartans finished fourth in the Big Ten last season. The previous year they finished in a tie for seventh and the year before that it was a tie for sixth. The Spartans haven't actually finished first since 2000-01 and they haven't won the league outright since 1998-99 (if you count the games Ohio State vacated in 1999-00 per NCAA sanctions).

I know it's just the regular season and that doesn't matter all that much in college basketball, but I still find it a concern. Michigan State is supposed to be one of the flagship programs in the Big Ten and one of the elite programs in the nation. They shouldn't have trouble competing for the regular-season title in their league.

You can't question the Spartans' talent level. The roster is loaded with four- and five-star recruits. But, I could see this team stumbling its way through league play once again and nabbing the kind of seed in the NCAA Tournament maybe a No. 5 or No. 6 that leaves too difficult a road to reach the Final Four.

In the zone

Matt from Redding, Calif. : I want to start by saying that I agree with your assessment of the impact of moving the 3-point line back. What I don't know is how this change will affect the zone defense. Isn't the zone designed to encourage low-percentage shots? Will the change make zone defenses more or less effective?

Interesting question. Most zone defenses, especially the commonly played 2-3, are designed to make it tougher to get the ball on the inside and force teams to shoot 3-pointers.

I think it's going to be a little tougher to do that with the 3-point line moving back a foot. There will be more space to cover inside the arc. It will be easier to get the ball into the paint, especially in the high post area, which is often the first move in trying to break a zone.

I'm not fully convinced we will see less zone, at least not next season while everyone is making adjustments. With a deeper 3-point line, coaches probably will be more tempted to play traditional zones against poor outside shooting teams who are now at an even bigger disadvantage.

Gopher hopes

Joseph from Bloomington, Minn. : What do you expect from the Minnesota Gophers this year?

No better or worse than fifth place than the Big Ten. I can't see the Gophers finishing in front of Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin or Ohio State. Those teams have considerably more talent and experience.

But, there are no other Big Ten teams with a legitimate chance of making the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers lost a lot of production, but they are more talented now thanks to the addition of a recruiting class ranked No. 23 in the nation. The five-man class features the nation's No. 4-ranked junior college prospect in Devron Bostick.

I also think Minnesota is a great place for Tubby Smith. He has thrived at schools that didn't have huge expectations check out what he did at Tulsa and Georgia. He'll squeeze all that can be squeezed out of this team, and playing in a league where the bottom half remains sub-par will help the Gophers finish above .500 in conference play and get back to the NIT.

Strong again

Travis from Elk Grove, Calif.: Where do you see Gonzaga come tournament time with a tougher West Coast Conference?

I'm actually working on a preview of Gonzaga this week. Our daily countdown of the top 65 teams reached No. 16 Kansas today. I can't say exactly where Gonzaga will fall, but the fact it hasn't made an appearance yet tells you we think pretty highly of the 'Zags.

I've heard people say this will be the best Gonzaga team ever, and I agree. They basically have the same team as last year minus glue guy David Pendergraft. I think the difference is that Steven Gray and Austin Daye a pair of former top-50 prospects are going to be sophomores. Both should be significantly improved, and the team won't have to rely so much on a pair of true freshmen anymore.

I also really like how the pieces fit on this Bulldogs team. They seem to have one guy who can fit each role as opposed to two or three guys that do the same thing, which you see on a lot of teams. Veteran point guard Jeremy Pargo, who withdrew from the NBA draft, is the playmaker who can take defenders off the dribble and break down defenses. Gray is a great outside shooter. He shot 46.3 percent (37-for-80) from 3-point range last season. Junior wing Matt Bouldin can do a little bit of everything. Senior center Josh Heytvelt (6-11) and Daye (6-10) give the 'Zags the size to match up with anyone on the inside, and each can score on his own.

The WCC is going to be tough again. It could be better than last season. But, I think that will actually work in Gonzaga's favor. After sending three teams to the 2008 NCAA Tournament, the league has more respect in the public eye. In the past, the 'Zags have always had to count on a tough non-conference schedule to raise their RPI enough to garner a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now, they have the opportunity to win league games that will boost their RPI.

The 'Zags are going to be a serious threat to get past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament regardless of where they finish in the WCC. If Heytvelt, who was hampered by a leg injury last season, returns to his sophomore form, I believe they will go even further.

Fitting in

David from Memphis : How would a true big man (6-10 to 7-2) fit in at Tennessee or the University of Memphis considering the styles of basketball they play?

You don't have to be 6-10 to be a "true" big man. Look at Memphis last season with Joey Dorsey, who measured at 6-6 at the NBA pre-draft camp. Dorsey was one of the top rebounders and shot blockers in the nation.

The way that Memphis utilized Dorsey was unique, though. Dorsey didn't set up on the low blocks and look for the ball. He didn't spend much time setting picks either. In the Tigers' drive-and-dish offense, Dorsey mainly hung out on one of the baselines. If his defender was pulled away by a drive, he would often get a pass for a wide-open dunk. If not, he crashed the boards.

It's much different at Tennessee. Center Wayne Chism (6-9) is much more skilled and touches the ball frequently on the perimeter. Chism has the green light from 3-point range.

I think a lot of it depends on the skills of the big man himself. You may not see Memphis ever build its team around a low-post scorer as long as John Calipari is there, but to a large degree they will adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of their post players.

Ready in Waco

Randy from Waco, Texas: What do you think of Baylor's chance at winning the Big 12 this year?

Baylor could be better than we project. The Bears are No. 28 in our preseason countdown. But, I don't see any way they can do better than second.

The more I look at the Big 12, the more I'm convinced Texas is the team to beat. The Longhorns return four starters. Yes, I know they lost the best one when D.J. Augustin left school early and was drafted in the first round. However, look at how the Longhorns have recently replaced previous stars. After losing Kevin Durant, everybody's national player of the year in 2006-07, they won 31 games. After losing Big 12 Player of the Year P.J. Tucker, they won 25 games.

This team will have a lot more depth and experience than its two predecessors. A.J. Abrams is one of the nation's top outside shooters, and Damion James played like one of the nation's top players down the stretch last season. Junior guard Justin Mason and senior center Connor Atchley are underrated veterans, and there is also an extraordinary amount of promising big men who will wear down opponents.

Baylor has an impressive crop of guards who will cause matchup problems for everyone the Bears face. But, they have a lot more question marks than the Longhorns - especially on the inside. Just finishing in second is going to be a difficult task. Oklahoma and its star big man Blake Griffin (projected by some draft analysts as the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft) may open the season as the league favorite ahead of Texas. While defending national champ Kansas lost five starters, it reloaded with a top-five recruiting class.

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com. Got a question for Andrew's Mailbag? Click here to drop him a note.

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