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November 5, 2008

Mailbag: Who's ranked too high early?

Got a question? Click here to send it to Skwara's Mailbag

Preseason rankings don't matter nearly as much in college basketball as college football.

Starting out too low doesn't cost you a chance to play in the title game. The rankings don't have a direct influence on the NCAA tournament selection committee and how it goes about seeding, which are the numbers that college basketball coaches and players care about most. But that doesn't mean the recently released preseason polls don't generate interest.

The polls offer the first chance to see where each team stacks up. Some fan bases believe their teams are ranked far too low, and some can't figure out why their team wasn't ranked at all. There are even the rare few who believe their team is ranked too high.

In this week's mailbag, we pick apart what the pollsters got wrong and much more.

Top 25 surprises?

Jim from Cincinnati : We all knew North Carolina would be No. 1, but did anything surprise you about the preseason polls?

Memphis (No. 13 in The Associated Press poll and No. 12 in the coaches' poll) was a little higher than I expected. I don't think the voters are taking into account just how much the Tigers lost. Gone are the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft (Derrick Rose), their leading scorer (Chris Douglas-Roberts) and the anchor of their defense (Joey Dorsey).

Arizona State (No. 15 in both polls) seems a little too high. The Sun Devils return everyone from a team that missed the NCAA tournament albeit narrowly and are ranked ahead of Miami (17th/16th) and Marquette (16th/17th), which both return the nucleus of squads that made it into the field of 65.

Another head-scratcher was San Diego not receiving any votes in either poll. The Toreros return virtually everyone from a team that won an NCAA tournament game, something league rivals Gonzaga and Saint Mary's couldn't manage. Yet Gonzaga (10th/11th) was voted well inside the top 25, and Saint Mary's just missed being in both polls.

Turning TCU around

Shane from Fort Worth, Texas : How quickly do you think new coach Jim Christian can turn around the TCU program?

More quickly than many may think. On the surface, TCU looks like a long-term rebuilding project. The Horned Frogs are coming off three consecutive losing seasons and have won only 25 percent (12 of 48) of their Mountain West games since joining the league three years ago.

But they landed arguably the best possible candidate available in Christian. Kent State won at least 20 games in each of Christian's six seasons at the MAC school. The Golden Flashes missed the postseason just once under Christian, going to the NCAA tournament twice and the NIT three times. It takes a lot more than a few lucky bounces to produce a run like that.

Christian is a great motivator and, most important, knows how to find prospects ignored by high majors who can excel at the mid-major level.

Christian's first year in Fort Worth will be rough. It would have been rough regardless of who took the job. Only four scholarship players (two starters) return from a team that won six league games. But by 2009-10, I think Christian will have the Horned Frogs contending for a spot in the upper half of the MWC standings. He and his staff put together an eight-man recruiting class that includes three junior-college prospects. Give that group a year in Christian's system, and they should develop into a solid core.

Talking Tech

Odis from Chicago : How does Georgia Tech look this year? Will the absence of D'Andre Bell hurt them?

Georgia Tech fans shouldn't hope for anything more than an NIT bid.

Losing Bell, who will miss the season because of a spinal condition, isn't the problem. Bell was a solid contributor last season, but far from irreplaceable. He averaged 6.6 points and 4.1 rebounds.

The real issue is losing their two best players Anthony Morrow and Jeremis Smith from a team that missed the NIT. The Yellow Jackets went 15-17 last season with Morrow scoring a team-high 14.3 points per game and Smith averaging 10.5 points (second on the team) and grabbing a team-high 7.1 rebounds per game.

It's tough to see anyone who loses that kind of production getting better, but the Yellow Jackets are capable of finishing as high as seventh and getting into the NIT. I think junior shooting guard Lewis Clinch finally will have his breakthrough season. Point guard also will be upgraded with the return of sophomore Maurice Miller (8.1 ppg) and the addition of promising freshman Iman Shumpert, their only newcomer. The bottom half of the ACC is full of mediocre teams, which should make their path a little easier.

Looking for youth

Curtis from Las Vegas : Is there a younger team out there than the Arkansas Razorbacks?

I didn't have time to scour the rosters of all 341 Division I teams, but Arkansas has to rank at or near the top of the nation's youngest teams and also the most inexperienced.

The roster includes six true freshmen, one junior-college transfer and zero seniors. Only four players return, and only two (juniors Stefan Welsh and Michael Washington) played significant minutes last season. Saying second-year coach John Pelphrey has his work cut out for him would be putting it mildly.

Welsh is the Razorbacks' leading returning scorer at a whopping 5.3 points per game, and Washington is the leading returning rebounder at 3.9 per game.

The good news for Arkansas is that the six-man recruiting class that Pelphrey and his staff put together was ranked 16th in the nation. Four-star prospects Courtney Fortson and Jason Henry have the physical tools to help immediately, and three-star shooting guard Rotnei Clarke will add a new weapon to utilize with his quick release and excellent accuracy from 3-point range.

Scouting St. John's

Kenny from Massapequa Park, N.Y. : How does it look for St. John's this year? Can they contend for an NCAA invitation?

Just contending for an NIT bid should be the focus of the players if they want to save the job of coach Norm Roberts.

Roberts is squarely on the hot seat after four years at the Big East school without a single postseason bid. Three of those have been losing campaigns, including last season, which ended with an 11-19 mark.

I don't see anything different unfolding for the Red Storm this season. In fact, things could get worse. They were picked 14th in the Big East preseason poll and the league looks tougher than ever before. More than likely, this is Roberts' last season - and that is probably better for the future of the program.

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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