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Syracuse's strength, Boatright's shortcomings and more mailbag

A lot of people who are not college basketball fans -- or even sports fans in general -- have been talking about Syracuse basketball the last three weeks. This, of course, is for all the wrong reasons. But there is a parallel story in play that has been obscured by the Bernie Fine scandal -- namely, that this is the best team that Syracuse has had since Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara led the Orange to the NCAA championship in 2003. Imagine, if you will, what it will be like if the Orange return to the Final Four. That won't just be a sports story, it will be a news story. Fine's specter will hover everywhere in New Orleans that weekend.

In the meantime, the Fine story appears to be subsiding a tad as the basketball season resumes something close to its normal rhythm. Frankly, it's awkward for me to assess Syracuse from a purely basketball standpoint right now; the last thing I want to do is come across as insensitive to the tragedy of child abuse. It will be some time before we have all the information we need about what Fine did (or didn't do), and whether the school, and Jim Boeheim in particular, properly handled information that could have tipped them off. In the meantime, I'm going to gingerly -- and I hope, respectfully -- begin this first edition of my college basketball mailbag by fielding a question about the 'Cuse that is strictly about basketball. For a change.

As far as my Orange are concerned, I think it's a little early to question playing time, especially on such a deep team. I will say that I LOVE Michael Carter-Williams and believe he has a bright future if not an NBA one, and Rakeem Christmas will have opportunities to play. These guys have quality upperclassmen in front of them. I love this team's talent but I don't like that we have so many guys or that our two biggest weaknesses are rebounding and ball security. Thoughts?

Jeff Wright, Orleans, Mass.

Jeff is reacting to a point I made in a previous Hoop Thoughts column declaring my surprise that Boeheim wasn't getting more production out of his two heralded freshmen. I must admit, in doing so I fell into a line of thinking which I have frequently criticized. Too often, we quote-unquote experts expect freshmen to have an immediate major impact, and when they don't we declare them disappointments. Exhibit A was last year's Harrison Barnes chatter, which couldn't comprehend that it took the kid all the way until February of his freshman year to start playing like an All-American.

So I agree with both of Jeff's points about the freshmen. There is no doubt in my mind that Christmas and Carter-Williams are going to be very good college players. It's also clear their playing time has been limited by the presence of established underclassmen. (Which naturally makes them candidates for my list of breakout sophs next year.) Carter-Williams looked very impressive when I watched the team practice in October, but he has really struggled to shoot (26.9 percent from the floor, 16.7 percent from three). Meanwhile, Christmas, a raw 6-foot-9 power forward, has been getting the Fab Melo treatment. He has started every game, but Boeheim has been giving him a quick hook, and he is ranked eighth on the team in minutes played at 13 per game. I thought Boeheim really hurt Melo's confidence by doing that last year, and I fear he's now doing the same to Christmas.

As for the broader deficiencies Jeff mentioned, I don't see either as fatal. Syracuse is actually a pretty good rebounding team. They're grabbing nearly seven more boards per game than their opponents, and they're ranked sixth in the country in offensive rebound percentage. (They are, however, 248th nationally in defensive rebound percentage, which is a byproduct of playing so much zone.) As for ball security, the Orange is 43rd in the country in turnover percentage and 11th in overall offensive efficiency. I realize that Scoop Jardine will often leave fans wanting more, but you have to give the senior point guard credit for making several big-time plays down the stretch of that Florida game. And if having too many guys is this team's biggest problem ... well, that's a pretty high-class problem to have.

On to the rest of the Mailbag.....

I never doubted Austin Rivers' individual talent but do we really know he's the "real deal" when he was the only scoring option in a horrible game played by Duke [against Ohio State]? We need to see Rivers display his talent within the team's offensive scheme while keeping the others involved. We haven't seen that yet.

John Owusu, Glenn Dale, Maryland

I certainly agree with John on one thing: It is way too early to draw definitive conclusions about Rivers. But that works both ways, right? Several people have dissected Rivers's inconsistent play and concluded that he is struggling, or that he's overrated, or that he's a bad teammate. I don't think any of those things are true.

Put down the spreadsheets for a second and watch the kid play. Does he not look like a big-time talent? The fact that Duke was struggling against Ohio State only strengthened my observation that Rivers is legit. On a night where too many of his older teammates showed absolutely no fight, Rivers made himself the hardest player on his team to guard.

As for his lack of ability to get others involved in the offense, this is the area of his game which needs to improve the most. From everything I've heard out of Durham, Rivers has a burning desire to learn and a genuine understanding of how much he doesn't know. Frankly, it bothers me when people extrapolate playing deficiencies into character flaws. Rivers has a natural scowl and he needs to work on his body language. But he's also a 19-year-old kid who oozes with potential. Believe me, there's not a coach in America who wouldn't love to have Rivers on his team and in his locker room. It's only a matter of time -- and I believe it will be a short time -- before he starts to figure it all out.

Just wondering. You do know San Diego State is eligible for your AP Top 25 vote, right? Maybe they should lose more games to top-10 teams, and win the rest against more top-25 teams on the road. SDSU apologizes for being in San Diego in a conference with at least three NCAA tournament teams.

Mike, Los Angeles

Just wondering, Mike: You do know there are only 25 spots available on my ballot, right? I'm all for fan enthusiasm, but game results can be stubborn.

San Diego State has actually played a pretty good schedule thus far. The Aztecs had Creighton -- whom I ranked 20th last week -- on their own home floor two weeks ago, and they built a 17-point first half lead. Then they unraveled in the second half and lost by two. They also played a road game against a Baylor team that was without its best player, Perry Jones, and still lost by 10. And on Sunday, they played a California team at home that had gotten blistered by Missouri by 39 and beat it by one point. And no, I did not rank Cal last week, either.

The Aztecs were fourth last week in "others receiving votes," so they're clearly knocking at the door of the top 25. In the meantime, let me tip my hat to what Steve Fisher has done here. Think about it: San Diego State is a midmajor program that lost its top four scorers from a team that won 34 games and reached the Sweet Sixteen. And here we are barely a month into the season, and we're having a healthy debate over whether they should be ranked. This Aztecs team is obviously not as good as last year's -- as the loss to Creighton proved, the defense is a little suspect, and their foul shooting has been atrocious -- but it is well worth watching as the weeks unfold. Just keep winning, Mike, and the ranking will come.

It's funny that you bring up that you are mystified that after four years Lewis Jackson has not been able to develop a long range jump shot. I think most Purdue fans are ecstatic that he is hitting 30 percent of his threes ... because Lewis might be the worst perimeter shooting guard in the country! This is progress.

Steve Winbun, Lafayette, Ind.

With fans like these, who needs haters?

My point about Jackson, who has made three of his 12 three-point attempts through the Boilermakers' first five games, was that I thought he would make more improvement by his senior year. It would be less mystifying if Jackson had otherwise shown that he was not a good shooter, but he's making a respectable 45.6 percent of his shots and a career-best 72.7 percent of his free throws.

Still, I do not want to fall into the trap of looking at Jackson and only pointing out all the things he's not. He's not tall, and he's not a three-point threat, but he does a lot of things well. He has become a dependable midrange shooter, plus he's a tenacious ball hawk, an effective rebounder, and of course I love his speed in the open floor. Moreover, Jackson has mastered a lot of the nuances of the point guard position which bedeviled him during his first two college seasons. If Purdue makes it back to the NCAA tournament, Jackson will be a major reason why.

I was at the UConn-Arkansas game, and I'd like your expert opinion. Is Ryan Boatright better than Kemba Walker was as a freshman? He was quite impressive this weekend. The big difference I notice is he can shoot. Kemba had no shot as a freshman.

Ken, Cheshire, Connecticut

Well, that didn't take long, did it? Boatright's career is all of two games old, and already he's drawing a comparison to one of the best guards to play college basketball in the last decade.

I'm sure Ken would be the first to agree that Boatright has a loooooong way to go before we can start putting him in Walker's class overall. But his point is well-taken: At this very early stage, Boatright appears to be a more polished offensive player than Walker was as a freshman. Let's line up the numbers:

So Walker averaged 14.1 points per 40 minutes, and Boatright is averaging 21.8. Advantage, Boatright. And Boatright's shooting percentages are higher across the board. Another advantage Boatright has is that while Walker had to fight a senior (A.J. Price) and a junior (Jerome Dyson) for playing time, Boatright is able to play alongside a pair of sophomores in Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier who are clearly more comfortable playing off the ball.

On the other hand, it's worth pointing out that as small as Walker is, he fairly towers over Boatright, who is listed rather generously at six feet and 160 pounds. In the end, what truly differentiated Walker was his heart. He worked hard to improve every offseason, and he brought UConn to the promised land last season through sheer will. I love Boatright's poise and his talent, but until he shows that he has the heart of a champion, he'll remain a poor man's Kemba Walker. Which is a pretty good compliment when you think about it.

I am a huge Tom Izzo fan and understand that he has a young team. The tough schedule should help them in the Big Ten games. Does he have enough talent to make it to the dance? Or should we wait until next year?

Craig Becker, Cave Creek, Ariz.

First of all, let me compliment Craig on his reasonable expectations. I'm sure most Michigan State fans have higher aspirations than simply making the NCAA tournament. So to answer the question, yes, I do believe this is an NCAA tournament team. But I would recommend that Spartans fans follow Craig's lead and keep their expectations modest.

I actually ranked the Spartans 19th on my AP ballot this week, but my fellow voters left them unranked. I have two overriding concerns about them right now. The first is the point guard situation. Keith Appling is manning the position out of necessity because of Korie Lucious's dismissal last year, but Appling still doesn't look comfortable in the role. (Though he did score a career-high 24 points in the win over Florida State.) As I've said before, the best case scenario for Michigan State would be to have freshman Travis Trice, who unlike Appling is a natural point guard, develop into starter.

My second concern surrounds sophomore center Adreian Payne. He had a lot of shoulder problems during the summer before his freshman year which hindered his development, but it's clear he is a long way from being a dependable post scorer. Payne always seems a half-step behind the action on both ends of the floor. If the Spartans are going to pull one of their trademark March surprises, they'll need more from their man in the middle.

Aaron Craft may be the best point guard in the nation, but Scott Machado from Iona College (my alma mater) must be mentioned in the same discussion. The MAAC may not be the Big Ten, but his stats are better than Craft's in every major category.

Neil Brady, Carrollton, Texas

I have no problem with anyone claiming that Machado, Iona's 6-1, 180-pound senior, is the best point guard in America. (As I noted in my Hoop Thoughts column, ESPN's Doug Gottlieb, who watches as much video as anyone, has argued just that.) Machado and Craft actually have similar games. Machado is a little bigger and stronger, but he's not a blazing athlete in the John Wall-Derrick Rose mold. Rather, Machado is strong, efficient and savvy, and he has worked hard to improve his long-range shooting (39.1 percent from three, up from 32,0 percent as a junior).

Still, if I could have one point guard in America running my college team this evening, it would be Craft. Offensively, he is at least comparable to Machado, Kendall Marshall, Jordan Taylor et al. But I don't think any other point guard compares to Craft when it comes to playing defense. It's not just his steals (which number 4.1 per 40 minutes, compared to Machado's 2.5), but as my colleague Luke Winn has pointed out, Craft is extremely effective at forcing opposing ballhandlers into situations where his teammates can get steals as well. Some defenders are great on the ball while others excel at attacking the passing lanes. Craft is the rare example of someone who is great at both.

Finally, I know that any time I do a "list" column, I'm going to get a few incredulous e-mails pointing out that I forgot so-and-so. That was the case with this week's column featuring my 10 breakout sophomores. Here are a few extra assessments requested by my fellow Hoop Thinkers:

(Suggested by Jason Sesco, Columbus, Ohio)

Fr: 14.0 mins, 7.5 pts, 3.5 rebs, 32.8% fg

Soph: 25.1 mins, 12.9 pts, 4.0 rebs, 29.2% 3fg

Thomas only narrowly missed out on being included. The two things that gave me pause were his declining three-point shooting and the fact that his rebound average only jumped seven percent even though he is playing 64 percent more minutes. Still, Thomas is emerging as a dependable commodity for the Buckeyes. He showed in the Duke game (18 points on 8 for 12 shooting) that when he is a factor on offense, the Buckeyes are nearly impossible to defend.

(Justin Flanagan, New York City)

Fr: 5.6 mins, 2.2 pts, 0.8 assts, 34.1% fg

Soph: 18.4 mins, 6.4 pts, 2.0 assts, 29.6% fg

I like Smith's moxie, but I would hardly consider him a breakout candidate. His increased minutes have largely resulted from injuries to Mike Marra, Peyton Siva, Wayne Blackshear and Elisha Justice. Marra won't return this season, but Siva is already back and the other two will return at some point. Smith will ably hold down the fort for a while, but I don't envision him becoming a major part of the Cardinals' rotation when they're at full strength.

(Dan Parker, Santa Barbara, CA)

Fr: 28.4 mins, 12.3 pts, 2.0 rebs, 1.6 assts, 48.6% 3fg

Soph: 30.4 mins, 14.4 pts, 4.1 rebs, 2.8 assts, 50.0% 3fg

I am a big Doron Lamb fan -- I could make a case that he is Kentucky's best player right now -- but as you can see his numbers are pretty much in line with where they were last season. You can't call him a breakout sophomore, but you can call him a great player on a great team.

(Don Burnette, Richmond, Va.)

Fr: 29.4 mins, 10.4 pts, 4.4 rebs, 1.3 assts, 41.8% fg, 75.9% ft

Soph: 29.2 mins, 12.4 pts, 3.8 rebs, 1.8 assts, 45.5% fg, 90.6% ft

There is basically no difference between Harris's numbers from his freshman to sophomore years, save for an impressive uptick in his foul shooting. He may not be a breakout candidate right now, but he's worth watching -- and so are the Cavs, who I think are going to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.

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