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Boasting enviable depth, 'Nova's a serious title contender; more mail


Amazing how every analyst seems willing to give Villanova some passing praise but can never pull the trigger and make the call that the team is for real. Television and radio beats us to death with the team's often-cited deficiencies (the supposed lack of frontcourt, skill, experience and depth), but analysts rarely come to the conclusion that these shortcomings simply don't come close to outweighing their positive strengths. They may not look pretty all the time, and often win ugly, but just win baby.

I'm not sure whom Andrew has been listening to, but I can assure you that this TV analyst believes that not only is Villanova for real, but this team is better than the one that reached the Final Four last season. We all know that the Wildcats have terrific guards, but I also think most people understand that the Wildcats are pretty strong inside and getting stronger by the day -- especially as freshman center Mouphtaou Yarou, who missed 11 games after coming down with Hepatitis B, improves. Yarou is only averaging 13.4 minutes, but that is not because he can't play. It's because 6-foot-8 junior forward Antonio Pena is providing 'Nova with all the paint help it needs. Pena had 14 points in 32 minutes during the Wildcats' 18-point drubbing of Notre Dame over the weekend. With Jay Wright preferring to play a four-guard lineup, there's no need to play Yarou and Pena together, but it's good to know that option is available.

Which leads me to the biggest reason I believe Villanova can win it all: depth. There are 11 players on this team who are averaging nine or minutes, and all but one is averaging 11 or more minutes. Ten guys played double-figure minutes in 'Nova's win over Seton Hall Tuesday night. Yes, the depth allows Villanova to wear teams down, but the real value is that it gives Wright so many combinations to exploit matchups, overcome foul trouble and go with a hot hand.

It also seems from afar that this team has great chemistry, with everyone eager to do his part. (Funny how winning breeds good chemistry.) For example, Taylor King was almost exclusively a long-range gunner coming out of high school, but after transferring to Villanova from Duke, he has matured into a solid defender, passer and rebounder (6.2 average in just 21.7 minutes). He is also drilling a team-best 41.9 percent from behind the arc.

There is one more reason to love Villanova, and it's the biggest one of all: Scottie Reynolds. The 6-foot-2 senior guard is the one player in the country this side of Kansas' Sherron Collins who most has the ability to lift his team to victory through sheer will. Reynolds' three-point shooting has improved dramatically over last season to 41.7 percent (from a career-low 34.9 percent as a junior), and he exploded for 36 and 27 points, respectively, in wins over Louisville and Georgetown last month. He passed the career 2,000-point mark Tuesday night, but you can't tell Reynolds' story just through statistics. He is a winner -- just ask Pittsburgh -- and I've got a feeling he's going to win a lot of games next month.

That effusive enough for you, Andrew?

Now on to the rest of the Mailbag.

It has been five years since Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech left the Big East for the ACC, with Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida, Marquette and DePaul joining the Big East that same year. Looking back, do you think that there were any clear winners or losers perhaps in terms of schools, conferences, individuals or schedules?-- Brian Steeves, Glastonbury, Conn.

This is actually a better question for Stewart Mandel, because that move (like most moves inside college sports) was made primarily for football reasons. On that basis, I'd argue that the ACC got the better end of the deal. The programs that entered the ACC have not exactly lit the world on fire as of late, but they are still traditional football powers. Louisville and Cincinnati have made some inroads on the gridiron in recent years, but there's no indication yet that those programs have that kind of staying power.

From a basketball standpoint, I'd give a slight edge to the Big East. The three schools that joined the ACC have made barely a ripple in hoops, but just by bringing Rick Pitino-led Louisville alone to a New York-based conference was a stroke of genius. Marquette is having a down year and Cincinnati is trying to get on an upswing, but those programs are pretty consistent year in and year out. And even when those two are struggling, the fan support there is still pretty high. You can't say for Miami, Virginia Tech or BC, even when they're good.

I have heard a lot of speculation that the Pac-10 might be a one bid league this year. Is it possible for the league to end up with zero bids? If USC ends up winning the Pac-10 tournament, they would receive the conference's automatic bid. The problem with that is USC has already banned itself from the postseason. So would the Pac-10 forfeit its bid with USC or would they award the regular season champ the auto bid?-- Tom Beno, Washington, D.C.

The answer to Tom's question is a simple no. USC's postseason ban includes the Pac-10 tournament, so the Trojans will not have the chance to win the league's automatic bid.

The more intriguing question is whether the Pac-10 really will send only one team to the NCAA tournament, which would be the first time that has happened to one of the big six conferences. One of the reasons I thought it would be hard for this conference to gain an at-large bid was the fact that it looked for a time like the Trojans were putting together an at-large-worthy resume. After losing five of their last seven games, however, that is no longer the case. You might think that Arizona is playing its way into the picture since it is tied with California atop the league standings, but the Wildcats' win over Cal was their first over a team ranked in the top 50 of the RPI all season. Yet they have four losses to teams outside the top 50, including one to No. 200 Oregon State. Since Cal is the only team in the league ranked in the top 50, that means Arizona needs to remain in first place plus win Feb. 25 at Berkeley to have a legitimate chance.

Meanwhile, Cal's status as an at-large candidate is not nearly as strong as its No. 23 RPI ranking might indicate. The Bears do not have any wins against the top 50 of the RPI (best win: No. 87 Arizona State), nor do they have any top-50 teams remaining on their schedule. The best-case scenario for the league would be for Cal and Arizona to remain in first place and both reach the Pac-10 tournament final. Even then the loser will have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday.

Do you have any thoughts on the officiating at the Louisville-West Virginia game? And should there be recourse when a game is so poorly refereed that the outcome is actually in question? And did you see Rick Pitino's comments after the game?-- Mel Weinberger, Rio Rico, Ariz.

I'd like to think that officials do a good job most of the time, but there's no question that they blew two calls at the end of the Louisville-West Virginia game that cost the Cardinals a chance to close out a very important road win. Judgment errors will happen from time to time, but there is no excuse from the way the refs administered the penultimate possession. When referee Mike Kitts turned his head away from the play, someone still needed to make a call about whose ball it was -- otherwise it needed to go to the possession arrow, which at the time favored Louisville. The fact that no call was made and the ball still went to West Virginia is totally inexcusable, especially since, as ESPN's Doris Burke noted on the telecast at the time, the ball appeared to have gone off of Mountaineers forward Devin Ebanks.

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The subsequent explanation provided by the Big East was even more ludicrous -- namely, that the officials did originally call it West Virginia's ball, but nobody bothered to tell either team. If nobody knew the call, how can you say they made the call?

There's no recourse that can be done to fix this, nor should there be. Stuff happens. I understand Pitino's frustration afterward, but I also think that coaches overly fixate on referee errors as opposed to the dozens of things that happen during the course of a game that decide the outcome, including coaching mistakes. Still, since Louisville was also victimized two weeks ago by the violation that wasn't called in the last minute of a loss to Seton Hall, it's perfectly understandable why a guy in his situation would vent his frustration at the zebras. I'm only disappointed I didn't get to listen to the telephone call I'm sure Pitino placed to Big East commissioner John Marinatto afterward. Bet that was juicy.

Are you ready to apologize to Commodore Nation yet? Ten-game winning streak (and sitting atop the SEC) including wins on the road against a ranked Tennessee team, South Carolina and Alabama. They've got all the components to make a deep run in March.-- Kent, Chicago

I make no apologies for waiting until Vanderbilt beat a ranked team before putting them on my ballot, but I did give the Commodores their just rewards by voting them 15th this week, despite their loss by 13 at Kentucky over the weekend. I would, however, disagree with Kent that this team has "all the components" for a deep run in March. Yes, they have a lot of highly-skilled players, and Jermaine Beal gives them some terrific leadership as a senior point guard. But toughness, especially as it relates to perimeter defense, remains a question. This team does not create offense off its defense, and it is ranked eighth in the SEC in three-point defense (34.6 percent). The Commodores were outrebounded in all four of their losses, including by 18 against both Cincinnati and Kentucky.

It's nice to make shots, but to advance in March you have to overcome an off shooting night with defense and rebounding. Not saying Vandy can't do it. Just saying it remains a question.

Do you think New Mexico will be an at-large bid if they don't win their conference tournament? They have quite a few quality wins over top 25 teams. Also, will players like Darington Hobson and Dairese Gary become known on a national stage? They are great players that not many hear of unless you follow Lobo basketball.-- Steve Branch, Carver, Mass.

Barring a complete collapse during the second half of the conference season, New Mexico will be playing for a seed this month, not a bid. The Lobos are ranked 15th in the AP poll and 11th in the RPI. I also think they're a dangerous tourney team because they have so much talent on the perimeter, led by the versatile Hobson, who is in the top five of the Mountain West in points, rebounds and assists. Not only can the Lobos shoot the three but they are very stingy with the ball. (They lead the conference in made threes and fewest turnovers.) The main concern with New Mexico is its lack of size, but so far the Lobos' guards have done well enough on the boards that it hasn't hurt them too badly. As long as they don't go up against a dominating center (and there aren't many of those), the Lobos will be a tough out.

Finally, I got a bunch of mail regarding my list of the top six players from non-BCS conferences. (To refresh your memory, they were, in order: Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga; Jimmer Fredette, BYU; Luke Babbitt, Nevada; Omar Samhan, Saint Mary's; Darington Hobson, New Mexico; and Ryan Wittman, Cornell.) Obviously I was not going to make everybody happy with such a limited list, but some of the suggestions were better than others. Two omissions in particular yielded the most responses, and for good reasons. A sampling:

How can you not include Gordon Hayward of Butler as one of the best from non-BCS conferences? Ask any coach who has played against him and I think you'll find plenty of folks who would be shocked that he's not on this list. He's 6-9 and can play everything from the point to the post at both ends of the floor. Every top-10 team in the country is kicking themselves for overlooking him coming out of high school.-- Tim Davis, Indianapolis

I like your list of big time players outside of the big BCS schools, but what about Jeremy Lin of Harvard? Isn't there NBA talk surrounding this player?-- David White, Ottawa, Canada

Looking over my initial list, I feel very comfortable with my top four, but you can definitely make a case that these should have been my bottom two. I took a good look at Hayward because I think so highly of him. (You might recall at the start of the season I wrote that Hayward, not Matt Howard, would be Butler's best player.) Hayward is in the top five of the Horizon League in points, rebounds and blocks, and he is also shooting 82 percent from the foul line. But the more glaring oversight probably was Lin. I have to admit, when I was doping out the Harvard-Cornell game for my Pickoff column last Friday (naturally I picked the game correctly), I was looking at the respective numbers for Lin and Wittman and realized I should have had Lin ahead of Wittman. Not only is Lin ranked in the top three in the Ivy League in points (17.1), assists (4.8) and steals (2.94), he is also ranked fourth in blocks (1.31).

There were three more suggestions for players who definitely did not warrant being mentioned in my top six, but I'm always up for giving guys who toil in obscurity a little taste of the limelight, courtesy of their biggest fans:

No love for UT-Arlington's Marquez Haynes? He is third in the nation with 24.3 ppg. The Boston College transfer has taken over the Mavericks offense and scores at will.-- Clint Utley, Fort Worth, Texas

One player to watch from a non-power conference school or small college school is junior Noah Dahlman at Wofford College. A potential Southern Conference player of the year, Dahlman is averaging almost 18 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Only 6-6, he led the team in scoring in road games against Michigan St (19/4) and Pitt (20/7). Dahlman is only going to get better, even though his size will prevent him from playing at the next level.-- Andy Waters, Greer, S.C.

In your top non-BCS conference best players list, you did not even mention Hassan Whiteside from Marshall? He will be a freshman All-American this season, and maybe the Conference USA player of the year.-- Cory Woomer, Huntington, W. Va.

Thanks for the suggestions, guys. We'll dip into the 'Bag again next week.