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April 30, 2008

Smith off to a solid start at Minnesota

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
Apr. 25: Coach 'em up
Feb. 27: Two top seeds
Feb. 20: Worried Wildcats

Minnesota couldn't be happier with Tubby Smith.

Smith, the former Kentucky coach, took over a Gophers team that was coming off a season in which it finished one game out of last place in the Big Ten. With Smith at the helm this past season, they finished sixth and landed an NIT bid.

But can we label a season that didn't include a trip to the NCAA Tournament a "huge success," particularly when it came in one of the worst seasons in the Big Ten in recent years?

We explore that question in this week's mailbag, along with others about how many players who have entered the draft will stay in school, whether former Indiana star Eric Gordon should have left early, what it would take to put Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie on the "hot seat" and whether Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon deserves to be considered one of the coaches who does the most with the least talent.

Smashing success?

Do you think Tubby Smith's first season at Minnesota was a huge success?

Bill from Kentucky

Absolutely. The Gophers were one of the nation's most improved teams this past season. Smith took over a team that had won nine games in 2006-07 and more than doubled that total, to 20, in 2007-08.

Since the Gophers' only major addition was freshman Blake Hoffarber (8.4 ppg), much of the credit must go to Smith and his staff. They got far more out of the same players than the previous staff.

They did get the benefit of a down year in the Big Ten, but the turnaround was impressive nonetheless.

If you consider what Smith and his staff have done on the recruiting trail, his work looks even more impressive.

The Gophers signed three top-150 prospects from the 2008 class and two junior college transfers. The group is highlighted by 6-foot-11 center Ralph Sampson III (the son of former Virginia great Ralph Sampson), who chose the Gophers over Clemson, Georgia Tech and Maryland.

Gordon is gone

What happened with Eric Gordon? Gordon should have taken over the leadership role of D.J. White and stayed on. He is not ready for the NBA. The first half of the year was great for him, but he failed to perform as needed at season's end.

Helen from Ft. Wayne, Ind.

I don't think you can blame Gordon for leaving school early and signing with an agent. Going into the recruiting process, we knew he would probably be in college for only one season. He is going to be a top-10 pick, maybe top five. That means he will be an instant millionaire. It's tough to tell anyone they should turn down that opportunity.

I disagree with the idea Gordon isn't ready for the NBA. He may not start immediately, but he certainly can help most teams right now.

Gordon has an NBA-ready frame at 6 feet 4 and a chiseled 215 pounds, and the former five-star recruit is extraordinarily athletic and quick. He's also fairly polished, arriving on the next level with a better outside shot than most of the shooting guards in the 2008 draft.

Gordon was one of the best players in the nation through the first half of the season. He slipped into a shooting slump from which he never recovered in late February, but I think much of that can be attributed to a wrist injury on his non-shooting hand and the early departure of former coach Kelvin Sampson, which upset many Hoosiers players.

On second thought

Of the 47 players leaving early for the draft, what percentage can we expect to return to school?

Nick from Chicago

I'd say around 30 percent, which is about 14 players. Last year, 58 players declared for the draft and 20 pulled out, which is 34.4 percent. But there was an alarming amount of puzzling names on the initial early-entrant list last year.

This year, as with any other, there are a few names that raise some eyebrows. But I see only about five players who I'm confident will choose ultimately to stay in school: Missouri's DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons, Texas' A.J. Abrams, Texas A&M's Josh Carter and UCLA's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. I don't think any of those guys has a shot at getting drafted.

Kentucky questions

If Kentucky goes one-and-done again in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, will Billy Gillispie be on the hot seat heading into 2009-10 season?

Alex from Bowling Green, Ky.

It depends on the circumstances. If Kentucky finishes first or second in the SEC East, lands a solid seed (let's say somewhere between No. 3 and No. 6) and goes on to get upset in the first round, I think Gillispie would feel safe about his job. That's because fans and recruits would be able to point to some real progress.

But if the Wildcats have another season similar to this past one, where they barely reached the NCAA Tournament, Gillispie will feel pressure. Remember, he's coaching for the same fan base that desperately wanted to get rid of a coach who averaged 26 wins per season. And they didn't have to worry about a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament under Smith.

The second scenario is more likely to play out. The Wildcats are going to have to replace their top two guards, and departing seniors Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford combined to average 33.8 points this past season. Junior guard Derrick Jasper, who was expected to play a big role next season, is leaning toward transferring.

Dixon deserves mention?

Why did you leave Jamie Dixon off the list of coaches who get the most out of the talent they recruit? Aaron Gray was the most improved player in the Big East. Sam Young also was the most improved player in the Big East and the league tournament MVP. Jim Calhoun, John Thompson III, Mike Krzyzewski and others get five-star recruits and do not have the success that Dixon has had at Pitt. Please explain.

Howard Messer from Pittsburgh

Dixon doesn't have rosters loaded with future NBA players like Calhoun and Coach K, but he still has had a lot more talent than John Beilein (who I said would top my list of coaches who do more with less) did at West Virginia.

Remember, Beilein did not have a single prospect ranked among the top 150 on the teams he led to back-to-back Sweet 16s in 2005 and '06. Dixon's 2005 recruiting class featured three top-100 prospects, including Young. His 2007 class boasted four, including coveted center DeJuan Blair, who was the co-Big East Rookie of the Year in 2007-08.

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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