Four years ago, Saint Joseph's appeared ready to hang with college basketball's biggest and best programs.
The Atlantic 10 school won its first 27 games and climbed to the No. 1 spot in the AP poll. The Hawks received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Elite Eight.
What followed were two seasons that ended with trips to the NIT. In 2006-07, the Hawks failed to land a postseason bid for the first time in six years.
Saint Joe's bounced back by reaching the 2008 NCAA Tournament, which has given the fan base new hope.
Could the Hawks be on the verge of capitalizing on their magical 2003-04 run? Can they start consistently making the NCAA Tournament like the other top schools outside the "Big Six" conferences?
We address those questions in this week's mailbag, along with others about whether Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie's recruiting efforts will give him more job security than his predecessor, whether Creighton's Dana Altman should be considered among the top coaches who do the most with the least talent, how the Sun Belt conference will follow up arguably one of its best seasons, and where Arizona sophomore Chase Budinger is likely to be taken in the 2008 NBA Draft in this week's edition of the mailbag.
Do you ever see Saint Joe's making itself into a top-flight program like Gonzaga or Xavier? With a renovated arena on the way and being in a hotbed for recruits, is it that far-fetched to think that Saint Joe's can finally build off the success from the 2003-04 season and become a recognizable program?
— Matt from Philadelphia -----
If Saint Joe's was going to build on that shocking run four years ago, it would have happened by now. The window for Illinois taking advantage of its great year in 2005-06, which was one win short of an undefeated regular season, is rapidly closing.
I don't think being located in Philadelphia is a huge advantage either. They have a huge pool of prospects in their backyard, but the best players in Philly are never going to start signing with the Hawks over Villanova or any of the dozens of other big-name schools that recruit the area.
One big obstacle for Saint Joe's is being in the same conference as Xavier. It looks like the Musketeers will be the team to beat in the Atlantic 10 for years to come. They've managed to hold onto Sean Miller, one of the top young coaches in college basketball, and have a steady pipeline of talent in place.
Pulling away from the other top teams in the league won't be easy, either. Temple made the NCAA Tournament last season. Dayton, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were among the last teams left out of the field of 65.
Gonzaga is finding itself in a similar situation in the West Coast Conference. Up until last year, the 'Zags were usually the only team in the league with a shot of getting to the NCAA Tournament. However, the WCC sent a record three teams to the Big Dance last year (San Diego received the automatic bid and Saint Mary's joined Gonzaga as an at-large invite). With the emergence of those two programs within their league, it's going to be tougher for Gonzaga to maintain the lofty expectations it has created.
Happy with Billy
How can you say Billy Gillispie could be on the hot seat next year? Gillispie is bringing in players that people can look forward to. The thing that killed Tubby Smith was we had disappointing seasons and nothing to look forward to. That will get you clipped at UK. Also, the administration and intelligent fans know what we have in Gillipsie and would not fire him even if the irrational fans got vocal.
— Dustin from Lexington -----
Apparently the "intelligent" fans have a short memory. Just four years ago, Smith brought the nation's No. 1-ranked recruiting class to Kentucky. It included three five-star prospects (Joe Crawford, Randolph Morris and Rajon Rondo), another prospect ranked among the top 100 (Ramel Bradley) and a proven transfer from Western Kentucky (Patrick Sparks).
His last class at UK featured three top prospects ranked among the top 65 in the 2006 class: guards Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks and forward Perry Stevenson. That should be enough for any fan base to anticipate.
Yes, Smith and his staff did miss out on some big-name recruits (including eventual North Carolina Tar Heels Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright), but it was their inability to develop talent - not reel it in - that was a bigger problem.
Rondo struggled when it came to making decisions with the ball in his hands in college. He seemed to constantly but heads with Smith during his time with the Wildcats. At the pro level, Rondo has excelled. He has already emerged as one of the NBA's top young point guards.
Crawford played below expectations in his first three seasons. As a senior last season, he flourished under Gillispie. Crawford averaged a team-high 17.9 ppg.
Moreover, what Gillispie is doing on the recruiting trail appears more puzzling than promising. His 2008 class includes two junior college prospects. I'm no recruiting expert, but I know you don't build elite programs these days with JUCO transfers - especially not two in one class.
Gillispie also recently accepted commitments from an eighth grader and a ninth grader. The winningest program in college basketball shouldn't have to stoop to such levels.
Ironically, it's Gillispie's ability to develop Smith's recruits that will likely play the biggest factor in Kentucky's 2008-09 season. The Wildcats know they will be strong on the inside with the return of power forward Patrick Patterson, who was the SEC's co-Freshman of the Year last season. But with Bradley and Crawford gone and Jasper leaning toward transferring, they are going to need a big year from Meeks. They also need Stevenson to contribute more.
Arguing for Altman
Why did you overlook Dana Altman a couple of weeks ago when you wrote about coaches who do more with less talent? This coach is a member of the 20-10 club – with 10 consecutive 20-plus win seasons and 11 consecutive postseason appearances. I honestly doubt they have a lot of top 100 kids clamoring to play at Creighton. He appears to get the most out of the available talent. Sounds like a great coach and a good program.
— Jim from Melbourne, Fla. -----
Altman has certainly done a great job at Creighton. A lot of the top coaches in college basketball can't say they have made 11 consecutive postseason appearances.
But a glaring lack of postseason success holds me back from placing Altman among the John Beilein's and Bo Ryans of the world. Altman has been to eight NCAA Tournaments (seven with Creighton, one with Kansas State), but never been past the second round. On six of those trips he was knocked out in the first round.
Altman has been to the NIT four times while at Creighton, and the Bluejays has not advanced past the second round.
Yes, his teams are usually facing more talented opponents, but given that many chances he should have been able to engineer more victories.
Sun Belt slippage?
Last year was a banner year for the Sun Belt with the league sending two teams to the NCAA Tournament. But with so many of the top players in the league leaving, how does it shape up next year?
— Johnny from Monroe, La.
The chances of sending two teams to the NCAA Tournament again next year are certainly slim, but I think it's still going to be in an interesting year because more teams than usual feel they have a legitimate shot at landing the league's automatic bid.
That's largely because Western Kentucky, normally the preseason favorite, looks vulnerable after its run to the Sweet 16 last season. The Hilltoppers are losing guards Courtney Lee (the 2007-08 Sun Belt Player of the Year) and Tyrone Brazelton (averaged 26.3 ppg in the NCAA Tournament), who were their top two scorers. They will also have a new coach in former Texas assistant Ken McDonald.
South Alabama, which surprised everyone by landing an at-large bid to the 2008 NCAA Tournament, is also losing its top two guards. Demetric Bennett was the league's third-leading scorer at 19.7 ppg and Daon Merritt led the league with 5.5 assists a game.
That gives the teams from the middle of the pack more hope, particularly Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders bring back every key player from a team that beat South Alabama for a second time to reach the final of the 2008 Sun Belt tournament.
All three of those teams are in the East Division and will play each other twice, which should make for some great matchups.
Could Budinger be back?
Where do you project Chase Budinger to be drafted? We have hope (albeit slim) that he returns to University of Arizona, which is a mess right now. Word on the street is that his father is pushing for the NBA, and that Phoenix will take him 15th if he's still available.
— Lawrence Krell from Phoenix -----
Obviously a lot of it depends on who stays in the draft, but I can't see Budinger slipping out of the first round. More than likely Budinger will be taken between the 12th and 20th picks. A lot of teams are going to find his combination of size (6 feet 7) and great leaping ability intriguing. He's also got a good skill set, which includes a good mid-range jumper.
I've heard that the chances Budinger will stay in school are slim, but they may have been nonexistent if Kevin O'Neill - who was previously named as Lute Olson's successor - wasn't removed from the staff. Some think O'Neill is a tough coach to play for because of his intensity, and O'Neill is unlike the ultra-calm Olson (who all the current players thought would be coaching them). There was talk that a lot of players wanted out if O'Neill came back next season.