Oregon could be described as a disappointment this past season.
The Ducks did reach the NCAA Tournament, but that was the extent of the good news. With four starters – including three seniors – returning from a team that reached the Elite Eight, expectations were high. But the Ducks struggled to survive the rugged Pac-10, going 9-9 in conference play and finishing in a tie for fifth. They won 18 games overall, 11 less than the previous season - which included a Pac-10 tournament title.
The school has responded by rewarding coach Ernie Kent with a raise and a contract extension through 2012-13. That has at least one Ducks fan wondering: Was that the right move?
We delve into that question and more in this week's mailbag.
The right move?
Just a year ago, Ernie Kent was on the hot seat. But he recently got a raise and a contract extension. Is this the right move for Oregon?
— Ken in Portland, Ore. -----
Absolutely. Kent has had some down seasons and a couple of teams that have underachieved. But Kent has also had some highly successful seasons. In 2007, the Ducks might have reached the Final Four if they hadn't run into Florida - which was on its way to a second consecutive national title - in the regional final.
More important, Kent has made Oregon basketball relevant. Under Kent's watch, the Ducks have outrecruited programs with far more tradition and prestige to land big-time prospects (see Malik Hairston out of Detroit or Aaron Brooks out of Seattle). They've also become a program you expect to contend in the Pac-10 and reach the NCAA Tournament every season.
Kent isn't going to draw comparisons to UCLA's Ben Howland, but the guy can coach and recruit – and can do both for far less than it would cost to pay Howland. Kent's new contract, which was extended to 2012-13, calls for a $60,000 raise over his previous base salary of $1 million a year. In today's world of escalating salaries, that should be considered a bargain.
A change of scenery or a new system can bring out the best in a player. Look at Robert Vaden, who went from averaging 13.5 points at Indiana to 21.1 at UAB, or Gary Forbes, who went from 9.4 at Virginia to 19.4 at Massachusetts.
But I can't see Vaughn, who transferred from Florida State and was granted a waiver that will allow him to play immediately, transforming into a star or even making a big impact - especially not this season. As a freshman last season, Vaughn (a three-star recruit) averaged 3.0 points and 2.3 rebounds. He was slowed by a heart condition but still never showed much promise or gave any reason to make me believe he wasn't playing up to his potential.
The Hoyas are going to get back to the NCAA Tournament with or without Vaughn, but I would be surprised if they finish in the top three of the Big East. While the Hoyas lose arguably their top two players (Roy Hibbert and Jonathan Wallace), Connecticut returns every starter and significant contributor off the bench. Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh each return the bulk of their key players.
How do you think the combination of the three returning seniors along with the addition of center Beas Hamga and transfer Tre'Von Willis will affect UNLV this season? Can you see a return to the Sweet 16 or even further?
— Gary from Las Vegas -----
This could be the best team UNLV coach Lon Kruger has had since arriving in Las Vegas, even better than that 2006-07 squad with his son, Kevin, that reached the Sweet 16 and won 30 games.
Kruger has a player he can lean on in senior guard Wink Adams, who steadily has improved each season. Kruger also has an experienced and proven group of role players, unlike this past season when the Rebels were extremely young.
The Rebels are going to the NCAA Tournament, but just how far they go largely depends on Hamga. Willis, who transferred from Memphis, is a solid addition and will create some backcourt depth, but the 7-foot Hamga, who redshirted last season, is a possible difference-maker. Hamga was the No. 26 prospect in a 2007 class that has proven to be extraordinarily deep. If he can live up to the hype and expectations in his first season, winning 30-plus games and advancing to the Elite Eight are realistic goals for UNLV.
Wildcat wonders …
How do you think Villanova will do after a roller-coaster season that ended in the Sweet 16? Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes should grow. Do you think signing only one decent recruit will be a problem?
— Sam from Philadelphia -----
Villanova definitely should improve even though its recruiting class features only three-star center Maurice Sutton.
The Wildcats may not necessarily make it back to the Sweet 16, but I don't believe they'll have to sweat out another Selection Sunday. The Wildcats were one of the last at-large teams to receive a NCAA bid this past season.
Every starter is back, including star Scottie Reynolds, who was growing more comfortable with the point guard role in the latter stages of the season. The Wildcats are undersized, as usual, but the roster is loaded with scrappy guys who fit coach Jay Wright's style.
I fully expect breakthrough seasons for Fisher and Stokes, who each had big moments last season. Both were brought along slowly, but they will be given more freedom and responsibilities this season. That should give the Wildcats a lot more offensive firepower.
Much of the attention in the Big East is going to be focused on Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh, who all should start the season in the top 10. But Villanova is capable of beating any of the league favorites, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Wildcats near the top of the league standings at the end of the regular season.
Luke's to lose?
Luke Harangody wasn't on the Big East's 10-man preseason team this past season, but he turned out to be the league's player of the year. Do you think he'll be a repeat winner or do you expect another under-the-radar guy to surface?
If there is a sleeper, I'd go with Georgetown's DaJuan Summers. He may be on the preseason team but isn't as recognizable as the names mentioned above. Summers has a similar game to former Hoyas star Jeff Green, the 2006-07 Big East POY.
Still, Harangody may be the most reliable player in the country outside of North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, and with Notre Dame losing power forward and third-leading scorer Rob Kurz, Harangody will get even more touches.