Gonzaga usually has a signature non-conference victory – or two or three – by this time of the season. But the Bulldogs have yet to beat anyone close to the top 25 as they enter conference play this week.
Hard-fought losses to Washington State and Tennessee were nothing to be ashamed of, but falling to Texas Tech in the Great Alaska Shootout was a surprise. And losing at Oklahoma was not what we expected from a team that began the season ranked No. 14 in The Associated Press poll.
The program that has become a media darling has fallen off the national radar.
So what should we expect from the Zags? Can they turn things around and be a threat in the NCAA Tournament? We explore that question, along with others about West Virginia's future, the latest source of Florida State's problems, whether Vanderbilt and/or Ole Miss will be unbeaten when they meet later this month and the nation's most improved players, in this week's mailbag.
How good do you think Gonzaga can be? It seems that the Bulldogs have great depth but are a little soft defensively. The return of Josh Heytvelt is going to help, but are they capable of making a run in March?
— Mike Henderson from Caledonia, Ontario -----
The Bulldogs are one of the biggest sleepers out there. Heytvelt, who probably was the best player in the West Coast Conference last season before he was suspended, returned only four games ago from a broken foot.
Freshman guard Steven Gray, a former four-star recruit who suffered a wrist injury in the preseason, also has been out of action. He returned just five games ago.
Once Heytvelt and Gray shake off the rust, the Bulldogs will be a much more balanced and dangerous team. Heytvelt gives them another good interior defender and a big man who can stretch defenses with his outside shooting ability. Gray has deep shooting range, and coach Mark Few has called him the team's best perimeter shooter.
Those two are joining a team that already boasts some talented weapons. Jeremy Pargo is more athletic and explosive than any of Gonzaga's previous point guards (and they've had some good ones). Versatile wing Matt Bouldin can play multiple positions and multiple roles. Shooting guard Micah Downs is a former McDonald's All-American. Freshman power forward Austin Daye, a former five-star recruit, scored 20 points and grabbed 10 boards in his first game. That group won games at Saint Joseph's and Connecticut without Heytvelt or Gray.
Few never has had this many pieces or this much talent to work with. The Bulldogs definitely are a threat to do some damage in the NCAA Tournament.
West Virginia was picked to finish 10th in the Big East this season. After getting off to a terrific start, do you see WVU finishing any higher and being a player in the Big East?
— Jason from Elmira, W.Va. -----
I'm not sold on the Mountaineers just yet – at least not when it comes to being a contender in the Big East.
The Mountaineers had lost to every quality opponent they had faced until they beat Marquette last week, and that upset largely was engineered by a shocking move to a 1-3-1 zone.
Coach Bob Huggins has been a man-to-man guy for much of his career, and the Golden Eagles had no way to prepare for the unique defense. Huggins won't be able to blindside other teams with that move again and more than likely will return to man-to-man.
Is Massachusetts sophomore guard Ricky Harris the most improved player in America? Can you show me a player who has improved more?
— Mike Henderson from Caledonia, Ontario
Harris' scoring average has exploded, going from 4.5 points per game to 19.5. But I don't think it's because of improvements he has made but rather a heavy increase in playing time. He went from averaging 10 minutes a game as a backup to being a full-time starter.
UMass coach Travis Ford told me last month he was fully expecting a big year from Harris based on what he saw in practice last season.
It's the same case for Wisconsin sophomore point guard Trevon Hughes, who came to the Big Ten school with plenty of talent but spent most of last season sitting behind veteran Kammron Taylor. With Taylor gone, Hughes moved into the starting lineup and quickly became one of the team's top players. He is averaging 13.6 points, an increase of 12.2 from the measly 1.4 he posted in 2006-07.
The label of "most improved" players should be given more to guys who have sharpened their skills or added new parts to their game. Rhode Island senior point guard Parfait Bitee falls into both categories. Long known as a good defensive player, Bitee has emerged as an offensive catalyst and an accurate shooter. He is averaging a 5.1 assists a game, an increase from 3.2 a season ago. He has a career-high 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and is shooting 49.1 percent from 3-point range. That is a huge jump from the 30.2 percent he shot last season.
All that improvement is the main reason for the Rams' surprising 15-1 start.
Every year since coach Leonard Hamilton arrived at Florida State, we've heard about lofty expectations and rapid improvements for the Seminoles. And every year this team turns out to be one of the most streaky and inconsistent teams, not only in the ACC but in the country. We are now hearing again about another supposed top-20 recruiting class for next year. What is wrong with the Seminoles, and why can't they get over that NCAA hump? Is it a problem with coaching or just having players who can't perform when necessary?
— Bryan from St. Augustine, Fla. -----
FSU fans have good reason to be frustrated, but there are legitimate excuses this season. An extraordinary amount of injuries and off-the-court problems have the Seminoles with just one post player with any legitimate experience, junior power forward Uche Echefu.
Caseen Breeden transferred last month, and Ryan Reid hasn't played since late November because of an academic suspension. Seven-footer Solomon Alabi (a former five-star recruit) is probably going to miss the rest of the season after surgery for a stress fracture in his leg, and freshman Julian Vaughn (former four-star recruit) currently is undergoing tests for a heart problem.
The depth problems are so bad that walk-on Matt Zitani, who rarely played, has been moved into the starting lineup. Zitani was placed on scholarship for the spring semester.
If Reid and Vaughn return, the Seminoles – who have as deep a group of guards as any team in the ACC – could land back on the NCAA Tournament bubble. But if not, they won't be able to compete with the league's top teams and Hamilton could be on his way out.
Undefeated and unproven
Both Vanderbilt and Mississippi are undefeated, but suspiciously weak teams. They are scheduled to meet each other on Jan. 30, and it is highly unlikely that either will be undefeated at game time. Who will lose before that tip-off? And will either lose more than once?
— John from Fairfield, Conn.
I think Ole Miss is going to lose Wednesday night at Tennessee. The Volunteers have a big edge when it comes to depth, and Thompson-Boling Arena will be by far the toughest place the Rebels have played this season. With four more SEC games before they face Vandy, I think the Rebels will lose at least once more.
Vandy, on the other hand, still could be undefeated. There are plenty of reasons to believe the Commodores aren't overrated, starting with the combination of senior shooting guard Shan Foster and freshman center A.J. Ogilvy, who rank first and second, respectively, in the league in scoring. That duo is surrounded by a solid set of role players.
A road trip to Tennessee on Jan. 17 is the only game I can see Vandy losing between now and the Ole Miss game. If they get past the Vols, I think they will be 20-0 when they arrive in Oxford.