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January 16, 2008

Memphis has chance to finish undefeated

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He'll answer your questions every week in his College Hoops Mailbag.
Jan 9: Grading Gonzaga.
Dec. 28: Terrapin troubles.
Dec. 21: Moving forward.

Is it too early to talk about a team going undefeated? Not if you're talking about Memphis.

After emerging from the non-conference portion of the season 15-0, the Tigers now will be facing a wave of overmatched opponents from Conference USA. The Tigers will be favored in every game they play until the NCAA Tournament.

So could we be looking at the first team to go undefeated since Indiana (32-0) in 1975-76?

We examine that question, along with whether UCLA is on the same level as the three unbeatens, how the Dean Smith Center compares to Cameron Indoor Stadium, whether Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt is on the hot seat and which team is the most disappointing so far, in this week's mailbag.

Undefeated odds

What are Memphis' chances of going through the regular season and the Conference USA Tournament undefeated? What about going undefeated the whole way?

Philip from Memphis

I can't imagine anyone in Conference USA beating the Tigers. The Tigers rolled through league play at 16-0 last season, and they are significantly better this season while the rest of the league hasn't changed much. Plus, the 2008 C-USA Tournament is at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, where the Tigers have won 41 in a row.

That leaves the two remaining non-conference opponents, Gonzaga and Tennessee. The Tigers will have the good fortune of facing both at home. Gonzaga has been an inconsistent, but remain dangerous, especially now that the Zags are healthy with the return of center Josh Heytvelt and guard Steven Gray. But I think Tennessee will be the biggest obstacle. The Vols are one of the few teams with enough firepower and depth to match the high-scoring Tigers.

If they get past Gonzaga and the Vols, the Tigers will have a legit chance at joining the Hoosiers as one of the few teams to stay perfect through an entire season. It could come down to beating one or two great teams (possibly UCLA and/or North Carolina) in the Final Four.

The Tigers will be a virtual lock to go deep in the NCAA Tournament. They'll be a No. 1 seed and should have a fairly easy road in the first couple of rounds. This team is loaded with veterans who have been to two Elite Eights. In addition, star freshman point guard Derrick Rose gives them a weapon they didn't have before.

Comparing Carolina

Nice article on Cameron Indoor Stadium. As a North Carolina fan, I would be interested in seeing your thoughts on playing at the "Dean Dome" as it compares to Cameron.

Nicholas Rupp from Greenville, N.C.

I never got to sit on the sideline at the Dean Dome as a player, but I have covered more than a dozen games there.

It has an entirely different feel because of its massive size (capacity is 21,750, compared to Cameron's 9,314). Every seat is painted "Carolina blue," but what really stands out are the banners in the rafters. Perhaps no other school has such a large collection of former greats, and you are constantly reminded when you look up and see names such as Jordan, Worthy, Ford, Jamison and Stackhouse hanging alongside one another.

But it doesn't come close to Cameron in terms of noise. Former Florida State guard Sam Cassell famously said, "This is not a Duke kind of crowd. It's more like a cheese-and-wine crowd, kind of laid back," after leading the Seminoles to an 86-74 win over UNC on his first trip to Chapel Hill in 1991.

Since then, the student section has been moved closer to the court and it has gotten louder in recent years. But most of the good seats still are occupied by boosters, including many who spend a good portion of the game sitting down and believe acceptable applause is some light clapping.

The Dean Dome is an intimidating venue, but it's not nearly the home-court advantage that Duke has with Cameron.

Backing the Bruins

UCLA is not one of the three unbeaten teams left (North Carolina, Memphis and Kansas), but would you put the Bruins on the same level as that group now that they went out and beat Washington State in such convincing fashion?

Pete from San Diego

Absolutely. In fact, I think UCLA's 15-1 start is more impressive than what the Tar Heels, Tigers and Jayhawks have accomplished.

The Bruins have played the toughest schedule of that group, and they didn't have point guard Darren Collison for the first five games. They beat Maryland and Michigan State in Kansas City without Collison, and their only loss was 63-61 to Texas in a game that came down to the final seconds.

I don't think the Bruins will lose more than two or three more games, even in the Pac-10, arguably the nation's best conference. With the addition of dominating big man Kevin Love, who scored 27 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against the Cougars, and the surprising emergence of guard Russell Westbrook, who leads the Pac-10 with 5.2 assists per game, coach Ben Howland has his best team since arriving in Los Angeles five years ago.

Howland's past two teams have reached the Final Four, but this one has the best chance of winning it all.

Hot seat for Hewitt?

Is Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt on the hot seat? If not, when? He can't just keep living off the great run in the 2004 tournament.

Bill from Roswell, Ga.

Hewitt doesn't have anything to worry about for now.

The expectations at Tech aren't nearly what they are at most programs that have played in the national title game in the past 10 years. He can miss the NCAA Tournament every other season and still feel good about his job security.

But Hewitt's risky style of recruiting he has signed three one-and-done players during his tenure (Chris Bosh in 2003 and Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton last season) leads to dramatic swings in terms of wins and losses from season to season. The addition of five-star signee Iman Shumpert, who will fix Tech's problems at point guard, should have things swinging upward for the Jackets next season.

Underwhelming Illini

Dayton, which is 14-1 with wins over Louisville and Pittsburgh, and Arizona State are probably the biggest surprises of the season so far. Who is the biggest disappointment?

Ken from Providence, R.I.

I'd have to go with Illinois. Nobody was expecting a great season from the Illini, but nobody expected them to be this bad, either.

The Illini are off to a 0-4 start in Big Ten play and also have an embarrassing home loss to Tennessee State. It's a shocking start, considering they returned a strong nucleus from a team that reached the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

The effort of the players, once such a strong point of pride under coach Bruce Weber, has even come under question. During a loss to Penn State, the Illini went 11 minutes without grabbing a single rebound.

It has been startling to watch a program that was in the national title game three seasons ago fall so far.

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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